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Saturday, June 15, 2024

A new safety policy statement from Network Rail’s Chief Executive

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Written by Colin Wheeler for RailStaff

On visiting Network Rail’s Safety Central website I was delighted to find a new, simple, intelligible but focused and relevant Safety Policy Statement.

I would encourage everyone who works in the industry to look at Chief Executive David Higgins short video presenting it and the accompanying PDF, which deserves to be pinned on notice boards throughout the industry.

I am particularly pleased by the video since it is evidence of David Higgins personal commitment, confirmed by the sincere and forthright nature of his spoken words.

Statements like “I don’t believe in having a blame culture in Network Rail” will need to be taken on Board by all his staff as well as contractors and suppliers!

The references to the importance of reporting and sharing our safety experiences and stopping work when things become unsafe are all welcome messages, especially since they come directly from the Chief Executive.

Abandoning the Rule Book

Last month I suggested that the time has come for us to abandon the Rule Book as a document relevant to those who actually do work on the railway. It should be replaced by relevant edited down versions of handbooks as memory aids for those on track.

I was pleased to be told after publication that the Rail Safety and Standards Board have conducted a survey of the current users of Handbooks 1-5 and Module G1 of the Rule Book. I hope to be able to share details of their findings with you next month.

I will reserve judgement until I have seen the results, but I do not expect my conviction that we need to simplify and reduce the amount of paperwork to be successfully challenged.

Regular Team Working

Having personal experience of managing up to two and a half thousand railway people I think I have some idea of how to provide a climate where they want to and will do their best for the railway. Whether they work for Network Rail, London Underground or a private company should not matter. They need to know precisely what is to be done and why.

A team or group which regularly works together is better equipped to work well, productively and safely than one in which the members do not know each other.

If you know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and are committed to doing a good job and finishing on time you naturally help each other out. You are also more likely to look out for each other when unexpected hazards arise.

Paperwork and Planning

The implications of this are that teams need to be encouraged by clear comments like those made by David Higgins in his video etc. It shows him on track, roof works and elsewhere.

I hope it will be shown to railway employees everywhere as a part of their monthly safety meetings and then discussed. Employers throughout our industry know that particular skills are required for rail work.

Continuity of regular employment needs to be maximised for safety, quality and productivity reasons. For too long we have suffered from the consequences of multi-sponsored individuals who rarely work in the same teams for any two consecutive shifts.

Many current contract arrangements encourage this and I believe that safety, productivity, quality of work and overall costs suffer as a result. A lot of effort goes into planning.

Too much of it is focussed on the paperwork, and why is it that the result each and every week is last minute changes?

All too often the work or even the site details are altered during the week before the possession and sometimes even on the Friday or Saturday before the first weekend shift. We all know costs have to be reduced but we haven’t yet begun to do so in the right way.

Keeping teams together

Sadly procurement organisations still believe in forcing down unit rates. I was not surprised recently when a Network Rail project manager was strenuously critical of a national contract award which resulted in the work being lost to the team of his own people and contractors who had worked together for many months.

The new contract team members he said were “merely a pound or two cheaper per hour” but were less skilled, less reliable at turning up and poorly motivated. This was resulting in possession over runs which were costing his employer far more that the savings from the new contractual arrangements.

Is now the time for Network Rail’s devolved management to take charge and control procurement to meet their own needs?

National Skills Academy for Railway Engineering (NSARE)

I applaud the principles behind this relatively recent initiative. Increasing skill levels should benefit everyone in the industry. The image of the industry and hence its attractiveness to talented people is being enhanced by the formation and early work of the NSARE.

The launching as recently as June this year of the “Apprenticeship to Fellowship Scheme” and “Railway Engineering Skills Passports” should be welcomed by us all. The provision of a regulating body for rail engineering training covering the needs of those who are school leavers, craftsmen seeking to convert to railway skills and graduates is sound.

However, training costs money and investing in people has to be a viable proposition. Contracts which do not guarantee levels of work using particular skills in specified areas are not going to attract employers into training investment.

Equally, the use of self-employed itinerant workers, often multi-sponsored by large numbers of organisations who have no regular work for them, does not line up with company investment in training. Do we need a levy system like that used in the building industry?

My conclusion is that we will all be better served, increase our productivity, be safer and better motivate good people by awarding long term performance delivery based contracts. Substantial investment in skill training will then make economic sense. Cost per hour per person may be easier for procurement people to understand, but there is more to it than that.

Train runs away near Shap

The recently published Rail Accident Investigation Branch report into an “uncontrolled freight train runback between Shap and Tebay” makes for interesting reading. The train was northbound climbing between Tebay and Shap Summit

The train gradually slowed until at 0204 hours in the early morning of August 17th last year it came to a halt and began to run back towards Tebay.

It gathered speed up to 51 mph before the driver realised what was happening and applied the brakes bringing his train to halt at 0209. It had run back a total distance of 2.2 miles and was by this time merely seconds away from being derailed into Tebay sidings.

The driver had reported for his night shift at 1834 and then travelled to Warrington Bank Quay on a passenger train before taking over the freight train at 0043.

During the run back he had cancelled repeated vigilance device warnings. His shift was timed to end at 0543. He is an experienced driver with a good record having driven since 1976 without any reported incidents prior to this one.

Fatigue and “cat napping”

Perhaps significantly the shift on 16th/17th August was his first night shift in a booked series. The latter half of the report features graphs and charts, which illustrate well the reasons behind our current fatigue guidelines.

However the references to “industry guidance in shift planning” and “the use of a recommended mathematical model” to me merely indicate devices to be used by those greedy lawyers whenever they get the chance.

We can refine these and test them as often as we like, but delegating responsibility and accountability to the local manager and supervisor is much more important. For almost 20 years I was regularly “On Call”.

During that time I dealt with many emergencies including derailments, fatalities and even passenger train derailment. I was able to sleep almost at will and on many occasions used a driver so that I could “cat nap” whilst travelling between scheduled appointments after being called out.

Not everyone can do so. Interestingly the driver of the Tebay via Shap freight train said in evidence that he had tried to sleep without success during the day before his first night shift turn. I was pleased but not surprised to find a reference to the potential effectiveness of “cat napping”.

Pedestrian fatality at Piccadilly Gardens

At sixteen minutes past midnight on June 5th this year a Metronet tram was running into Piccadilly Gardens in central Manchester from Market Street at a speed of around 9 mph. A pedestrian ran across its path and fell in front of the approaching tram.

Despite rapid braking the tram came to rest with the pedestrian trapped beneath it. He died of his injuries some time later in hospital. Manchester Metrolink trams are equipped with a device designed to prevent pedestrians being run over by the wheels of the tram if they are hit.

The device is described as an under-run protector, but in this sad case the pedestrian ended up trapped by the protector itself. Clearly designs need to include provision of all reasonable safety devices and risk assessments are used to justify the consequent cost implications.

When the RAIB report on this one comes out I will be interested to read what is recommended. Will this sad accident result in changes to protector designs? Just how far is it reasonable to go to protect anyone who falls into the path of an oncoming tram?

Our industry looks set to open up after next year’s Olympics, by which time we all hope the current recession will be over.

Crossrail and High Speed 2 will need the services of many skilled railway engineers.

Alongside these mammoth projects there will still be work to be done on London Underground and Network Rail’s infrastructure, as well as city tram and metro systems etc.

The future is bright, but working safely, effectively and skilfully is essential if we are to earn and retain the backing of the politicians and the British public.


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