Safety and Control (posters)

This is a post about safety and railways. You might be wondering why it’s beginning with a picture of Doris Day as Calamity Jane? Well, at a crucial moment in her career Doris was involved in a a car accident. The car she was riding in was hit by a train at a level crossing… (It’s amazing the stuff you can learn watching TV).

In case you’re wondering, Doris suffered a severe fracture in her legs and it seemed as if her career would end before it had begun. She picked herself up, dusted herself down, and learnt to sing. She did get to Hollywood in the end.

The point about the story is that railway accidents are much more widespread than is imagined. Of course, the big train collisions and de-railments are part of national folklore. In fact, the systemic failure of the usual control mechanism associated with train travel are remarkably rare. The recent tragedy in China is a reminder of how newsworthy these big accidents remain.

In fact, the railways are plagued by a pretty constant stream of accidents in which individuals are injured or killed. Generally, these accidents are caused by human error.

The opening ceremonies of the world’s first commercial railway service, the Liverpool and Manchester in 1839, was marred by the death of William Huskisson, MP for Liverpool. Huskisson had got off the train to inspect the track and was surprised by the arrival of the train. The speed of the machine caught him by surprise and he was knocked down. He died of his injuries later. So, the history of the railways is linked to fatality from the first.

Mostly, these accidents involve people doing things that they shouldn’t. For members of the public, walking on the track and jumping form trains are especially to be avoided. The railway has a more-or-less continuous campaign aimed at public safety.

Equally, the safety guidelines for railway employees are pretty straightforward. Nowadays, we take the idea that employers have a statutory duty of care to their employees for granted. It wasn’t always like that.

Until relatively recently, the railways were such a dangerous working environment that the big railway companies were obliged to provide their own orphanages! I can remember the Southern Railway Children’s Home in Woking. We passed it on our own journey to London when I was small.

These institutions reflected the absence, elsewhere, of any alternative. Before WW2, say, the loss of a breadwinner was catastrophic. A woman with small children would be destitute. It seems inconceivable by today’s standards, but the best solution was to take the children into care! We now understand how often that ends in abuse, cruelty and misery…

The creation, in 1923, of the Big Four railway groups consolidated staff and machinery, across Britain, into fewer larger organisations. This consolidation was initiated for the purposes of economy, efficiency and profit. To achieve these objectives required that uniform standards of performance – both mechanical and personal – be imposed. Part of this standardisation began to address itself to issues of health and safety.

It was natural, in these circumstances, for the railway companies to embrace the potential of graphic design to propagandise in favour of accident prevention. Since these messages only work through constant repetition, the railway was obliged to re-issue these posters at intervals. The result is that we can easily compare graphic styles across the decades.

Here are the kinds of thing I’ve been taking about. The posters are by Frank Newbould, Leonard Cusden and others. There’s also a chapter on safety posters in my book, Modern British Posters. 

If you want to get a sense of the thrill, excitement and danger that still attaches to the railway, especially for small children, watch this TV advertisement from Norway…

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