23 October 2006

Rome Metro crash & transport safety in general

I was in Rome last week, when a collision on Metro Linea A killed one, injured two hundred and shocked the city. In the immediate aftermath it emerged that it is common practice for underground trains to pass through red lights during the rush hour - provided that they obtain verbal permission from the control room and don't exceed 15km/ph. In this case one of the new - supposedly safer - trains continued right into the back of another, which was stationary at the Vittorio Emanuele stop.

Rome's reaction was typically Roman: immediately the city was overwhelmed with grief - an end to festivities at the Film Festival; a city-wide day of mourning. At the same time special TV shows offered countless talking heads recounting the crash and denouncing safety standards.

Outrage was understandably the order of the day. Few can have been unaware of the risky procedures used underground. A couple of years ago, commuting on that same stretch of track, I became aware of my train hesitating, then passing through a red light as we approached a station. I knew there was a train immediately ahead. My fears were not realised, but from then on I avoided the end carriages.

Sadly - and not just in Italy - it is easy to be wise after the event. Trains have obviously been passing through red lights for years, and questions are only raised after an accident has happened. I reflected on this a couple of days after the crash, as I took a public coach service from Rome to Ciampino Airport. While navigating hellish rush-hour traffic on the Via Appia Nuova, one of Rome's main thoroughfares, the bus driver picked up his mobile phone and proceeded to make a phone call, while driving with one hand. Imagine the outrage that would follow an accident occasioned by such irresponsibility. But of course, until such an accident happens, it's unlikely anyone will care.

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