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2022 a year like no other

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Colin Wheeler takes a look back at accidents and incidents through 2022 and gives us his recommendations for improving safety in 2023 and beyond.

I expect to heave a huge sigh of relief when 2022 comes to an end. This year has been marked by events that should not have taken place.

Looking back, I recall the accident at Toton Depot where wagons were left unsecured in sidings and ran away. I remember a near miss on a user worked crossing in Anglia which resulted in a Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB) Safety Digest focussing on the Thetford signalling workstation and which commented “there were no formal criteria for making a decision to grant permission to cross.” In another incident in Anglia, a mobility scooter was struck by a train on a crossing when there was insufficient time for its user to cross. Fortunately, there were no injuries. Thankfully there were no injuries either when a large tractor and trailer were demolished by a train on a user worked farm crossing.

Caught and dragged

“Caught and dragged” incidents have been a recurrent feature of 2022. For instance, a passenger was dragged for 20 metres at Wood Street Station in northeast London, having a hand trapped in a door. There have been more such incidents at Seven Sisters, Wembley Central, and Crouch Hill. A similar incident at Shudhill tram stop on the Manchester Trams system is another but, I believe, there are many more.

Near misses

In the March/April edition of Railstaff, the derailment of a freight train at London Gateway was discussed together with “a frightening near miss when a chopped down tree fell into the cess at Uphill Junction near Weston super Mare.” Another near miss occurred at Sharnbrook in the West Midlands when a Lookout Warning System (LOWS) controller erroneously cancelled a warning.

Tragedy at Carmont

The publication of the report into the Carmont Stonehaven accident which resulted in three fatalities added the involvement of the Office for Rail and Road (ORR), as well as RAIB and the Aberdeen based Procurator Fiscal. The cause was established as the failure of a new drain that had not been built in accordance with the design and specification of the works. The changed design was not identified as wrong and inadequate by either the contractor or Network Rail. The investigations discovered that seven years had elapsed without the drain being inspected. The RAIB report included recommended actions and queried the competency training given to operating staff. There are no fewer than 20 recommendations in that report, most of which are more widely applicable.

Injuries and larger fines

By the middle of the year, the reports of permanent injuries and large fines led me to question just how management and organisations, as well as individuals were getting it wrong. These included “life changing and catastrophic injuries to a worker crushed between machines”, resulting in a fine of £1.4 million. The burning out of a DC substation was expected but should not have occurred; replacement of the substation was planned work which had been delayed more than once. Also significant, and I know there were others, there was the injury caused by an unsupported trench collapse at Stoke on Trent that resulted in ORR instituted prosecutions.

A timely reminder of the mantra “test before you touch” when using mobile elevated work platforms (MEWPS) to access the overhead line was provided following a wrong assumption that an isolation had been taken. Fortunately, there were no injuries. In the early days of the Health and Safety at Work Act I remember that individuals, as well as (or sometimes instead of) their employing organisations were prosecuted. Latterly, the focus seems to have shifted on to the employer.

An end to “red zone” working at last?

The RAIB report of the fatal accident at Surbiton, where the Controller of Site Safety (COSS) leading a track inspection was struck by a train and killed, revealed that carrying out the work under lookout protection “had not been challenged”. This led to the well overdue decision by Network Rail to “eliminate unassisted lookout working”. This is a long-awaited decision, which hopefully will be vigorously pursued by all who work on railways.

Also published in the July/August edition of Railstaff was an article referring to the rise in drug and alcohol testing failures. Over three periods, each I assume of four weeks, 16 individuals were found to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol and should not have been at work. Apart from the direct action taken, I suggest random unannounced testing may need to increase.

Other accidents this year included a footpath level crossing fatality which was a reminder of the large number of such crossings that rely on users remembering to obey the displayed instruction boards. At Farnborough North, emergency braking was needed to avoid a collision.

The competency of a train driver was also questioned when, at Doncaster, one freight train crashed into the rear of another stationary train derailing a wagon. Also reported was a near miss between an empty passenger train and a rail grinding/profiling train.

Times are changing

During my working life with British Rail as a civil engineer I worked in Leeds, York, Newcastle, and Manchester and even in London at various times. Each city had congestion during the morning and evening rush hours. Buses, cars, bicycles, local trains, metros and trams were used; and those who could do so often avoided the busiest times.

The Covid Pandemic has radically altered many people’s daily patterns, with flexible and remote working now becoming the norm. The expansion and funding of Metro, tram, underground railways, and suburban train services is therefore not likely to go back to how it was before the pandemic.

Surely with changing commuter patterns and more flexible working days, options for more regular working shifts for drivers should soon be possible, and bring a reduction in risk?

Arguably there has rarely been a more opportune time than now for a step change improvement to all services, light and heavy, freight and passenger.  A positive outcome of the pandemic could be that it opens many opportunities which benefit us all.

Ultimately, for management and organisations to work safely on our railways, metros and tramways we need management who earn and retain the respect of their staff. You can call it “real management” which relies on individuals wanting to do a good job. It also needs, to use a phrase preferred by academia, a high degree of expertise and understanding of ‘Human Factors’.

Priorities for 2023 and beyond

Sitting down and discussing face to face with those who make the railways and trams work, and how best to be both more efficient and safer for rail staff and the public, needs to be a shared priority.

Some questions that need answering include:

How can we best take advantage of a reduction in commuting at peak times and use it to increase safe scheduled daytime track working?

How can we speed up implementation of RAIB and ORR inquiries and reports?

How can we speed up the spread of energy-saving city tram and metro systems?

How can we switch the majority of heavy freight traffic from road to rail?

How can cooperation and communication between management and those doing the work be improved, so that work is always done using the best work plans with staff wanting to follow them to the letter?

Here’s looking to a safer 2023.