ORR’s Ian Prosser
STEFANIE FOSTER meets IAN PROSSER, HM Chief Inspector of Railways, whose determination to make the railway a safe environment for passengers, the public and staff has been recognised with a CBE and a leading industry award
HM Chief Inspector of Railways IAN PROSSER is determined to make the railway a safe environment for all.
There are plenty of railway personalities who attract the limelight, and deservedly so. But occasionally there is a dark horse whose achievements and commitment to the industry go under the radar.
In 2018, one such man’s efforts over the past decade were finally recognised. Ian Prosser CBE is HM Chief Inspector of Railways and Director of Railway Safety for the Office of Rail and Road, which must be one of the longest job titles on the railway. And as only the 25th holder of the title of Chief Inspector for Her Majesty’s Railway Inspectorate (in 178 years), he holds a historically important position.
He took up his role in 2008, after a career in the chemical industry, and he has been on a mission to transform safety on the railway ever since.
His success in doing so earned him the award of a CBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in July, and RAIL’s National Rail Award for Outstanding Personal Contribution (Senior Management) in September.
When RAIL caught up with him recently, Prosser was humble about his achievements. He confesses he has not always been sure whether he’s making a difference…
“When you’ve been in a role a long time, and you have your ups and downs in terms of what’s going on in the sector, sometimes you wonder if you’re making any progress or not,” he says.
“But if you keep at it, it shows the dividends of longevity and experience. Lots of people these days seem to be in jobs for short periods of time. But if you’re going to make a really big difference - and you’re going to move a super tanker, which is what I’ve been trying to do really - you need to be consistent. And that really helps if you have the same person at the top.”
Despite not having always been in the limelight, Prosser does have a strong voice in the industry and he is clear about his opinions on important issues. When he first took on the role of chief inspector, he set out a robust and unwavering vision that there should be zero workforce and industry-caused fatalities of passengers or the public. In 2016, that vision became a reality for the first time.
“I think some people thought a regulator couldn’t do that - thinking: ‘What’s a regulator doing setting visions and goals for his industry? Shouldn’t he just regulate?’”
Prosser explains that he sees regulation as partly being about providing assurance to the public and workforce that they are not going to get hurt. By setting a vision for companies in the industry to work towards, that reassurance to the public becomes easier to achieve.
“I think it’s very important that regulators add value by helping the industry to move in the right direction, and then using all the tools you have as a regulator to make that happen.
“For example, enforcement is important. I’ve encouraged my team to use enforcement in the right place at the right time - not aggressively, but when it’s needed, and consistently. They don’t all make the headlines, but while you can encourage engineering solutions and education, sometimes you also need to use enforcement.”
Prosser is keen to challenge the traditional view that regulators are not proactive, but reactive. He is a proactive regulator, looking for change on the railway where he identifies potential risks - before incidents happen, as opposed to simply regulating them afterwards.
He continues: “I’m a firm believer - and not all regulators are like this - that you are judged as a regulator on the performance of the sector. So I don’t think you can walk away. I talk to ordinary people in the pub and on the railway, including lots of passengers, and they do see their regulator as being someone who should be making sure that we protect the interests of the passengers, the public and the workforce, both now and in the longer term. If performance is bad, as it is at the moment in terms of punctuality, then you have to accept that you need to take some of the flak for that.”
Part of taking that flak is about visibility and understanding, so Prosser spends as much time as he can out on the railway. And his inspectors are required to do the same - he wasn’t happy with the idea that inspectors were spending large proportions of their time sitting at a desk, rather than in the environment they are supposed to be regulating.
“When I first joined, I set out to make us more proactive - to get us out and about more. I set a target of 50% inspector time on the ground, and I think that’s helped us in terms of getting us visibility - talking to people, being proactive, not just investigating the events afterwards.” Does he achieve that target? Prosser gives a resounding yes. He explains that this is one of the Office of Rail and Road’s (ORR’s) published key performance indicators, so it’s important that the public can hold them to account on it, because the ORR is accountable to Parliament and Parliament is elected by the public.
The May timetable debacle illustrated perfectly his feelings on this subject. Prosser and his inspectors made several trips to build a picture of what was going on, and they are still looking into some of the issues now. He believes it is important to understand what has changed, why people feel the way they do, and to have some empathy with them - despite the problems not directly being the fault of the ORR. Prosser volunteered to lead the ORR’s
Prior Role Review, which was published in September. The purpose of this review was to develop a full understanding of ORR’s involvement in (and regulatory oversight of) the development and implementation of projects and timetable processes leading
to the May timetable changes. The review was asked (if necessary) to make recommendations to the ORR board on how ORR can continuously improve its regulatory activities, on the basis of the analysis of the evidence.
Prosser explains: “Although it’s difficult, it’s very important - and the ORR Board realised this - to actually own up to what you could have done better and then have an action plan to learn from your mistakes. We do this in health and safety regulation all the time, and when there’s an incident that the RAIB [Rail Accident Investigation Branch] also investigates, they look at how ORR has performed. It’s something we’ve always done after a significant incident.
“It’s about trying to be open, honest, and looking for continuous improvement. You’re not going to make huge leaps overnight, but it’s about continuous improvement of what the industry does and what we do as a regulator as well. I made lots of recommendations in the
Prior Role Review, and I’m also doing it with my team now to make improvements to our investigation process.”
Linked to that are the priorities that Prosser has for the industry, which he actually wrote before the May timetable issues - despite their obvious relevance to them now. His main concern surrounds the pressure on the system as a result of the industry’s poor performance, and the knock-on effects such as more staff being needed on stations and drivers seeing more red signals. All of those elements can produce consequences elsewhere in the system that Prosser worries will have an impact on safety.
“We really have to get to the bottom of why performance has continued to deteriorate. Everyone talks about reactionary delays, but it’s a really important issue for the sector because it could start to have a negative impact on safety, which is a real concern for me.
“We’re getting new trains, new equipment, new working practices. So there is a lot of change management, and we’ve not been very good at some of this so far - as we saw in May. We have to up our game on change management and, if necessary, take longer to do things in a more measured way, so that we get it right. Let’s have plans that we can truly deliver and take our people along with us.”
This is a subject Prosser has spoken about before, in relation to the spate of strikes on the railway, and it links to his second priority for the industry - culture, including the health and wellbeing of rail staff. He has given a number of speeches in the industry lately, and in all of them he has tried to talk about using health programmes (both mental and physical) to get better engagement with staff.
“If people feel that you care about them, then they will be more engaged. And we need them to be engaged, because they are a vital link to our performance.
“In many ways, the frontline railway staff are holding the railway together, and we need to look after them. If we make changes, we need to make sure they understand why and are involved in the process. If necessary, take a bit more time so that it works properly.
“It is better to get something working really well when it starts, than have it finished on time and then it be a fiasco in terms of performance. That doesn’t help anyone. Get it right and people will understand that it might take longer. What they don’t understand is when you say there might be a few delays, and then there are loads - that’s when they get really frustrated and annoyed.”
Prosser believes that we don’t spend enough time as an industry thinking about what we should be doing - we don’t plan well enough at the beginning, and take action too fast.
It is this level of commitment to improving the railway that has made him so successful in changing safety culture and performance. And that led to this year’s personal achievements, with the award of a CBE in July followed by the National Rail Award for Outstanding Personal Contribution (Senior Management)
the job a year or so, but has already done two enforcements which are very strong pieces of work. She is a future potential chief inspector.”
Prosser’s team at ORR is developing into a very diverse set of individuals - 50% of all new recruits are women, meaning that 30% of the total workforce is now female. All the trainee inspector assistants who were recruited last year were women.
But it is Prosser’s description of the memories that stay with him, from his decade as chief inspector, that really highlight why his pursuit of safety on the railway remains so unrelenting.
On December 3 2005, Charlotte Thompson (13) and Olivia Bazlinton (14) were hit by a train at a level crossing in Elsenham (Essex). Network Rail was fined £1 million and ordered to pay costs of £ 60,015, following prosecution for breaches of health and safety law which led to the two deaths.
Says Prosser: “One of my lasting memories that will stay with me forever was in the courtroom when we prosecuted Network Rail for Elsenham, which was a case I reopened, causing a lot of stir at the time because it had been closed. The two mums were sitting there with a teddy bear each from their two daughters when they were younger. Daughters they’d now lost. That really brings it home to you, what the human aspect of what we do is all about. I still think about that very very often, and that will never leave me.” they were talking about him!
“I didn’t think this was the sort of award that would be given to a regulator. That was quite touching actually, to be recognised by what is an impressive set of judges. I felt quite emotional about it really.”
The NRA’s Outstanding Personal Contribution award for Senior Management is unique in the way it is nominated at the ‘Railway Oscars’. Judges personally nominate individuals, and a secret ballot of all judges then takes place to choose the winner. Prosser was this year’s stand-out choice.
“I was very moved. But as I move beyond my ten years, those priorities I’ve talked about are very important. We have to remain vigilant, keep our eyes on the ball, and move onwards.”
Prosser is also proud of the way he is strengthening the skills of his team for the long term.
“We now have a structure in place that enables somebody coming in as an 18-year-old administrator to professionally develop into doing my job. And what’s really nice is that we have people going through those steps at different paces, many of whom started on the bottom rung.
“For example, I have a young woman working for me who joined us in Birmingham not long after I started. She is now a trainee inspector who is going great guns! She recently passed her exams first time round, which is quite unusual. She has only been in in September.
So, how did he feel when he found out he was going to receive a CBE?
“Quite a few public servants might get an MBE after doing ten years in a role, but when I saw it was a CBE I was overwhelmed, and actually cried. But you can’t tell anyone straightaway, because you have to reply and say you’re going to accept it, so it was several weeks before it was announced.
“After it was announced, what was then very overwhelming was the number of good wishes I received. I have a stack of nice letters from across the industry and from my old colleagues. I guess I didn’t think that I was so well thought-of.
“It was really good for my team, too, because without them I wouldn’t have achieved it. So they are very proud, because they are also proud to be part of the HMRI [Her Majesty’s Railway Inspectorate], and we still call ourselves that really! Because we have a long history - the HMRI has been around for 178 years now.”
Just two months after his CBE was announced, Prosser sat in the Great Room at London’s Grosvenor House Hotel on September 13, listening to BBC presenter Steph McGovern and RAIL Managing Editor Nigel Harris speak to an audience of 1,100 guests about the chief inspector’s significant achievements over the past decade.
Prosser says it took him a while to realise
An emotional night for Ian Prosser CBE, HM Chief Inspector of Railways and Director of Railway Safety at the ORR, as he collects RAIL’s National Rail Award for Outstanding Personal Contribution (Senior Management) on September 13. He stands with BBC presenter and NRA host Steph McGovern and RAIL Managing Editor and Events Director Nigel Harris.
Source: Annual Health and Safety Report of Performance on Britain’s railways: 201718, July 17 2018, ORR.