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More questions than answers

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Colin Wheeler delivers the latest news in rail safety from the Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB).

We are told that at some time during this year there will be a general election. I expect both global warming and the future of our railways, including freight, passenger, and both light and heavy rail including metros and trams, to be on the political agenda. I also understand that the Great British Railways Transition Team (GRBRTT) “has consulted with industry leaders, customers and stakeholders.” The target is now set for rail freight “to grow by at least 75% by 2050”. Maggie Simpson, the director general of the Rail Freight Group has commented that investment will be required!

At the Rail Safety Summit on 12 March, at Holywell Park, Loughborough University, I hope to hear more, including how we can best reduce accidents and incidents involving freight trains. Is the rolling stock good enough? Is there room for improvement in operation, inspection, and maintenance? A reliable way of identifying every occurrence of a hot axle box and/or excessive wheel loading should be a precursor of further new rail freight wagon designs I suggest. Derailments resulting from wagon wheels stopping turning and then sliding, forming wheel flanges, and derailing, simply should not happen!

New chief inspector of Railways

In December last year it was announced by the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) that Richard Hines has been appointed as His Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Railways. The position was well publicised, and I understand that a number of candidates were considered.

Richard’s previous job was as the leader of the ORR’s non-mainline team of health and safety inspectors and overseeing compliance with regulations for the Channel Tunnel. He will be joining the ORR board. His predecessor, Ian Prosser, has been successful in the role, not least by initiating the issue of both improvement and prohibition notices, and successfully pursuing legal action when necessary. Richard was a delegate at the 2024 Rail Media Safety Summit, and will join us again in 2024.

Freight train derailment, London Gateway

Freight derailment at London Gateway. Credit: RAIB.

The reasons why this investigation took two years to reach publication may be understood by reading the RAIB report recommendations relating to the longitudinal dynamic behaviour of freight wagons. This derailment occurred at London Gateway in Essex on 24 December 2021, but the Rail Accident and Incident (RAIB) report 14/2024 was published just before Christmas 2024. Evidently the investigation was not straight forward!

On Christmas Eve 2021 at 05:45, five wagons in a 33-wagon intermodal train derailed as it was entering the London Gateway Terminal. As a result, access to the terminal was disrupted for 14 days. The first wagon to derail was an unloaded centre wagon of a triple wagon group. The three wagons were permanently coupled together. The side wagons were loaded, and the centre unloaded wagon derailed after a brake application.

Back in 2015 there were derailments involving an earlier type of triple wagon. After simulation studies, it was discovered that susceptibility to derailment was reduced by lengthening the bar coupler. However, the report says that the new version of triple wagon remains susceptible to derailment and the lack of centre wagon payload and “possibly in-service degradation of the bogie” increased the risk of derailment. The report states that: “risks associated with the longitudinal dynamic behaviour of long freight trains are not well understood.”

The report makes three recommendations. VTG Rail owners and developers of triple wagons are to “identify and implement necessary design changes and operating restrictions.” Also, GB Railfreight is to develop instructions and best practice guidance for operations staff. Finally, the Railway Safety and Standards Board (RSSB) is to, “raise the rail industry’s understanding of derailment risks associated with longitudinal compressive forces and the management strategies that need to be introduced.”

Isle of Wight collision, 22 November 2024

The RAIB is investigating this accident at Brading when there was a collision between a road/rail vehicle (RRV) and a track trolley. In the early hours of 22 November, the RRV collided with the hand trolley which was on the track between Smallbrook Junction and Brading on the Island Line. The line was under possession for maintenance work and two trackworkers sustained injuries requiring hospital treatment. No damage was done to either the RRV or the hand trolley.

HS1 accident, 16 November 2024

At around 04:38 on 16 November, a multi-purpose RRV collided with a stationary tamping machine near Strood on High Speed 1. The collision, at around 12mph, occurred as the machine was being prepared for coupling to a second multi-purpose RRV. An operator was positioned between the tamper and the second RRV preparing for them to be coupled.

As a result of the collision, the two stationary vehicles moved along the track. The operator was struck and sustained injuries needing hospital treatment. Three staff members on the vehicles were knocked over by the impact but were uninjured. There was also minor damage to the RRV which initially collided with the tamper. RAIB’s investigation is underway and will consider the actions of those involved, the management of staff including training and competence, method of operation when the collision occurred, and procedures for managing such operations and underlying management factors.

The initial paragraph of the Office of Rail and Road’s (ORR) January newsletter, issued on 3 January, draws attention to “two disruption events on the High Speed One link before and after Christmas”. The ORR is scheduled to undertake a “periodic review” of High Speed 1 this year.

Boxing Day fatality

At around 14:45 on 26 December, a passenger fell from the platform at Stratford Station on London Underground’s Jubilee line. The passenger was possibly struck by a number of trains before being discovered by London Underground station staff. The accident resulted in fatal injuries. RAIB’s investigation will consider: “the actions of those involved, management of staff in the accident (including their training and competence), arrangements to control risks in such accidents and any underlying factors.” 

Accident at Highdike Junction, Lincolnshire

This junction on the East Coast Mainline lies between Doncaster and Kings Cross. A train travelling to Kings Cross struck parts of a temporary road access point structure that had been left on the line near the junction on 19 December at 06:03. On the previous night this temporary access point had been used as part of an inspection of the overhead power lines. The train was not derailed and no one was injured, but damage was caused to the equipment under the train and, as a result, the train was unable to continue in service. RAIB has undertaken a preliminary examination and has decided to publish a Safety Digest in the next few weeks.

Nottingham Station near miss

This near miss involved the driver of a freight train and occurred on New Year’s Day at around 10:17. The freight train had been stopped so that the driver could examine his train. The driver used the adjacent line and walked back along the train. A passenger train approached at approximately 37mph. The driver of the passenger train saw that the driver of the freight train was in an unsafe position, braked and used the warning horn. This gave the freight train driver time to move off the line and avoid being struck. Following a preliminary examination, RAIB has decided to publish a Safety Digest.

Broughton Ferry tree collision. Credit: ASLEF.

Broughton Ferry tree collision

On 27 December last year, a passenger train collided with a tree which had fallen across the track from outside of the railway boundary. The 13:17 passenger train travelling between Balmossie and Broughton Ferry on the Perth to Aberdeen line was travelling at 84mph when the collision occurred. The driver made an emergency brake application before taking shelter behind the driver’s seat immediately before the impact. The driving cab was heavily damaged, but the driver received only minor injuries. On that day, Storm Gerrit had brought heavy rain and strong winds. The train was heavily damaged and was disabled. Its passengers were evacuated. RAIB’s investigation is underway.

All railways to contribute

Our railways need to step up and play their part in restricting global warming. This includes not only heavy rail, but also trams, metros, and the latest developments of very light rail systems. Commuter patterns have changed dramatically, with many employers supporting working from home.

The replacement of heavy goods road vehicles by less polluting freight trains is key, but needs the improvement of hot axle box detection, wheel impact loading, and more. Improving freight wagons with timetabled reliable services made affordable and flexible, not to mention automatic coupling systems are surely the way forward!