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Is white-zone working the answer for the future?

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Now that the report on the fatal accident at Margam has been released, it is time to make sure such an incident can never take place again.

Having track workers maintain a live railway track is always fraught with danger and needs safety rules to be followed to the letter. The accident report says that they weren’t, and Colin Wheeler questions why more work can’t be done while no trains are running.

On 12 November, the Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB) published its final report 11/2020 on the fatal accident to trackworkers that occurred at Margam, near Port Talbot, on 3 July 2019.

Nine of its 11 recommendations are addressed to Network Rail. They cover “planning and supervision of maintenance staff, safety behaviours of staff, supervisors and managers, and the establishment of a group to provide vision, guidance and to challenge initiatives to improve track worker safety, improve safety reporting culture and improve assurance processes for assessing changes to working practices of front-line staff”.

Work to be done when no trains are running!!

Additionally, RAIB, together with Network Rail, rail regulator the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) and Department for Transport, is to “investigate ways to optimise the balance between the need to operate train services and enabling safe track access for routine maintenance tasks”.

This, I suggest, at least hints at a future review of train operating timetables and on-track work aimed at timetabling predictable work for times when no trains are running. “White Zone” working is a good name for it and post-COVID changes to working and commuting norms should make it easier to achieve.

RAIB’s final recommendation is not related directly to the Margam accident but was picked up during the investigation. It calls for research into the practicality of establishing train horns to sound automatically when a driver initiates an emergency brake application. In addition to being the right thing to do to provide the earliest possible warning, this must surely be relatively easy to achieve?