Dr Strangelove


This page written circa 10 July, 2014.

A few weeks ago a freight train slammed into the back of a tram carrying mostly wedding guests of a celebrity couple in Zimbabwe. There occurred a suite of injuries and one person died as a result of head injuries, which is pretty light a set of casualties for an argument between a full tram and a freight train.

Reading the Sydney Morning Herald report and comparing it with the The (Sydney) Daily Telegraph report makes interesting reading in itself. The Telegraph provides a great range of relevant photos, including some at the scene after the accident, compared with the few that the SMH seem to have scrounged off the web. The SMH says that

"Zimbabwe is notorious for its dangerous railways. `I can't say for sure what caused the accident but we strongly suspect it was negligence,' former Victoria Falls deputy mayor Million Moyo told SW Radio Africa".
In other words, they managed to speak to nobody, hearing only what a radio station reported from the ex-deputy mayor, and so accused Zimbabwe of being railway-notorious. The most sensational comment from the Telegraph article is merely a quote from the brother of the person killed in the accident to the effect of
"We can never fully forgive those responsible and will go out of our way to warn our friends and loved ones to stay away from such corrupt places as Zimbabwe".
The Telegraph being informative and restrained while the Herald delivers less information and more extreme remarks is the reverse of what might be expected.

It turns out that there are many rail accidents every year. Zimbabwe does not stick out in the statistics as might India, but then it's much smaller. The vast majority of reported accidents worldwide involve external factors such as road vehicles venturing onto tracks or incidental fires, no failures on the part of the railways. Nasty accidents generally require human negligence and a lack of electronic safety systems, such as the 2013 Santiago de Compostela accident. In that case the line was partially upgraded, lacked the electronic safety systems, and the driver was distracted by consulting signals personnel and his maps, presumably about upcoming hazards. (As a double-diversion, there is a super BBC infographic on the much more topical subject of air accidents... but I digress from my digression.)

Well, Zimbabwe may be corrupt, but mostly it is simply poor. Sydney's rail system has a sophistocated network of block detection, signalling, and safety protocols many of which must fail simultaneously for a collision to occur. A serious collision occurred in 1990, killing Sydney University's recently-retired Vice Chancellor and two of his family. This required a series of extraordinary circumstances, including a steam special train stalled by the undetected application of a manual hand brake, and the fooling of the old-type signalling system through the use by the locomotive driver of his ancieny sand dispensing system in an attempt to improve his traction. A similarly-improbable accident occurred in Glenbrook in 1999 requiring a similar number of simultaneous problems, including two simultaneous signal failures, and staff who gave verbal instructions to ignore the reds thrown up by the signals that detected their own failures. In short, you have to have a lot of idiots to overcome the mass of electronics. Every country has volumes of idiots, Africa less electronics. Idiots are the leading cause in air accidents, too.

Closer to home---and the reason for my story---Engineering at Waikato experienced an abnormal number of near-miss accidents in the last few years. In one instance heavy machinery exploded embedding shards in walls and ceiling, missing the operator who was answering a call of nature. That was the only one that involved no conspicuous human error. So many were the incidents that the government sent people to investigate. Management has not handled this well. We officially acknowledge that equipment is too closely packed into the available workshops. We anecdotally attribute the incidents to pressurised grad students inadequately trained and not diligently supervised. I have commented before on the inadequacy of graduate supervision; the government refusal to pay for more than 4 years of a PhD degree explains a lot of pressure when you note that the median for a PhD in my discipline exceeds 6 years in the USA.

In Santa Rosa we had good health an safety practices. The sort of machine that can bite your fingers off is surrounded by a light fence. The attention to personal ergonomics was so cool I commented upon it at the time. Nevertheless there was a serious accident there in 2011. MBE machines full of phosphorus are very hazardous things.

The message is that you can have as much safety as you can afford. The faculty is now shelling out an annual salary towards improving the safety. I can't help feeling that this is like trying to reduce train accidents using paint... the best you will manage is a lot of warning signs, but you will have something to put on the table by way of mitigation when some poor fellow gets unlinked from one of his fingers and the DA comes calling a couple of weeks after the fracas. What is really needed is more workshop space and serious protective hardware, like light fences and personnel monitors, but it's cheaper to hire someone to tell everyone to be more careful.

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