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Saturday, June 15, 2024

The Office of Rail Regulation: Role and responsibilities

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Continuing our series looking at people and organisations in the rail industry, RailStaff asks the question: What do they do?

Nigel Wordsworth looks at The Office of Rail Regulation.

The Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) is situated just off London’s Drury Lane.

The ORR “is the independent safety and economic regulator for Britain’s railways”. In fact, that statement neatly lays out the ORR’s two main roles – making sure that the railway is safe, and is run as economically and efficiently as possible.

Safety first

The ORR’s primary function is as the enforcer of the Health and Safety at Work Act and other regulations and legislation. The last issue of RailStaff looked at the work of the RSSB – the Rail Safety and Standards Board.  That report stated: “RSSB manages the Railway Group Standards process on behalf of the industry, but they do not enforce them. That is the role of the regulator – the Office of Rail Regulation.”

So the ORR hits the headlines when taking action.  Recent press articles include: “Shropshire train operator fined £5,000 for incident which led to staff injury”, “Southeastern fined £65,000 after train in Sussex ran ‘out of control’” and “Network Rail fined £356,250 for Wiltshire level crossing fatality”.  This is the public face of the ORR, taking legal action against operators and infrastructure companies that breach safety law.

However, there is a preventative role too.  Her Majesty’s Railway Inspectorate was founded in 1840 to oversee safety on Britain’s railways and tramways. In 1990 it became part of the Health and Safety Executive, and was merged with the ORR in 2006.

Railway inspectors make sure that work on the railways complies with safety legislation. They can close a site down and suspend work if they feel that workers or the public are at risk. This may not necessarily be anything to do with railway safety, but can be normal site safety. For example, during a recent bridge replacement, when heavy rain increased both the volume and speed of the water in the river, inspectors suspended work until boats and divers could be mobilised to recover any worker who happened to fall in.

More than enforcement

Richard Price has been the chief executive of the ORR since June 2011.  He was at pains to point out there is more to the ORR than just enforcement. “In fact, enforcement is our last resort,” he stated. “We look to the industry to manage its risks. Good safety is driven by good management so we encourage the industry to apply best practice at all times.”

If site accidents do happen, it could be down to the ORR to investigate.  However, if it is an accident involving a train, then that function is undertaken by the Rail Accident Investigation Branch, which is not part of the ORR but works directly for the Department for Transport.

To support the work of the inspectors, and provide guidance to the industry, the ORR publishes a range of Railway Safety Publications (RSPs). Titles include “Level crossings: A guide for managers, designers and operators”, “Guidance on minor railways” and “Developing and maintaining staff competence”. Compliance with this guidance is not mandatory, although inspectors may use it to distinguish good practice from bad.

After a major incident, the ORR may publish a research report which reviews the findings of the investigation and the lessons that can be learned from it.  For example, a series of nine reports was published after the Hatfield crash of 2000, looking at the problem of rolling contact fatigue and the growth of cracks in rails.

Economically and efficiently

The second role of the ORR is that of economic regulator.  That means it has to regulate Network Rail’s stewardship of the national rail network and licence both the train operators and those who access and operate track, stations, and light maintenance depots.

The ORR is the competition authority and one of its duties is to encourage competition while at the same time discouraging unfair competition. In addition, the ORR has powers to enforce some consumer law.

Network Rail takes up a large portion of this activity. Periodic reviews are undertaken, comparing what funders and customers want from Network Rail with what is being provided. In the HLOS (High Level Output Statement), the government sets out its goals for a five year period, while the SOFA, or statement of funds available, sets out the level of funding set aside to deliver those goals. The ORR monitors how Network Rail performs against those targets, and takes action if it thinks it necessary.

One of the targets that has been in the news recently is that of ensuring that 92% of all long distance trains arrive on time, or at least within ten minutes of the published timetable. This has to be achieved by 2014, and currently the figure is 89.2%.

The ORR has made its concern known for some time that progress in this area has been too slow, and has recently signalled its intention to impose financial penalties on Network Rail if it fails to deliver. Richard Price explained: “We are proposing a penalty which puts pressure on Network Rail to achieve its funded target – an incentive for the company to do everything it can to deliver improvements for passengers including reducing the number of long delays that impact so badly on rail users.”

Train operators come under scrutiny too. Some delays are down to them, and they control other factors that affect the passenger experience. “We want passengers to feel safe and confident in using the railways,” Price explained. “It is really important that both Network Rail and train operators understand this. Appearance and design are important – for train interiors and stations – and they have a significant impact on the way people think about using the rail network. Efficiency is not just about cutting costs, but responding to the needs of customers.”

So while the ORR is the big enforcer in the rail industry, its role is much wider than that.  It is concerned about safety, and safe working practices. Customer satisfaction, punctuality and the look of the railway environment are also in its remit, as is control of costs and the results achieved from all the spending. Governed by a board appointed by the Secretary of State for Transport, it is a truly independent regulator.


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