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A Safe and Happy New Year to all who work on rail infrastructure

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Colin Wheeler writes…

Following an excellent if snowless celebration of Hogmanay may I wish you a very happy as well as safe New Year?

It made a change for travel not to be disrupted by snow, even if you, like me, are awaiting gale damage repairs. For those who worked in possessions over Christmas the weather was considerably kinder than the last two years!

I guess that the majority of us will have indulged in a glass or two at some time during the festive season, and this will have added to our enjoyment of the celebrations. Those who work on railways know that alcohol and railway work don’t mix!

“A Puff of Regret”

It has been reported that the Government are developing legislation to tighten our laws on drug taking and driving. For those who work on the railway it is a “criminal offence to be unfit through drugs or alcohol while doing work that is safety critical”.

Network Rail, London Underground and others have detailed regulations and rules in place. Network Rail’s Safety Central website uses the title of “A Puff of Regret” to announce their latest safety campaign, stressing their rules on the use of drugs and alcohol by those who work on their railway, with graphic posters and presentational materials. The principles are sound and have my full support.

The details however should be challenged. Network Rail enthuses over its zero tolerance policy on drugs as does London Underground. I still find it hard to accept that Network Rail’s standard is set at a limit of 20 mg alcohol per 100 ml of blood whilst a driver on the motorway is supposedly fit to drive with up to four times that amount of alcohol in his or her blood (i.e. 80 mg).

The stories about inebriated airline pilots are I hope exaggerated, but do they work to any set limit? Surely these different responses can’t all be right? The Network Rail limit is equivalent to around one and a half units of alcohol and I am not advocating that they slacken their standard.

One standard please!

When it comes to drugs (both illegal and legal) one needs to be aware that the taking of over the counter medicines and prescribed ones can also put you the wrong side of a random rail drugs test. The consequences can be a ban from working on the railway for five years.

My real concern lies in the fact that Network Rail and London Underground apply similar but not identical rules to the problems of drug and alcohol use by those working on their infrastructure. Hence it has proved possible for a worker to be dismissed from his job by one employer following a positive drug and alcohol test to Network Rail’s standard, and to work totally legitimately a week later on London Underground doing similar work!

Another wasteful and unnecessary result of the differences in standards is that the railway medical screening providers have to carry out two sets of tests (one to each standard) if an employee is to work on both sorts of infrastructure.

On cost grounds alone Network Rail and London Underground should surely be able to agree on just one standard. Doing so would strengthen the zero-tolerance message for both organisations. I have discussed this with senior managers of both organisations but so far the response from both has merely been it will have to wait until “they” agree with “us”!

“Dem Dry Bones”

James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) was the Afro-American author of “Dem Dry Bones” which is arguably the best known of all Spirituals. It is now used on the Network Rail Safety Central website to publicise their latest safety initiative aimed at reducing the number of slips, trips and falls that result in injury every year.

Astonishingly 44% of all serious accidents are a result of a slip, trip or fall. The website uses an X-ray type skeleton graphic with a number of click on points which reveal details of injuries sustained on the rail infrastructure and the both long and painful recovery of those who tripped, slipped or fell.

I was less impressed by the homily that says “taking an extra five minutes to assess the site for safety hazards can save a whole load of pain and injury later”. With tight possession times, detailed planning done in an office and extensive method statements and briefing packs, many of us have lost the focus on being responsible for looking after ourselves.

Safety Behaviours

Perhaps of greater importance is the principle to be found in their Projects’ “Behaviour based Safety Programme”. It states that “strong safety cultures exist where the following are in place – leadership, commitment and clear expectations; critical positive behaviours identified and expressed; the right tools, processes and procedures; training and awareness of desired behaviours and clear metrics for performance measurement and monitoring”.

Sounds good to me! But if managers really know their people (and vice versa) I believe that the costly measurement and monitoring, may be reduced to a very low level. Of course this could upset many of those lawyers seeking no-win no-fee “work” whose charges rise with the amount of paperwork available to argue over.

An early Christmas present – “Ballast Broom Briefings”

For underworked trainers and Machine Controllers Network Rail sent out an early Christmas present on December 19th. It came as an advice from the National Competency Control Agency – Sentinel (NCCA) organisation instructing employers that their Machine Controllers had to be briefed by March 1st and the briefing details recorded on the NCCA website.

The briefings give details of the equipment and how it may safely be used to distribute tipped ballast using ploughs, brushes and blades attached to various pieces of plant. The briefing material also stresses the need for operators of the machines to be trained in the use of each specific piece of kit.

The briefing is in response to an accident that occurred at Ashby back in September 2010. This resulted in a Machine Controller suffering serious leg injuries. Network Rail issued an Infrastructure Safety Bulletin about it dated June 8th 2011.

Allegedly there are nearly 40 people employed writing these amendments to competency requirements, so I was not surprised to find this updating (which is complementary to a December Rule Book change) described as “Machine Controller Miscellaneous Module 2 Group 2 competence”!

Hopefully no one rushed to get started on this exercise since the training presentation was modified and reissued on January 12th!

How best to train?

The training module comes as a Power Point presentation together with the trainer notes etc. Two questions; firstly, were the delays between September 2010, the June 2011 Safety Bulletin and the March 2012 briefing deadline a timely response to the accident and the findings of the Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB)?

Secondly, is classroom training the best way for Machine Controllers? When I worked in the northwest we had both safety and productivity problems with plant due mainly to the limited understanding staff had of what it could and couldn’t safely do.

Our response worked well. We set up a series of on-track depot demonstrations explained by Machine Supervisors to all who worked with the plant, including the normally office based people who deployed it. We recorded the details of those who went out to the depot for the training. The results were dramatically good in terms of productivity and a reduction in incidents.

The train that ran into a lorry load of straw bales

Also on December 19th an accident occurred which is currently being investigated by RAIB. The 0910 passenger train from Milford Haven to Manchester Piccadilly was a two coach Class 175 Diesel Multiple Unit.

About 14 miles from Carmarthen it was near the village of Whitland approaching Llanboidy Level Crossing travelling at 68 mph. The driver saw a lorry and trailer of straw bales on the crossing in front of him and applied emergency braking. He was still travelling at 41 mph when he hit the lorry.

The train cab was seriously damaged but the train did not derail, although it pushed the lorry and attached trailer 80 metres down the track. Several passengers received minor injuries and shock. The lorry on the crossing was stationary as the train approached and the exit side half barrier was down.

The RAIB website states that their inquiry will focus on why the lorry was on the crossing with the barrier down and the crashworthiness of the train.

Simplification and less fragmentation

With the long awaited decision to go ahead with the construction of High Speed 2 now made there needs to be a fresh urgency to get our industry’s act together. The involvement of rail specialist contractors and consultants with all rail infrastructure owners is essential.

The errors made back in Railtrack’s days must not be repeated. Simplification of standards, specifications, tendering and contract award processes should all be made to reduce costs and improve both safety and efficiency.

I respect the professional work done by the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) and the Railway Safety and Standards Board (RSSB). But surely now is the time when their functions need to be rationalised.

The ORR is described as the “independent safety and economic regulator” but its activities I understand exclude London Underground, city tram and metro systems. The Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB) is funded jointly by a levy paid by its members and grants from the Department for Transport.

It works with its funders and Network Rail and describes its role as focussing on “the GB railway”. Its work is clearly more widely applicable than this suggests. In terms of competence and efficiency (and for the benefit of companies undertaking work with all and any railway infrastructure company in Britain) surely regulation and research needs to be less fragmented?

High Speed 2, 3 and more!

Whilst we have just High Speed 1 (still widely known as the Channel Tunnel Rail Link) this may be excusable but as we add High Speed 2, 3 and more I suggest the regulation system needs rationalising.

Hopefully after overcoming the nimby-isms of the Chilterns area we will as part of the country’s economic recovery rediscover the importance of the north and even Scotland! I write as an Englishman living in England some way north of Hadrian’s Wall from where Gateshead is considered to be the south and Manchester and Liverpool are in the south west!

Arguably we will be the last major country in Europe to develop a high speed rail system. Doing so will redefine the economics of internal air travel and help all parts of mainland Britain to contribute to our economic recovery and future.


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