HomeRail NewsMy personal memories of staff killed at work

My personal memories of staff killed at work

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My motivation for writing is fired by many years’ experience of working on the maintenance and renewal of railway infrastructure and my admiration of the skills and dedication I found whilst doing so. Writes Colin Wheeler.

I recall visiting maintenance and renewal sites with a file in my briefcase containing the detailed procedures I was to follow in the event of a fatal accident. I have a vivid early memory of attending the funeral of a young relayer. He had momentarily lost concentration and strayed onto the open adjacent line. His colleagues, probably over a hundred of them lined the roadside to the Crematorium. I remember his young widow thanking me for attending his funeral.

I recall the welder struck by a train and killed on a lightly trafficked branch line after the lookout left two track welders to look out for themselves for a minute whilst he nipped to the cabin to put the kettle on!

I recall the fatal accident to a safety conscious and dedicated supervisor who I knew well. That fateful night he took gangs from their usual working area to complete a relaying job.

Working in a single line possession he was concerned for their safety. He went into each gang bus before possession of the line was granted to remind them of the dangers of working alongside an open line. It was in the early hours when in conversation with a member of technical staff he momentarily stepped back foul of the open line and was struck and killed.

Sadly there have been many more.

Network Rail’s plans

We live in a different age. Equipment has improved, as have working methods. I read with interest the details of Network Rail’s Ten Point Plan in February’s RailStaff. If asked to prioritise the ten I would put number 5 “Safety Conversations” top of the list.

There is reference to giving a consistent message, training leaders and managers and at the bottom of the list “listening to what their teams tell them…” This should be top of the list. Those working on track day in day out (and night after night too sometimes) inevitably have knowledge of how accidents can happen. I was dismayed to see a recent power point presentation referring to track-workers as “operatives”. An ugly management- speak word, although it carries the Dictionary definition of “a worker, especially a skilled one”; It undersells the skill levels and dedication of track staff who consider the word to be less than complimentary.

“Learning from Incidents” is another of the ten, as is “Frontline Supervision”. But in last month’s article the potential for basing future actions on direct input from track workers and supervisors was omitted! I urge those in charge of the Ten Point Plan to think hard about how best to include the thoughts and priorities of those who actually do the work.

Improving protection for track workers

Many of us will learn more and most of our questions will be answered when Allan Spence Director Safety and Strategy Network Rail speaks at the Safety Summit in London on April 28th! I am already encouraged by the inclusion in the Office of Rail Regulation’s Control Period 5 budget of a ring fenced item of £10 million for the “development of new technologies to improve protection and warning for track workers”.

I understand that at last there is both the will and the finance for us to move away from the Victorian practice of relying on individuals blowing horns or whistles and waving flags to warn of approaching trains.

With David Higgins formally handing over to his successor this month let us hope the new Chief Executive puts his weight behind this one too. I remain convinced that the first step should be mandating the provision of signalling driven protection systems at busy junctions, larger stations and at known maintenance locations on our higher speed lines.

The recent banning of the use of look out operated warning systems following a wrong side failure has increased the urgency for this initiative.

Network Rail’s Safety Bulletin 312 gave notification of the withdrawing of all Zollner LOWS equipment and states that “work scheduled to use this equipment must be cancelled or re-planned with protection at least as effective”, before adding that “working with unprotected lookouts is unlikely to be appropriate”.

Safety glasses, eyeballing and £1 for every close call!

Steve Featherstone who heads up Network Rail’s track renewal organisation is a realist who listens. Aware of a rising number of eye injuries over the last three years he has mandated the use of safety glasses but acknowledges that “compliance is still work in progress”. Whether the threat of a meeting with your safety adviser if one is reported for not wearing eye protection will be effective remains to be seen!

His awareness of the level of commitment at track level is welcome. The sounding of train horns and the acknowledgement of their approach by track workers is a practice that goes back decades. The initiative currently being pursued is for the exchange between train drivers and track workers to include “eyeballing each other” and a “wave rather than simply raising a hand”.

The offering of cash incentives to improve safety has been tried before with varying degrees of success and failure. Concerned by low levels of close call reporting, Amey Colas have introduced a “Safety Charity Challenge”.

Every closed out report of a close call results in a £1 being donated to charity. I understand that this has already resulted in a doubling of reports. URS are now introducing a similar scheme. I hope both organisations involve their full time track staff as these schemes develop.

The lifting strop broke

On February 21st a rail plant haulage contractor’s vehicle equipped with a lifting device was collecting rail trailers. The driver was working alone. At Lisvane near Cardiff on the Cardiff to Rhymney Line a slinging strop failed whilst he was lifting a trailer onto his vehicle.

The load dropped striking him on the upper body as it fell. It trapped him on the ground. Fortunately a passing train driver noticed his predicament and stopped his train to help and raise the alarm. Subsequent checks have revealed that “inappropriate lifting accessories are in wide use”!

“Joe Public”

Changing the public’s approach to railway safety is a different proposition altogether. In mainland Europe the different standards of fencing and simpler arrangements for level crossings appear to rely on the common sense of vehicle drivers and pedestrians to a greater extent than here.

A recently published Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB) report into a fatal accident at Athelney Level Crossing near Taunton at 6-23 am on Thursday 21st March last year is worth reading.

The driver was killed after driving round the automatic half barrier when his vehicle was struck by a train travelling at 100 mph. However due to engineering work carried out earlier the barriers had stayed down for much longer than is usual.

Despite the progress made in reducing the number of level crossings accidents involving them, trespass and the choosing of a railway track by potential suicides will I fear all be with us for some time to come.

My fervent wish is for “Joe Public” to be made more aware of the effects his or her actions will have, not only on their families and friends but also committed railway people who will be called upon as a result of their actions. Again my memory includes specific incidents that I can never forget.


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