HomeHSEQOur railways and trams need more focused organisation

Our railways and trams need more focused organisation

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Colin Wheeler

Political turmoil, the UK economy, and Covid have all affected the way we live and work. Hopefully we are at last moving forward to a better future with inflation coming under control and an increasing momentum in reducing our reliance on fossil fuels.

The headquarters of Great British Railways (GBR) will be based in in Derby, it was announced in March, but how can we best develop the Office of Rail and Road (ORR), Railway Safety and Standards Board (RSSB), Light Rail Safety and Standards Board (LRSSB) and other organisations? His Majesty’s Railway Inspectorate (HMRI) and indeed the ORR within which it is accommodated, needs to be strengthened at local level with inspectors working to address local risks.
Face-to-face contact with those at work is critical. Work patterns have changed and the effect on commuting should result in lower peaks and better services. For environmental reasons, rail industries need to carry considerably more freight, hauled by electric powered locomotives replacing diesel powered heavy goods road vehicles.

Who should be prosecuted?

The ORR has a successful track record in bringing prosecutions against organisations following accidents. Two aspects of these concern me. The delay between the accident occurring and a prosecution is too long and, where evidence supports such action, individual company directors, senior managers, managers, team leaders, supervisors and, where culpable, individual staff members should be prosecuted. Whilst the payment of large fines by an organisation may harm a balance sheet, I am not convinced that guilty individuals are always personally pursued as they should be. The current processes around accidents, incidents, near misses etc and the use of both improvement notices and legal prosecutions would benefit from a review and simplification.

Test before Touch

On Christmas Day 2019, self-employed senior linesman Allister Hunt was undertaking “snagging work” to the overhead line equipment near Kensal Green some 2.5 miles from Paddington Station. The team he was with were unaware that they were working outside the limits of the electrical isolation. Allister Hunt touched the 25kV contact wire and received 55% burns. He needed skin grafts and both his eyesight and hearing were affected. The investigation by ORR established that Amey Rail did not have adequate systems in place to ensure the safety of those working on electrified lines or to supervise the safety of the works. Amey Rail also failed to ensure that Test before Touch was properly carried out. The ORR brought the prosecution. Amey Rail pleaded guilty and was fined £533,000 in early April 2023.

Bromsgrove train driver sentenced

A train driver working for DB Cargo Ltd has been found guilty of breaching Section 7a of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 and sentenced to eight months imprisonment, suspended for 18 months, following a prosecution brought by the ORR. The driver’s sentence was suspended for eighteen months following ORR’s prosecution.

Whilst driving, the driver was sending and receiving messages on his phone. His distraction resulted in a failure to control his train whilst he looked at a picture message. His train speed was uncontrolled, and he ran into buffer stops, derailed, and partially obstructed the adjacent main line at the station. A passing Cross Country passenger train struck the derailed locomotive. The driver of the Cross Country train was covered in glass and his door was torn open.
In Court, the judge commented that if the locomotive had derailed a little further over, there would have been a head on collision, and he would have been killed.

Improvement Notices

London Underground complied by 21 February this year with an Improvement Notice served on it on 22 December 22 last year. It was issued by the ORR because:

“They failed to ensure as far as is reasonably practicable, the safety of their employees and persons not in their employment who may be affected thereby on the Metropolitan Line MD2 Rickmansworth to Amersham track patrol by failing to provide a system of work that is, so far as is reasonably practical, safe.”

This was issued in response to an accident that occurred on the Metropolitan line near Chalfont and Latimer Station on 15 April 2022.

First Great Western was also issued with an Improvement Notice on 22 December 2022 requiring compliance by 30 June this year. The Notice states that it had failed to take suitable and sufficient measures to prevent, so far as is reasonably practicable, persons falling a distance liable to cause injury when train drivers are accessing and egressing train cabs over the open side of inspection pits in the Main Shed.

Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM) was issued with two Improvement Notices on 22 December last year requiring compliance by 31 December 2024.

One requires them to: “implement effective measures to prevent trams derailing and/or overturning due to driver inattentiveness, so far as is reasonably practicable.”

The second notice requires TfGM to: “implement effective measures to prevent trams derailing and/or overturning due to overspeed at high-risk locations including tight curves, so far as is reasonably practicable.”

There have been a worrying number of Manchester tram derailments which have doubtless increased the focus on Manchester’s tram system.

Near miss at Farnborough North foot crossing

RAIB Report 04/2023, which was issued on 24 April, must result in a more widespread re-evaluation of the safety of level crossings used by the public.

On the morning of 19 May 2022, no fewer than 144 people were waiting on the East side of the railway before using the footpath level crossing at Farnborough level crossing. The pedestrian gates on both sides of the station were locked until a train had departed. Crossing users who had arrived by train were regular users and were mostly young people. They had to wait before crossing the railway and continuing their journeys to school or college. The station has neither a footbridge or subway.

When the train had departed, the crossing’s miniature lights changed from red to green and the audible warning stopped; indicating that it was safe to cross. The Crossing Attendant in a cabin on the East side, turned a switch remotely unlocking the pedestrian gates at both ends of the crossing. Those waiting in the queue started to cross with each person holding the gate open for the person following them.

About half of the group had crossed when the miniature lights turned back from green to red and audible warnings also started again. The Attendant turned the switch to re-lock the gate. But users continued to pass through the gate until the attendant “directly intervened to close it”. The driver of a train approaching round a bend saw people on the crossing, applied the emergency brake and sounded the train horn. The crossing was clear when the train passed over it.

Network Rail regularly inspects and risk assesses level crossings. Farnborough North is rated as “high risk” due to its recorded number of safety incidents. The miniature warning lights were installed in 2013 and were later supplemented by the provision of a crossing attendant and lockable gates. Network Rail is quoted as stating that these were “to manage the risks until they could permanently close the crossing and replace it with a footbridge.”

The RAIB report makes two recommendations. One requires improvements in risk assessments for footpath level crossings where there is a history of safety incidents. The other relates to the need to provide formalised competency requirements for crossing attendants. Most telling of all is the learning point made in the report which stresses the importance of “managerial continuity”.

Track worker struck by a train whilst working

RAIB issued report 05/2023 in May this year, following its investigation of a track worker being struck by a train near Chalfont and Latimer Station back on 15 April 2022. Four recommendations are made in the report. The first calls for the assessment and control of risks arising from working on the line during traffic hours. The second orders a review of the need to work in traffic hours with the aim of reducing this practice. The third calls for improvement of safety assurance processes and safety reporting, and the last recommendation orders London Underground to ensure all places of safety are fit for purpose. The report also notes with concern that between 2005 and 2022 there were a mere 10 reports of track worker near misses submitted by London Underground.

Tellingly, but unusual, are the RAIB’s comments based on their interviews with track staff. Writing about the relationships between LUL track workers and agency staff RAIB comments that these “are often perceived as unequal and hierarchical with the contract staff feeling they are not treated as well as the permanent staff.” Also “some agency staff feel that they cannot question or challenge LUL staff because this could affect the likelihood of further work with a particular group of people or at a particular depot.” To my mind anything which detracts from individuals working together safely doing the best job they can is wrong and demonstrates shortcomings in management.

Train crashed into delivery van

On 22 March, RAIB published a news story describing a collision between a train and a delivery van. The accident happened at Home Farm Level Crossing near Alsager in Cheshire at 13:00 hours on Saturday 11 February. The train driver saw the van only three or four seconds before reaching the crossing. The train horn was used and brakes were applied but the train was still travelling at 30mph when it collided with the van.

No call was made to the signaller for permission to cross despite this method of use being described on the signs at the crossing. RAIB is not conducting a full investigation but it has written to the delivery company to ask them to brief their drivers about the correct use of crossings.

Class 175 train fires in Wales

On March 17, the ORR issued an Improvement Notice to Transport for Wales Rail Ltd. The compliance date it calls for is 14 September this year. The Notice states that: “three fires occurred between February and March on board Class 175 trains whilst they were in passenger service”.

The Notice also states that: “the operator has failed to implement effective arrangements for the organisation, control, and monitoring of the maintenance of the Class 175 fleet to ensure the safe operation of the transport system”. Hopefully compliance will be achieved quickly and well before the specified September date.

Critical work

I applaud the RAIB for the work it does. Describing the accident on London Underground near Chalfont and Latimer Station, Chief Inspector Andrew Hall said:

“It cannot be acceptable that any member of staff be working on open lines with insufficient awareness of the direction a train might approach from. Reductions in the amount of work undertaken on lines open to traffic will lessen the risk to track workers; this is as true on London Underground as it is on mainline railways. Some risks will remain. That is why the universal importance of good planning, clear safety procedures, effective leadership, site discipline and fulsome briefings cannot be overstated.”

I agree wholeheartedly.

Image credit: istockphoto.com / RAIB