Our safest-ever railway
Director of Railway Safety and Chief Inspector of Railways IAN PROSSER tells STEFANIE BROWNE what sets the UK apart in safety terms and how our impeccable record is no reason to stop looking for improvement
It’s very fitting that this is the first year we haven’t had a workforce fatality in the whole sector. That’s been a long time coming - too long - but at least we’ve now got to this point.
It’s the safest form of land transport, far outstripping the record of anything roads can offer. And over the years, that gap is widening further and further. But it’s more than that. The railway here is the safest in Europe and is among the upper echelons of worldwide systems, too.
In July, the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) released its Annual Health and Safety Report showing the level of progress the industry has made on improving its safety performance ( RAIL 806).
“It is a credit to the women and men in the industry that we’ve got to where we’ve got to, particularly those on the front line,” Ian Prosser, Director of Railway Safety and Chief Inspector of Railways for the ORR, tells RAIL.
Prosser has just spent the last hour meeting the new Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Paul Maynard, and is heading off for a HS2 Health and Safety Committee board meeting after this.
“Consequently, it’s very fitting that this is the first year we haven’t had a workforce fatality in the whole sector. That has been a long time coming - too long - but at least we’ve now got to this point. We also saw a reduction in the number of major injuries, which means it’s not just a statistical thing (see graphs).”
Zero workforce fatalities was not the only achievement in this area either. While it is still tragic that anyone died on the railway, none of the fatalities that took place at level crossings last year were down to the industry being at fault.
However, Prosser is keen to point out that this is not to say we should not keep moving forward. While he’s clearly proud of the industry’s achievement, there is a caveat: “The performance in 2015 shows that we have continued to improve, but it’s very important that we do not become complacent, because the things we see through our management maturity model (see panel, page 46) show us there is still quite a lot of scope before the sector gets to excellence.”
For all the positive improvements made last year, there were still events such as the nearmiss when steam locomotive 34067 Tangmere passed a signal at danger near Wootton Bassett in March 2015 and narrowly avoided collision with a First Great Western HST. The increasingly frequent landslips and cutting slips that we’re seeing during bad weather are also a cause for concern.
Says Prosser: “So, although we saw overall harm reducing by 4%, passenger harm actually went up by 7% when normalised, so we still have things to do. Although there weren’t any industry-caused fatalities, the same challenges also exist on London Underground about managing the growing number of people at stations and particularly some of the behavioural changes that we’re seeing, like people with mobile devices not looking where they’re going, for example.”
This changing risk on the railway is what led Prosser to the four main challenges that he believes the industry is facing (see panel). Because, while significant leaps have been made in the safety arena, the railway is changing. Passenger numbers have increased 129.8% since privatisation and are still rising, we’re building new railways and upgrading infrastructure. All of which bring with them new safety challenges.
It all means that maintaining and renewing infrastructure must remain high on the agenda, but that can be difficult when times are tight financially.
Says Prosser: “This comes back to the issues around some of the structures and earthworks. I was very pleased to hear that this area is very important to the new Rail Minister. It is a critical factor, because it has a huge impact not just on safety but also reliability and performance for the passenger. And I think the passenger wants to see reliability above, say, improving a few minutes of journey time. That’s why maintaining and renewing a safe and sustainable infrastructure is so important.”
It’s all well and good placing emphasis on safety and ensuring that key areas such as renewals continue, but does that always achieve results on the ground?
“From a cultural point of view, there are two really key things. One is making it happen where it matters most - making the connections between the boardroom and the front line to ensure that you see the strategic intent actually delivered on the front line. That’s about safety culture within organisations. And I think a really important aspect of this is making people feel that they’re cared for.
“It’s about engaging with the workforce. It’s the people on construction sites, or close to the track, or driving vehicles, who are most