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Matthew Parris

This week’s journalistic lesson: never let a cow get in the way of a good rant

Matthew Parris offers Another Voice

9 October 2010

12:00 AM

9 October 2010

12:00 AM

Let me first say that I would have written exactly the column about the dead cow that my friend and Times colleague Alice Thomson wrote, if she hadn’t pipped me to the post. En route to Labour’s conference in Manchester, Alice had been stuck on a railway paralysed by a dead cow on the line. I had heard about the cow from dozens of people at the conference, and planned a rant at safety-first attitudes — until I learned that Alice was already penning such a rant. So, making a virtue of necessity, I decided on a more in-depth investigation of how and why these idiocies come about.

And the more I learned, the less idiotic they seemed.

There now follows the tale that ran around the media hothouse that is a 21st-century political conference. A Virgin train, it was said, had struck a cow. It had then taken two (some said three) hours before either that train, or the trains stacked up behind it, moved. The train stayed put. The cow stayed put. Nothing could happen until fit and proper persons were assembled to move the cow in a fit and proper manner. Pathetic. Jobsworths. Harrumph. How many railway operatives does it take to move a dead cow? Reader, steam hisses from your ears, perhaps, as it did from mine.

And many of the facts in this account were substantially true. Yet a story can be essentially true, but fail to make the case it seems to — as I found when I began a series of calls to Virgin Trains, Network Rail and the Association of Train Operating Companies. But let’s short-cut. I have Network Rail’s incident log, minus individuals’ names. I can do no better than summarise, translating (as best I can) some technical language.

27/09/10: 10.09 Call from driver of 09.27 Manchester to Bournemouth reporting he has struck a cow on the Up Stoke approach to Congleton Station. Will examine train before proceeding. Macclesfield, Stoke, etc, signallers informed. Arrangements made to divert services via Crewe.

10.15 Virgin Trains 08.20 Euston to Manchester will examine line via Down Stoke line.

10.24 VT staff have examined line; confirm Down obstructed by injured cow. Up appears clear. Cow south of North Rode viaduct. Managers at Stockport, Wilmslow, etc, updated.

10.36 VT 9.35 Manchester to Euston examining line for possible damage on the Up Stoke; will not pass in case cow moves.

10.36 State veterinary service contacted. Cannot attend incident; gave details of local vet. ‘Petmedics’ contacted. Unable to attend large animals. Another vet service will ring back. Nearest farm: Spout House Farm (likely owner of cow).

10.58 Vet en route; have contacted farmer.

11.23 Line section suspended on the Up while vet and farmer in attendance.

12.03 Stockport manager advises vet has put cow down. Carcass to be moved when sufficient staff/equipment arrives. Seeing if farmer can assist. Suspension lifted on Up to allow resumption of train running.

12.21 With help of local farmers, managed to clear animal down embankment. Normal working resumed on Down and Up.

13.31 Stockport manager confirms fencing checked; no signs of damage found. While on site, track inspector also conducted fencing check: no obvious damage.

13.35 Confirm check of all boundary fencing: intact.

17.26 Wilmslow track manager confirms farmer will take carcass away.

So runs the log, all carefully recorded. My journalistic heart (if that’s not an oxymoron) sank as I read it. It seems that Network Rail moved fast to divert services via Crewe, even if that came too late for a couple of trains stacked up behind the stationary one. And would I really have been right to say (as I had planned) that a posse of passengers should have been let out onto the track to try to move the injured cow? Should the guard really have administered a bovine coup de grace? How? Was the driver wrong to spend time checking for damage to his train? And surely it was right to search the fencing on either side of the track for breaches through which more cattle might come?

As a spokesman for Network Rail put it to me, some passengers may have complained that the cow should have been shoved down the embankment at once, but if this had been done, there would have been a chorus of complaint from a different contingent of customers. ‘When a train hits something,’ he said, ‘you don’t just drive on, over the obstacle. There are sophisticated air-systems in modern tilting trains: you have to make sure they have not been damaged.’

‘Next time,’ I thought to myself as he spoke, ‘remind me not to check.’

My friend Petroc Trelawney of BBC Radio 3, on a Zimbabwean overnight train from Bulawayo to the Victoria Falls, recounts how they struck a herd of buffalo, derailing the locomotive. Passengers rushed out to cut up the dead beasts, and everyone feasted that night. Ah — the Big Society.

Is Britain ready? I’m on my way to the Conservative conference in Birmingham as I write. Today the Tory-led coalition may only be withdrawing child benefit from higher-rate taxpayers, but the longest journey starts with a single step. Tomorrow we may be scavenging for rail-kill.

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