A noteworthy year for railway safety

11 August 2016

By Justin McCracken.

Justin McCrackenThere are two significant things happening on the railways.  More people than ever are using the networks – both mainline and metros - and overall the railways are safer than any time in history.

Both noteworthy achievements in their own right, but together they show something remarkable.

With more traffic on the railways, you might expect a natural increase in the number of safety ‘incidents’, but instead we are seeing a decrease in risk. Even more happily, for the first time ever and during a period of unprecedented renewal and maintenance of the network, no worker died on the railway last year.

So how has this has been achieved and more importantly, what needs to be done to keep the improvements happening?

Key to this progress has been a shared commitment by industry leaders, managers, workers, trade unions, governments and ORR. Together, we set an ambitious vision for safety and together we are delivering it.

Testament to the sense of shared ownership is the first industry wide health and safety strategy for the mainline railway. It has given common purpose to collaborative strategies where cross-industry action will deliver ever-improving management of health and safety risk.

Achievement like this also comes in no small part from avoiding complacency and identifying and addressing risks as they emerge and develop.

In ORR’s annual assessment of health and safety on the railways pdf icon PDF, 1,335 Kb published last month, we have said that despite the overall-good record, we cannot be complacent.

Specifically, we have flagged areas for improvement and where emerging risk needs to be tackled. Our assessment showed that safety rules and procedures were not always implemented consistently. For instance, the slow progress with the implementation of Business Critical Rules and the Planning and Delivery of Safe Work are evidence of wider issues in relation to consistent front line implementation of improvements.

The risk caused by earthworks failing, such as railway embankments collapsing, increased significantly during the last year. As well as being evidence of poor management of assets, if this happened at the wrong time and the wrong place it could lead to a disaster. As I write this, it is too early to comment on the early August bridge failure at Barrow Upon Soar in which thankfully no trains were involved but ORR will be investigating the cause diligently.

Also, in spite of a reduction in overall levels of harm to people on the railways, the number being hurt on stations is on the up. This points to the need to focus on risk control on stations as they become busier.

Three events of the past year bring into sharp focus why this shared industry commitment is still needed.

Two collisions, one at Bad Aibling in Germany and the other at Bari in Italy, saw thirty five people killed and many more injured. Incidents like this serve as a reminder of what is at stake and the potential scale when tragedy does strike on the railways.

The second was ORR’s successful prosecutions of those responsible for putting the lives of hundreds of people at risk when a signal was passed at danger at Wootton Bassett in 2015. Such a near miss, where two trains were only 90 seconds away from colliding at speed, reminds us why continued vigilance is required.

Britain’s railway now has the best safety record in Europe. I think we should congratulate all those whose hard work and dedication have made this happen. Our record this is something to be proud of.

Nevertheless, there is still plenty of scope for improvement and to keep this happening we all know that we must never rest on our laurels.