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Who should be responsible?

An informed look at suitability, competences, training and personal accountability

Trained competences are essential for the safe and reliable operation, maintenance and renewal of our heavily used railways. RailStaff safety commentator Colin Wheeler considers whether personal responsibility rather than corporate liability is the way to go when things go wrong.

I recall an amazingly good cartoon, produced decades ago, showing a very long-armed ape wearing a huge number of competency armbands before starting work. His companion was captioned saying he was the only willing individual they could find with long enough arms!

The problem is not new. Multiple certification, I suggest, only adds to record keeping without improving safety performance. A better method is surely the use of registered professional, technical and operational bodies whose membership is restricted to those who can adequately demonstrate their abilities.

Before the current privatisation, I recall appointments being made when the initial briefing of individuals included, not only going through the responsibilities and accountabilities, but also being advised by lawyers. We were told that, whilst our employer would organise legal representation if things went wrong, we could be sacked and lose our pensions if found guilty of failing to comply with current legislation, including the Health and Safety at Work Act.

Subsequently, it was confirmed to me that, whilst all technically or professionally trained staff employed to use their skills on rail infrastructure were accountable for their own professional work, the ultimate responsibility went upwards to British Rail’s board directors, who were supported by suitable professional indemnity insurance.

I do not believe that carrying a pile of tickets, wearing lots of armbands or merely seeing others doing the work is sufficient. Being human, we are all liable to make mistakes for which we ought to accept responsibility.

Being held to account

In the earlier days of the Health and Safety at Work Act, those of us whose work was categorised as “safety critical” drafted our own “Safety Responsibility Statements”, detailing how, as individuals, we would personally comply with the legislation. I remember being interviewed, following incidents and accidents, by my local inspector from Her Majesty’s Railway Inspectorate. I also recall the prosecution and acquittal of one of my supervisors and the subsequent increased safety focus we all had following a prosecution resulting from an on-track fatality.

The most recent prosecutions brought by the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) have resulted in companies being fined millions of pounds. The legal representation will also have cost a considerable sum. If rail infrastructure owners, consultant designers, contractors and train operators are involved, the end result sometimes includes the payment of administration costs by two government-funded bodies for funding to be transferred between them. If a commercial company is involved, it is still the company that is prosecuted.

The publicity should affect those working on our railways, but is this really the best way? Organisations owning rail infrastructure may lose funds as a result. I think not. Individuals who fail to do their best to comply with safety regulations and work safely should be held personally responsible for their actions.

The competence of individuals should be evidenced by training and testing leading to independently assessed competency skills awarded by professional bodies.

Bonuses targeted

At the end of March last year, the Office of Rail and Road published a document entitled “Holding Network Rail to account”. In the section describing the organisation of Enforcement Orders, Fig 5.2 reads as follows: “Reflecting Network Rail’s ownership and funding, ORR may decide to scale any penalty to make it capable of being funded from Network Rail’s management bonuses” (Fig 5.2).

It also refers to the “Financial Performance Measure” used by Network Rail as “an important component of its management bonuses, which may therefore be adversely affected”. Clearly, the current regulation provisions provide for penalties to be levied on individuals who fail to carry out their work as they should.

As routes take over day-to-day responsibilities, the timing, I suggest, is right for a change of focus and usual practice to be required by the ORR.

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