The death of two track workers hit by a train in South Wales last week came despite a series of warnings from the chief inspector of rail accidents Simon French that the rail industry was failing to tackle safety effectively.
Trades unions, contractors and industry regulators are now being asked to join Network Rail in a new safety task force, which it is funding to the tune of £70m, it promises.
Network Rail chief executive Andrew Haines said: “I don’t want to see another track-worker death, which is why we are today creating a new team backed by a hefty budget to drive change and make working on the railway safer for our people. I can’t think of a more important task.”
Martin Frobisher, Network Rail’s group safety, technical and engineering director, said: “We will make it safer to work on or near the railway than it is today. Everyone should expect to get home safe, every day, and while our track record has been good and improving, there are still too many close-calls and that will be addressed.”
The Office of Rail & Road (ORR), the railway’s safety regulator, has also signalled concern in this area by issuing the company with two improvement notices seeking get the company to do more to improve track worker safety.
Responding to the notices, Mr Frobisher said: “We have been working with the ORR and our trade unions for many months to help us make working on the railway safer. Like our regulator, we want to see speedier progress. The tragic deaths in Wales last week are a stark reminder to us all that more needs to be done. We will rise to that challenge as losing more of our railway family is not something we can tolerate.”
The task force, headed by Mr Frobisher, will accelerate its current ‘Near Miss Reduction Programme’ and will pull together various programmes designed to improve track-worker safety. These include:
- Safer trackside working programme – designing and developing new protection and warning systems using digital technology to warn workers of approaching trains
- Planning and delivering safe work programme – to improve the planning of track-side work, giving clarity of who’s in charge and ensuring good quality briefings are undertaken before work starts
- Sentinel improvements – Sentinel is a software platform that manages workers’ competencies enabling colleagues to know that people working are correctly trained and have up-to-date competencies. New apps and hand-held devices are being rolled out
- Fatigue improvement programme – better managing working time, travelling time and the impact of personal lifestyle on alertness and fitness for work
- Procuring for safety – to encourage and reward contractors for positive safety performance
- Medical standards project – targeting better health and fitness of our workforce
- Mental wellbeing and resilience project - to reduce stigma associated with mental health and provide the necessary tools and guidance to both line managers and employees allowing effective management of mental wellbeing at work
- Risk management – introducing better and more thorough work activity risk assessments so that risks and safety mitigations are better thought through and planned
- Safety hour programme – one hour a week will be set aside for health and safety meetings, providing a platform for all to address concerns as well as successes.
Network Rail says that track worker safety has improved in recent years, citing six fatalities in the past nine years, compared to 25 in the previous nine years. See chart below.
However, it offers no such chart for near-misses, which some believe need to be considered as equally significant.
In a recent report, chief inspector of rail accidents Simon French wrote: “The number and type of near misses in recent years is hugely disappointing given the efforts made to address track worker safety during that time. Every near miss, however caused, should be viewed as a failure of the system to deliver safety.
He said that Network Rail had introduced various safety initiatives over the past five years, but they had not always been well implemented. “One of these reintroduced the concept that there should be a ‘person in charge’,” Mr French wrote. “This was intended to make an identifiable and capable person responsible for all aspects of the planning and delivery of safe work, for each job. It is disappointing that our investigation found that the way in which this concept had been implemented lacked clarity, and the result of this was confusion on site. As well as this organisational issue, we found that staff were disorientated, and did not know which line was which. This could have been readily solved if they had had proper diagrams, and if clear signs had been provided at the point where they entered the railway. RAIB has raised this issue before – it’s time that the industry thought long and hard about the way it provides critical safety information to its staff and contractors. As I once discovered in my early career, it is all too easy to become disorientated on railway infrastructure, particularly at night.”
He concluded: “I am concerned that, despite much effort and many initiatives, we are not seeing the hoped-for improvements in safety for track workers.”
Network Rail will clearly be hoping that its latest initiative is more effective than previous ones.