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Devolving Track Safety and Track Work becoming a “Hands On” activity for Alliancing for Train Operators!

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Also why polished paving at stations shouldn’t be a safety concern!

Colin Wheeler writes…

Last month I focused on drugs and alcohol followed by slips, trips and falls.

One reader made the connection which was unintentional. Another wrote in praise of the use of tarmac for the new station at Ebbsfleet, suggesting that it was preferable to the use of Terrazzo flooring that becomes dangerously slippery when wet.

He suggested that Terrazzo flooring began in Scotland with Chris Green driving the idea. Sorry, but I do not share this reader’s concerns. It is surely wrong to limit choosing the most attractive materials because it is feared roofs and drainage will be inadequately maintained?

The image and ambience of all our stations needs to compare favourably with the very best airport terminals. Market forces will result in fewer internal air services as High Speed train services become more available, but only if high standards are set by rail infrastructure owners and operators.

The success of Manchester’s Metrolink is due in part to its image of modernity, comfort and efficiency (despite it having replaced a remarkably reliable train service between Manchester and Bury using some of the oldest coaching stock I have ever travelled in!) Network Rail and the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) are rightly setting new standards for our industry. I support their initiative, including more terrazzo floors where appropriate.

A new Asset Management Director for Network Rail

Peter Henderson was Network Rail’s first Director Asset Management. Having read the advertisements for a new post on Network Rail’s Board of “Group Asset Management Director”, reporting to the Chief Executive, it is clear that the appointed replacement will have an altered job remit.

The phrase “working in close liaison with devolved teams at route level” says it all. The job dimensions are described as “setting strategic direction through to managing delivery on 10 strategic routes and 10,000 route miles of railway”.

Last year I wrote in praise of the direct and unambiguous nature of Chief Executive David Higgins’ Safety Policy Statement. Now I am looking forward to discovering how the Route Managing Directors will each focus on specific track safety initiatives for their routes.

Alliances and even deep alliances!

Already we have heard mention of “alliances” and “deep alliances” at route level between train operating companies and Network Rail, with the employees of both working together in joint management teams. I look forward to the mutual understanding this should promote and its potential benefit for safer working.

Back in the underfunded days of British Rail I vividly recall the benefits achieved when engineers, operators and passenger or freight marketing people met to decide how best to tackle infrastructure problems. I suggest the focus of those working on a particular route should rightly be on its Route Managing Director (RMD).

If they all have individual safety policy statements which support the Chief Executive, but are meaningful to each and every person who works the route, safety will improve. If each RMD makes sufficient unannounced site visits and listens to workers concerns they will want to please him or her and both safety and productivity will benefit.

Taking the fear away from contracting

Route alliance meetings (with the timing of work and possession details on the agenda) need to involve designers and contractors at a very early stage. When work is to be tendered the relevant asset engineers and train operators must also be involved.

Safe working needs to be top of their shared agenda from the outset. Tendering and contract award processes need to involve the local engineers at all stages. Based upon my experience I would go yet further. Involving those who will both supervise shift by shift, and those who will do the physical work at the earliest possible moment, will also bring dividends.

Safer, simpler, easier and hence less costly methods of working will result. For this to happen it will be necessary for members of all the contracted team to be involved with the front line subcontractor.

They must feel confident that speaking out will not harm their chances for further subcontract work. Their bosses need to be assured that reporting incidents and problems will not stop them being considered for further contracts either.

“Lack of’s” and Improvement Notices

Any reader who believes that this sort of initiative is not needed, should research the current listing on the ORR’s website of outstanding Improvement Notices from last year.

To quote a few “lack of risk assessment for gas cutting work”, “lack of practicable arrangements for inspection, management and maintenance of permanent way”, “failure to isolate power systems when maintaining machinery”, “lack of planning for use of excavator cranes”, “lack of control of fatigue in subcontract staff with potential effects on themselves and others”, “inadequate control and management of the inspection of structures”.

Of course this list excludes the vast majority of work which is safely and satisfactorily completed. But we can all do better I am sure! Encouragingly the list of enforcement notices revealed nothing left outstanding when I examined it!

Whatever happened to that pantograph?

Of course some incidents investigated by the Rail Accident investigation Branch (RAIB) are caused by the rolling stock rather than the infrastructure.

At about 7-19 am on Thursday January 5th this year the early morning train to London from Kings Lynn suffered two shattered passenger windows whilst travelling at around 80 mph. The incident occurred during high winds when, according the preliminary RAIB report, the pantograph lost contact with the overhead contact wire and struck an overhead line structure before smashing into the two windows.

The incident happened near Littleport in Cambridgeshire. The driver sensibly continued on to the next level crossing before stopping his train. RAIB say that they will be looking into just how the pantograph came to lose contact with the wire and the effects of the high winds on that day.

I would like to ask both drivers and train maintenance staff if this incident came as a complete surprise to them; and if it did not whether they have ever raised the matter with anyone.

And that axle!

The RAIB has recently released its report into a passenger train derailment two years ago. Around 1549 hours on February 20th 2010 the 1455 London to Sheffield train derailed at 94 mph near East Langton in Leicestershire on the Midland Main Line.

The seven car Class 222 Meridian train stayed upright despite having a broken axle whilst it was brought to a stand about two miles further on (see picture). There were five train-crew and 190 passengers on board. 1,100 concrete sleepers, an AWS (automatic warning system) Magnet, a hot axle box detector and various cabling had to be replaced.

Whilst establishing the most likely causes of the broken axle has taken some time, and been carried out thoroughly with the full co-operation of all involved, surely the existence of a route alliance would have helped?

Summit tunnel, a big pile of ice and “all staff”

Returning to the importance of involving those who spend their lives physically working on the infrastructure, I would recommend reading of Network Rail’s Infrastructure Group Safety Bulletin 256 which can be found on their Safety Central website.

Summit Tunnel is just 15 miles north of Manchester. On 28th December a train was derailed there by a large pile of ice across the track. Whilst the temperatures were lower than for many years in 2010/11 I do not agree that they were “unprecedented” as stated in the Bulletin.

The lines through the tunnel had been closed for several days. Water seeping through the brickwork onto the interior faces of the air shafts froze there. Predictably, as the temperatures rose this frozen water loosened and collapsed onto the tracks below.

The Bulletin tells “all staff” to report such problems to signallers at route control so that fault control teams can be called to inspect. I question whether this is the right priority. Am I wrong to assume “all staff” implies Network Rail’s own staff only?

Secondly I would expect the local knowledge and experience of track staff responsible for the track through the tunnel to have been very aware of the potential dangers of re-opening the tunnel as temperatures rose.

At the very least I would have expected the local maintenance engineer and supervisors to have insisted on extra shaft examinations before re-opening the tunnel. This would have revealed that there were still heavy accumulations of ice clinging to the air shaft walls which could fall onto a passing train or as happened block the track. Were “they” under pressure from a train operating company to re-open the tunnel? Maybe the new “alliances” will make a recurrence less likely?

Level Crossings

Understandably Network Rail has added access to a Level Crossing Safety Hub to the Safety Central website. Apart from the recent Court case relating to a long past failure of Railtrack, there have been a number of more recent incidents including a near miss with a pedestrian and accidents involving road vehicles struck on unmanned level crossings.

The ORR seems keen to bring charges under the Health and Safety at Work Act, but I remain concerned despite television advertising etc. with the general attitude of “Joe Public”.

The thinking is often still to take a chance, and then be proud of getting away with it, but blame someone else if you don’t. That may seem harsh but although mistakes are inevitably made from time to time our level crossing (and fencing arrangements are generally the most comprehensive in Europe).

In mainland Europe the vast majority of pedestrians and drivers seem more aware of being responsible for their own safety when crossing a railway. Demarcation is provided between road and rail but generally with less provision of idiot proof systems. The Level Crossing Safety Hub gives a national 0845 helpline number. Again for the future I recommend a local one, with a named if not pictured individual.

To sum up, I support the current devolution with delegation of both responsibility and accountability to the ten Route Managing Directors. I can see potential benefits to much closer working between the train operating companies and all who work on Network Rail’s infrastructure, regardless of employer.

I remain doubtful of the value of paying lawyers large sums of money to prosecute Network Rail for the past misdemeanours of its now discredited predecessor Railtrack. The costs involved would be better used to improve and expand our railway infrastructure to meet the growing demand and the safety of those who work on it.

I am curious as to how the drive towards zero accidents etc. will be driven and co-ordinated by Network Rail’s “Safety and Sustainability Director” Gareth Llewellyn. I hope to discuss this with him very soon and give you some answers next month. If you have any questions you know how to contact me!


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