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If signalling is good enough for controlling trains why not use it to protect track workers?

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The last resort

Last month I suggested that the time was ripe for us to phase out the use of flags, whistles and horns as a way of protecting track staff from trains. Writes Colin Wheeler

Nostalgia for the exciting days when the Victorians built our railways can hardly be used to justify such an antiquated method! Looking through old papers I came across an early Railtrack form titled “Hierarchy of Protection Methods” which prescribed the use of the “highest achievable method of protection”.

The top three choices were green zone alternatives (namely, arrangements where workers are separated from trains); fourth and fifth were working with trains running but warnings generated by automatic means (not as part of the signalling system).

Six and seven were the use of a lookout using warning equipment. The use of a lookout with flags and a horn was described as being “the last resort.” The paper was dated 2002, but I still believe it was right.

Reliance on microchips

My thanks to a “mainline train driver” who having read my May article, wrote in expressing his support for the use of lookouts. He commented that “almost all accidents to trackside staff are due to human errors on their part, usually through poor training, becoming blasé, or simply trying to save time and cut corners doing things that fall outside the parameters of basic PTS” (Personal Track Safety).

He says that, “horns, flags, and whistles may be antiquated but cannot break down or go wrong and are simple to use,” adding “I would rather entrust my life to something that is down to the user not microchips”.

I cannot believe that he really wants us to replace main line signalling with flags and horns? Indeed as a professional driver he obeys lineside signals many of which rely on microchips. Last month I suggested that it is now right for us to begin to phase out the use of lookouts and replace them with warning systems driven by the signalling that controls the movement of trains.

The necessary technology has been in use for well over a decade elsewhere in Europe. At the end of May I travelled through London Bridge (one of our busiest junctions). It is currently being renewed. Surely this should now be equipped with a signalling driven warning system as a first priority?

Safety Central updated

I am pleased to see Network Rail’s Safety Central Website has at last been updated, and is open to everyone who needs it. It features a personal 38 second interview with Simon Kirby who heads their Investment Projects organisation on the importance of safety.

Adding a “Lessons Learnt” section is overdue but welcome. The intention is for this to feature “events that have led to a formal investigation or where there are significant learning points.” An open invitation offers anyone involved in an incident who thinks the industry would benefit from sharing lessons learnt, to make their DCP (whatever that means?) aware so that details may be sent to a central team for review.

A recent addition to “Lessons Learnt” was issued on May 1st and relates to the COSS/Site Warden fatality at Saxilby on December 4th last year. The simple eight bullet point format gives a good (though belated) overview of what happened.

Within 2 miles of home station

Safety Central has an up to date list of the membership of the Project Safety Leadership Group (PSLG) which notes that their meeting took place in May. I hope to be able to comment on it next month.

Worth watching is a film from the RED Programme aimed at raising awareness of the dangers of driving when fatigued. It features a young father suffering sleepless nights and attempting a long drive home with horrendous consequences.

Laudable though the initiative is, an equally valid approach is to recognise that it is always better to work locally whenever possible. Could more be done to ensure continuity of local work for skilled railway people? It would be safer and almost certainly more productive.

I recall old contracts of employment used by BR actually stipulated that staff had to live within two miles of their “home station” so as to be available to deal with unexpected events!

Task Briefing Sheets

I believe that these should be edited if not drafted by Supervisors to ensure they only include site specific information that needs to be briefed since it differs from the norm. I have just read the latest advice that the sheet can be “double sided A4, A5 (i.e. A4 folded once) or A4 folded twice like a Chinese Takeaway Menu”etc.

What do such stipulations add to the process? Task briefing sheets were introduced when according to urban myth you needed a separate wheelbarrow to carry voluminous method statements.

The principle is that the track staff are skilled and hence the task briefing should be a minimal exercise drawing attention to unusual and site/job specific variations from the norm. Arguably a long briefing can be as hazardous as none!

Safety Bulletins

Current Safety Bulletins on the website include the road/railer runaway that occurred whilst it was being transferred from road wheels onto rail wheels on a 1 in 45 gradient near Glasgow Queen Street. That happened on 21st April.

Bulletin 284 was issued following another on-track runaway on April 30th. The use of Rexquote Genie Z60/34 V3 Access Railers has been suspended as a result. Bulletin 285 was issued on May 9th after a contractor fell when he used a handrail whilst walking up a stairway on a Haki Compact Stair Tower.

The handrail gave way and he fell through the gap sustaining bruising to legs, back and neck. It adds that the handrail may not have been fitted in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions. The location and date of the accident are not given.

Track Safety Alliance

This organisation started in 2011 and is formed largely of renewals contractors wishing to share best practice. It focusses on “improving the health, safety and wellbeing of trackworkers.” There is no sole leader but all are “major shareholders with equal stakes in shaping safety leadership thinking and direction.” I applaud their initiative and hope that they may increase their influence in the future.

Working with the adjacent line open to traffic has always been hazardous. I still recall a dreadful night when having taken care to brief and warn all the staff of the dangers, a supervisor I knew well lost concentration and moved onto the live line in the middle of the night. He was killed by a train.

Network Rail have a Project Manager working on reducing the risks associated with ALO (Adjacent Line Open). Slew Limiters for excavators are an obvious precaution but my concerns were aroused when I read the words “Quantitative Risk Analysis.” I hope the good intentions of some current initiatives have been carefully reviewed and agreed with the industry.

ALO Toolkit paperwork

My fear is that the well intentioned new paperwork will add to the form filling without improving safety. There does seem to be a lot of it! The “ALO Toolkit” went live on May 28th and companies have to be fully compliant by August 5th.

It is described as being “additional and complementary to existing guidance.” It includes three separate ALO forms. Site details have to be entered in 15 boxes on the form and the ALO Change Control then has 7 yes/no tick boxes before the inevitable signing and declaration. There are also “ALOWorkplan”and “Responsible Manager Tracker” forms.

I hope someone is checking since I firmly believe that less is more effective when it comes to paperwork. But if you disagree please let me know!!

Remembering my time as Project Manager of the now defunct Track Safety Strategy Group (TSSG) I recommended that additional paperwork should only be introduced after a group of supervisors say they need it! That was part of the agreed process used by TSSG and it proved its worth!


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