The ORR’s director of railway safety has said he fears there could be a disconnect between frontline staff and management if the industry doesn’t do more to support its employees.
Announcing the publication of its annual health and safety performance report, the ORR said worker engagement was key to ensuring that safety continues to improve on Britain’s rail network.
The ORR’s director of railway safety and chief inspector of railways, Ian Prosser, said while there had been continuous improvement with asset management and the overall level of train accident risk on the mainline railway, the report also highlights plenty of focus areas for the next control period.
One of the worrying statistics to come out of the report was that mainline public harm has risen to its highest level since 2012-13, with 44 fatalities recorded during 2017-18 – of those 36 were from trespass incidents.
The industry launched its ‘You vs. Train’ safety campaign in July to emphasise to children and young people – particularly young men – just how dangerous railway environments can be. In the last 12 months, seven young people under the age of 18 have died on the railway and another 48 have been left with life-changing injuries.
The campaign uses the real-life story of Tom Hubbard who suffered horrific injuries when he was electrocuted by the overhead line in 2014. The report references two trespass incidents at freight depots involving children, including a fatality at Daventry International Rail Freight Depot in June 2017.
Ian said: “It’s an area I think we can do more in, and we’ll also not only have the benefit of actually saving lives, we’ll also have a performance benefit as well.”
Speaking to RailStaff, Ian said one of the key messages he wanted to get across to the industry was of its responsibility to support its staff.
“I think we’re in danger of potentially a disconnect occurring between the front line and management,” said Ian. “And I think the industry needs to work very hard to make sure that we communicate, and support our frontline staff.”
While the report highlighted that the figures show an improving picture for workforce safety, it also acknowledged the high number of near misses that are still being reported.
Ian believes that an industry-wide drive to improve health and wellbeing, with a particular focus on fatigue and mental health, could be one way to better engage with staff.
“We’ve actually got to show people we care,” said Ian, who believes that it is also an area where the industry can make the biggest gains.
While the report notes continuous improvement in areas such as hand-arm vibration (HAVs), mental health, musculoskeletal injuries and respiratory conditions, it said improvement was needed in the management of risks related to fitness, for example diabetes and eyesight.
The ORR ran its own campaign in 2017 to highlight the life-changing impact HAVs and crystalline silica exposure can have on health.
The ORR also said there was increasing concern about diesel engine exhaust emissions (DEEE) and that it was working with dutyholders to look at ways to improve air quality in enclosed environments. One train operator is trialling an automatic shutdown system on idling trains while nitrogen oxide sensors, which automatically start the ventilation system when they detect high levels of DEEE, are also being trialled at a station.
“I’ve been thinking about this through the whole driver controlled operation debate, which I’ve been heavily involved in. I’ve been looking at it in terms of how do we make some of the next step changes in workforce safety, particularly on the mainline railway, and getting the industry to really get to where it needs to get to in terms of occupational health, both mental and physical.”
The publication of the report comes at a time when the network is performing below par for many passengers. Ian said he was concerned that the pressure being put on what is still in many ways a Victorian railway network could result in safety performance deteriorating in some areas.
“At times we need to say no because we’re putting too much pressure on the system, and the railway was not built for the frequencies that we’re now trying to put through it.”
He added: “The whole area of the decline in performance has added to the pressures, so we’ve got to turn that performance around as well because otherwise we’ll start to see it impact on safety.”
ORR reported a “reducing trend” with risk at level crossings during 2017-18. Since the start of CP5, Network Rail has closed more than 300 level crossings – a large number of these closures were funded through the Risk Reduction Fund.
Despite the risks that level crossings pose, particularly user-worked crossings, Ian said that simply closing them can be a challenging process.
“Network Rail and ourselves find it increasingly more difficult to close crossings,” said Ian. “A lot of people see them as a valuable asset and they’ve been there for a very long time, so you start changing behaviours which will not necessarily happen overnight.”
The ORR said it will need to maintain pressure on the devolved routes to make sure investment is being made in the right areas, prioritising the highest risk crossings to meet the legal baseline of introducing solutions that are ‘reasonably practicable’.
Asked if he felt devolution presented a threat or an opportunity for safety, Ian said: “I think it’s both.”
Drawing comparisons with the way Railtrack was structured, he added: “There’s opportunities if you get it right to really accelerate the improvements. There’s risk if you get it wrong that one or two routes go off the rails and that’s what we will be watching because the maturity in some of the routes is not as strong as it needs to be.”
The Sandilands Junction tram crash in 2016 “cast a shadow over tram safety performance” but, according to the report, it has the potential to be a “catalyst for positive change” in the sector.
Many of the recommendations that were made following the incident have now been implemented, including new signage, fatigue monitoring technology and progress is being made towards the creation of a new standards body to oversee tram safety.
There were also two workforce fatalities during 2017-18. While one of these was the result of natural causes, a member of train maintenance staff was killed at Old Oak Common depot when they were struck by a traction motor which fell off a bogie while it was being removed.
“You have to be patient. But you have to be persistent,” said Ian, giving his thoughts on how the industry must remain motivated to strive for improvement. “My team is excellent, they know what the goal is, the vision is, and it’s about just striving, influencing the leaders in the industry, which I think we do very effectively.
“You always get knock backs. Sandilands was a knock back for us. We have to get up and learn from it, make things happen, use it to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
The ORR served 13 improvement notices between 2017-18 – two less than the previous year. Just over half of the improvement notices issued were served to Network Rail. There were also two prosecutions carried out during the year.
“I think enforcement is a very important tool,” said Ian. “I’ve always thought that. A lot of the enforcement has driven these improvements, so when we need to we will. We will prosecute and use improvement notices.”
Change just happens
Network Rail’s current chief executive, Mark Carne, will step down this month, but Ian is sure his successor, Andrew Haines, will continue to focus on safety and continuous improvement.
“I’ve been in this job for 10 years,” said Ian. “I’ve had seven secretaries of state; this will be the fourth chief executive of Network Rail, fourth chairman of Network Rail. Change just happens.”
The overall direction of change is positive, said Ian. The report was complimentary about London Underground’s safety record over the past year and suggested Network Rail was making good progress in a number of areas where it has struggled in the past, including electrical safety and track management.
Ian said: “I think the industry has moved a long way in the 10 years I’ve been in this job. I’m proud of what the industry’s done but also proud of what my team’s done. I think we’ve been a very important factor in making the changes that have happened.”