HomeRail News"My first priority is safety - level crossings and trackworkers"

“My first priority is safety – level crossings and trackworkers”

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This was the answer given by Network Rail’s chief executive when he was interviewed one morning in June on Radio 4’s “Today” programme. I couldn’t have hoped for more! Writes Colin Wheeler

Disappointingly his remark was not seized upon by the usual media circus, but maybe this reflects their preoccupation with bad news!

Initially, given the focus of the last few years on upgrading or removing level crossings, his reference to them surprised me. Then I read the Rail Accident Investigation Branch’s (RAIB) recently published report into the near miss at Butterswood Level Crossing in Lincolnshire on Tuesday, 25 June last year. It was around 0735 in the morning when a car was involved in a near miss with a train as it passed over this crossing. The barriers were in the raised position and the road traffic signals were extinguished.

The report says that the train driver expected the crossing to be operating normally and “had not focussed his attention on the flashing light which was used to confirm that the crossing had operated properly for the passage of his train”. It goes on to state that “although the level crossing had probably failed around nine hours before the incident, its failure was not known to any railway staff”.

Their investigation discovered that the crossing was not protected with automatic warning system equipment, and maintenance arrangements were not effective in ensuring reliable performance of the equipment. The train operator’s briefing material did not explain to drivers their role in respect of failures at this type of crossing. The learning points spelt out by the report summarise the problems; “non-provision of automatic warning systems at locations where mandated by standards, recording of condition of assets during inspections, storage of batteries, and involving people with relevant technical expertise in industry investigations”.

Basic points, so what was wrong with the local supervision and management and were any concerns raised by local staff? If so with whom and what if anything was done as a result?

Many of you will by now have heard about the dreadful road accident that occurred on the morning of 9 June just after 0430 involving members of a Carillion team who were returning home on the motorway after working on the Reading Project. Two were pronounced dead at the scene and the M4 was closed around Junction 17 Chippenham. Another died subsequently in hospital whilst a fourth was critically injured.

Our thoughts and prayers are for their families and friends.

“Safe Work Leaders”

If I have a concern with this new initiative, it is in the choice of SWL as the pneumonic since for many of us SWL will always mean safe working load. Handbook 21 defines the role of SWL as being the controlling mind for worksite safety and insists that the individual must be “involved throughout the full planning, delivery and hand-back cycle”.

Many will know more having visited the relevant Rail Live stand on 18 June. Level 1 will be needed for simple work sites, level 2 where there are trains or multiple work groups are involved and level 3 for complex sites. An “e-permit” system using electronic maps of each worksite will be used and the full day training of each SWL will include a “practical assessment”.

I recommend the practical assessment be carried out by suitably experienced people with ballast scratched boots rather than trainers! The e-permit system will be used in Anglia from September, Scotland and the North East from October, North West from November and December for everywhere else. I welcome this, remembering the remarkably similar hand sketches renewals technical staff used with supervisors when carrying out detailed shift planning of track renewals decades ago. It worked well!

Runaway at Loughborough

At 1235 on Monday, 12 May a Class 37 locomotive and a single preserved Travelling Post Office (TPO) coach ran away with the TPO leading from its stationary position opposite Quorn Signal Box. It ran on for 2.9 km before running into five stabled coaches. The locomotive had been used for shunting within a possession but at around 1150 was left unattended, albeit with its air brakes applied and a single wheel scotch applied.

The locomotive had been shut down but neither of its two hand (or parking) brakes had been applied. However, the five stabled coaches had been secured by the use of a parking brake on one coach. The runaway ran downhill out of the possession towards Loughborough but fortunately no-one was working on that section of the line at the time.

Runaway of a Personnel Carrier 

Also in May, a Rexquote (Thwaites) Personnel Carrier ran away whilst being  off-tracked at a worksite. It travelled for 45 metres before coming to rest, having run into a trailer attached to another vehicle. Not the first time something like this has happened I hear you say, and I agree!

The report (NR 322 issue 2) says that the brakes were affected by a “lack of interference between road and rail wheels (squash) which was not adjustable on the machine. Consequently this type of personnel carrier and similar five, six, and eight tonne skip-dumpers cannot be used until an “approved direct rail wheel braking system is fitted.”

The direct wheel braking initiative is arguably overdue.

Runaway at Aspatria

RAIB have recently reported on a different sort of runaway that occurred on 26 October last year. The report refers to it as a “Road Vehicle Incursion”. Essentially the driver of a commercial lorry parked it on a side road and just two minutes later it started to run away on a downhill gradient towards the railway. It crossed Brayton Road, broke through a wooden fence, rolled over as it went down a cutting slope and ended up on the railway.

The driver received minor injuries when he fell over as he tried to catch up with his vehicle. An approaching passenger train was stopped a mile and a half away. The RAIB report says that the Department of Transport guidance does not explain how to assess the risk of a vehicle running away on a side road on a downhill gradient!

Fatigue – on call 

This topic, together with ballast dust, is high on Network Rail’s Track Renewals’ safety agenda and rightly so. My thanks yet again to Steve Featherstone for sharing information recently circulated to his people. He highlights the potential effects of night shift and on-call duty.

I undertook on-call duties for a total of 17 years during my working career and agree with every word that is written in the brief. Broken sleep, listening out (even subconsciously) for the telephone to ring; and the disruption to the household when a call is received are all still clear in my memory. Featherstone’s Fusiliers are urged to carry out site visits when on call and by so doing get talking with the staff. With modern telecommunications working in most areas this is an excellent initiative. I especially like the warning given in bold red capital letters – RESIST TEMPTATION TO CARRY OUT NORMAL DUTIES AND BE AVAILABLE DURING OFFICE HOURS.”

Fatigue – “Conversations on Amphill Track Renewal Site”

I have never met Helen Barnes but I appreciate the directness of the comments she made following a site visit to Amphill with the project manager during the early hours of 29 June. She spoke with three machine controllers and five other workers who had booked on at 2300 the previous night. In the event their work was not due to begin until 0910 on the following morning. At 0730 she spoke with two machine supervisors booked for 10 hours who had been sleeping in their cabs. A controller of site safety (COSS) and two machine controllers booked to work 12 hours, had not had a hot drink since 0200. But perhaps most disturbing of all was that the men were from Wales – a three-hour drive away.

The two working were going to sleep in the van when their dayshift colleagues began work at 0700 whilst waiting for  their shifts to end at 1900. Then they would all begin the three-hour journey back to Wales. She commented on the “poor behavioural issues found, especially towards subcontractors” and that although a fatigue survey was taking place, only one was completed between 0530 and 1030.

My involvement with track staff at all levels over a number of decades resulted in an admiration of the commitment of track staff to doing the job right and well.

The performance of track staff, provided  their supervisors and management at all levels respect their skills, is second to none. “Conversations” as described by Helen Barnes are, I believe, very similar to what I have referred to as going out and listening to those who do the actual work. Realising and accepting that working a nightshift for this purpose (without filling in forms) is as, if not more, worthwhile than a day of office meetings and will bring immense benefits to both safety and productivity.


  1. er, Pneumonic? MNEMONIC, I presume. Good point about the “controlling mind” concept. Why was this ever allowed to fade from practice?


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