Another railway worker – a controller of site safety – has been struck by a train and killed. What more do we need to do?
With a track worker killed, an overhead linesman badly electrocuted, and three workers having to run for their lives and reaching safety with just one second to spare, Colin Wheeler asks what more the industry needs to do to keep its workers safe.
Tragically, I must begin by offering my sincere condolences to the family, friends and work colleagues of the track worker who, on 8 April at 10:52, was struck and fatally injured by a passenger train. It was travelling at 90mph on the West Coast main line near the village of Roade in Northamptonshire, close to Hanslope junction where the Northampton Loop leaves the WCML to Rugby.
The victim was the Controller of Site Safety (COSS) for a group undertaking civil engineering work, according to the news item posted on 22 April on the Rail Accident Investigation Board (RAIB) website.
The train was travelling from Northampton to London Euston when its driver saw the trackworker, sounded the train horn and applied the emergency brakes.
The work, which began back in February, was the reinforcement of the cutting slope adjacent to the Up Slow line. An excavator had been in use and was working within the safe distance of the return conductor of the overhead line equipment. A return conductor isolation was taken and a line blockage was used to install the earths for that isolation.
The COSS handed back the line blockage shortly before he was struck by the train. The RAIB have begun their investigation which will consider “the actions of those involved, the planning of the work, implementation of safe system of work and relevant underlying or organisational factors”.
Safety to improve from July 2022?
In July last year, the Office of Rail and Road issued an improvement notice to Network Rail Infrastructure Limited (NRIL) stating that “NRIL was not ensuring the safety of their employees and contractors working on or near the line so far as is reasonably practical” and “they have not ensured that appropriate procedures are in place, and suitable equipment is provided for preventing a person working on the transport system from being struck by a moving train”.
Disappointingly, the notice compliance date is listed as 31 July 2022!
Also, in July last year, following the two fatalities on 3 July at Margam, South Wales, Network Rail launched its “trackworker safety taskforce” and chief executive Andrew Haines is on record as saying “I don’t want to see another trackworker death”.
Many in the industry are already thinking that there is an urgent need for things to change more quickly; the 2022 date is surely much too far away?
“Less than a second” near miss
RAIB’s Safety Digest 03/2020, issued on 14 April, refers to a near miss on 14 November last year at around 09:00 at Merkland, 3.2km south of Kirklebridge crossovers in Dumfries and Galloway.
Three members of Network Rail staff had a near miss with a train travelling at 125mph. They had just begun a track inspection, believing it to be under the protection of LOWS (a radio-based lookout-operated warning system). According to the Safety Digest, they jumped clear with less than a second to spare.
LOWS has a receiver unit with flashing lights and a siren that starts working when switched on. The switches are connected to a receiver via a secure radio link. The LOWS controller and each lookout carry dedicated mobile phones provided with the equipment. The system is regularly used on the West Coast main line in south Scotland “because the combination of high train speeds and curved track often precludes the use of a warning system relying on lookouts using flags”.
Strangely this quoted statement seems to imply that “relying on lookouts using flags” would be preferable!
LOWS lookouts in position
All the team were familiar with the equipment, they drove to the site, a pre-work COSS briefing was delivered and they unpacked the equipment. The two LOWS lookouts travelled to their appointed locations and the Lookout South used the mobile phone to confirm he was in position and ready. The controller asked him to switch on the transmitter unit and wait until he had contacted the Lookout North. One minute later the Lookout North confirmed via his mobile phone that he was in position and was instructed to turn on his transmitter unit and test the system by operating it.
The system testing triggered the warning lights and siren at the worksite. When the phone call ended the controller expected both the lookouts to send warnings when trains approached, but the Lookout North “believed this was not yet required.” The controller had phoned the Lookout South and they conducted a successful test. The controller then said “fine that’s us” or “right that’s you up and running”.
Just seven minutes later the train passed the Lookout North but the LOWS transmitter was not operated because the LOWS North lookout did not understand that he was required to start giving warnings for trains!
The inspection work was immediately cancelled after the incident and staff left the site.
“You are now looking out”
Training for the use of LOWS equipment includes the instruction of controllers to ask lookouts to make test warnings, confirm that these have been received, and then instruct lookouts to start giving warnings with immediate effect by saying, “you are now looking out”. The Safety Digest says that members of the LOWS team were “using informal language rather than the formal communication protocol mandated by Network Rail”. The conversation did not result in a clear understanding between the staff involved.
Network Rail’s standard operating procedures for use of LOWS are contained in two documents – “Use of Lookout Operated Warning System” and “LOWS set-up voice communications protocol”. The latter gives precise wording for “about 20 phrases (including five to be repeated back) in two phone conversations between the operator and each lookout”.
Network Rail and the RAIB have now agreed that this is too complicated and consequently too difficult to use. RAIB has “observed” that the standard and protocols in use have not been reviewed or updated since they were first issued in 2009, although the equipment was upgraded in both 2010 and 2018. “Network Rail’s national workforce safety team is to address the issue and are considering the most efficient way to ensure staff use the simpler protocol” the Safety Digest says.
I would have thought it best to leave it to a group of controllers and LOWS lookouts to propose a simple system and/or to consider delegating the choice of words to controllers, making it clear that they carry responsibility for ensuring that the pre-work testing is done and LOWS lookouts always confirm that they are looking out before work on track begins.
Test before touch on 25kV OLE (overhead line equipment)
I am not an electrical engineer, but, if I were, I would accept and wish to abide by this relatively simple rule. However, Network Rail’s Safety Central website advice NRA 18-12 issued on 18 March had the above heading.
The Advice says that “test before touch is not being applied in a consistent manner”, before emphasising that “whilst approved live line indicators confirm de-energisation there could still be dangerous voltages in the equipment”. The advice lists the five-step process which should always be followed covering testing, applying earths, ensuring plans and permits are in place for 25kV, a Form C and it emphasises when you may need to re-test.
Overhead Linesman seriously injured
On 20 March, Network Rail issued (Network Rail Advice) NRA20-02 which details the accident on Christmas Day last year which resulted in an overhead linesman being seriously injured at Kensal Green in London when he came into contact with the live OLE. The formal investigation “revealed a number of factors which require immediate action to reinforce compliance with isolation planning and testing requirements”.
The Advice lists eight lengthy and detailed “immediate action points”. These include not planning staggered isolations, site or virtual walkouts to confirm limits, nominated person competences, hazards to be identified on the OLE permit/Form C, work limits, travel route and residual electrical hazards. I am surprised not to have found evidence of the involvement of RAIB or the Office of Rail and Road (ORR).
Passenger train collision near Bromsgrove station
At around 22:43 on Monday 23 March, a three-coach Class 170 passenger train, the 21:05 from Cardiff Central to Birmingham, was approaching Bromsgrove Station when it collided with a derailed Class 66 locomotive.
The Class 66 had derailed at the end of a siding, as may be seen in the picture. It had travelled from Bescot to Bromsgrove to assist by banking freight trains ascending the notorious Lickey Incline (1 in 37). It derailed after running through the buffers at the end of the siding adjacent to the main line, leaving its front left corner foul of the northbound line. A corner of the leading cab was damaged but the locomotive driver was uninjured.
RAIB’s investigation will include “recommendations to improve safety”.
Signal passed at danger (SPAD) near Loughborough
This incident is being investigated by the RAIB. It happened at around 10:57 on 26 March. A northbound train passed a signal at red without authority by 200 metres, around three quarters of a mile south of Loughborough Station. On the approach to the signal that was passed, the permitted line speed is 65mph. The train was an empty four-car Class 710 unit with a Class 57 locomotive at each end. It was being moved from the Old Dalby test site to storage at Worksop with the two locomotives being used to provide braking with a braking pipe through the unit’s carriages.
Signal LR 503 was displaying a single yellow on the approach to signal LR 507 showing red. The driver applied the brakes before reaching LR 507, but the braking was not sufficient to stop the train before it passed the red signal. There were no injuries or damage done, but a southbound passenger train calling at Loughborough Station was delayed by 24 minutes.
The RAIB investigation will focus on understanding people’s actions, the braking capability of the train, how it was formed, prepared and driven, train timing schedules, risks when hauling unbraked units, driving and fitness, and previous accidents and incidents. It will then make recommendations to prevent a recurrence.
Fatal accident at Eden Park Station
The RAIB has also begun its investigation into this fatal accident that occurred on 26 April at Eden Park Station in Kent. At 19:05 in the early evening, a person with impaired vision suffered fatal injuries after falling from the edge of the platform at the station and almost immediately being struck by a train operating the 19:00 Hayes to London Charing Cross passenger service.
The platform edge was not equipped with a tactile surface. These are designed to warn people with impaired vision that they are near the platform edge.
RAIB’s investigation will seek to identify the sequence of events that led to the accident and other factors relating to the provision of tactile surfaces.
Unsurprisingly I see that RAIB is now advertising for more staff!
Weak compliance with Sentinel Scheme Rules
Released on 30 March as Network Rail’s “Sentinel Senior Responsible Owner”, Allan Spence has drawn attention to his concerns. He emphasises that “non-compliance puts workers and others at risk”. It has been a long time coming, but I welcome his intervention. His letter emphasises that “compliance with the rules is a condition for working on Network Rail’s managed infrastructure”.
Most pointedly he goes on to state that the obligations apply regardless of the “basis of payment” whether “on the books”, paying tax through PAYE or engaged through any form of self-employment for tax purposes, including payment through umbrella companies.
Having looked at published information about the funding and aims of the 100 persons strong “Trackworker Safety Taskforce” (that was launched in July last year with an eye watering budget of £70 million), I am convinced that our industry can and should be safer for its on-track workers. Website information states that there are 13,000 track workers per shift working on 20,000km of track at any one time. Also on the website, there are graphs and a ‘potential fatality dashboard’, together with other graphical aids and analysis. All good stuff, but is it influencing trackworkers behaviour sufficiently?
“When will we ever learn?”
The early success of the COVID-19 ‘Stay at Home’ campaign was achieved by repeatedly hammering home a simple and clear message. I am old enough to remember when British Railways Board (BRB), with a board director for safety, ran a successful safety campaign leading to over 15 months without a fatal accident.
As I recall, the BRB campaign featured an award-winning video titled “Deadly serious about safety”. Everyone, without exception, who worked on the track, had to see it. Many left the viewing with tears in their eyes. It featured an interview with the young widow of a worker who had lost his life on the track.
Monthly briefings followed, with more videos from the board director and local two-way discussions with local supervisors and managers. Failure to attend resulted in the instigation of disciplinary action followed by being banned from undertaking trackwork. The safety message was hammered home!
What eventually became the Track Safety Strategy Group vetted safety improvement proposals and made recommendations about further practical suggestions. Its members were not managers or safety professionals, but experienced and respected supervisors, union safety representatives and technical staff from all disciplines who worked mainly on track.
Local supervisors’ initiatives to make working safer were welcomed and, within delegated limited budgets, supervisors authorised and undertook work to improve safety. This all resulted in increasing commitment to safety ownership of safety.
For readers who are old enough, and have good memories, I make no apology for misquoting the refrain from “Where have all the flowers gone?” – it seems appropriate.
By the time the next edition of RailStaff is published, the industry will be halfway through its £70 million Task Force initiatives to comply with the Improvement Notices. Dealing with the additional difficulty identified by Allan Spence may not be easy, but will we see an improvement in track worker safety?
Report by Colin Wheeler.