While the past 20 years have seen a transformation in how rail depots operate, safety has remained paramount, Ed Hodson, Chair of the IOSH Railway Group explains why

To many, steam was the golden age of railways. The technology was new, big and bold and the heritage sector has done much to keep the magic of the early railways alive and real for future generations. While some steam operators still work out of original depots, some can boast the same state-of-the-art maintenance facilities enjoyed by the recently constructed purpose-built depots. Crewe Depot, which has brought in new carriage sheds along with the total refurbishment of existing facilities, has taken steam depots into the 21st Century (certainly out of the steam age). Whatever the age of a depot, safety will still be managed to the same standards.

Location, location, location

Modern, purpose-built rail depots with automated systems reflect the needs and technology of the 21st century. Historically, depots were built to meet the needs of different industries and travel patterns. The primary industries of the 19th and early 20th Centuries were coal, steel and shipping and railways were used to transport a wide range of goods which now go by road.

Changes in industry and their associated environmental challenges resulted in the mothballing, degradation and eventual demolition of many of the older depots, with mobile working and smaller depot structures replacing them. New depots are located closer to distribution centres, while new passenger rolling stock and facilities have been introduced to take advantage of improved access to the mainline railway.

Safety first

Britain’s reputation for having the safest railways in Europe extends beyond mainline train movements. Developments in technology, engineering, training and, of course, safety awareness have drastically improved the safety of depot staff too. At the same time, complacency is guarded against through our rail safety management systems.

Despite improvements in technology, railway engineering today remains similar to what it was in the past. Locomotives and other rolling stock are still large and heavy and still present similar challenges. The rail industry can still be a dangerous environment and depots are no exception. The sheer acreage of some depots presents a security issue with trespass incidents creating the potential for fatal accidents. The problem can be compounded by the fact so many depots are located in urban areas and a small number have authorised public access running through them. The theft of rail assets can be a safety as well as a security issue. Fortunately, there have been relatively few major incidents involving rail staff, but regrettably the consequences have been serious, such as those at Grosmont, Tyseley and Dollands Moor as the RAIB reports will testify.

RSSB reported an increase in major injuries in yards, depots and sidings in 2019/20, mainly attributable to using tools and equipment and slipping and falling. However, minor injuries continued to decrease, dropping to the lowest level recorded in the last five years.

Preventative maintenance (predict and prevent)

Many of the depots are now able to utilise a range of modern safety devices to ensure that maintenance can be carried out safely. This includes LEV equipment, purpose-built access gantries, lockout systems and isolation systems, computer data download points and movement detectors. Train cameras, movement warnings for cranes and trains, plus plug and play components all contribute to safer depots and the maintenance regime. It’s all a far cry from the ladders, hammers and fix-and-make-do philosophy of previous generations. Preventative maintenance and in-cab technology ensures that trains return to depots only for maintenance, and not as part of rescue and recovery.

Depot management

When, as a former Head of Audit in the rail industry taking myself back to the depots I’d previously visited, I recalled the immense responsibility on the Heads of Maintenance and their depot managers. On top of planned maintenance, and the performance management needed to ensure fleets are running efficiently, the additional responsibilities were immense. Compliance with technical standards, procurement and the maintenance of locomotive parts formed just a small part of their workload. There was also the depot infrastructure and safety staff to manage, plus a plethora of risks to assess; this included:

  • Access: Depot protection, arrival and departure roads, night working, lighting towers, security theft trespass, crossing points and walking routes.
  • Lifting: Cranage, lifting equipment, heavy lifting equipment and manual handling.
  • Environment: Adverse weather – working in extremes; working hours; stress and fatigue.
  • Fire: Welding and hot work.
  • Vehicle movement: Vehicle movements, both internal and external.
  • Chemicals and substances: Paint shops, asbestos, refuelling, diesel fumes and Covid-19.
  • Electricity: Overhead lines and third rail.

In addition, compliance with ECM requirements, technical standards, updating maintenance records, ensuring staff competencies and statutory inspections are all essential requirements for a modern railway’s recording processes.

This is just a snapshot of the Depot Manager job description, illustrating the complexities of the rail depot. Any technology that can both reduce the workload and any negative human factors that affect the operation will be welcome, from automated depot protection and wheel turning through to safe systems of work.

Depot protection to depot assurance

Preventative maintenance and measures are synonymous with depot safety. The assurance largely given by an independent audit (even if it doesn’t always feel like it at the time) is a crucial part of the monitoring and review process. This assurance process has also been significantly enhanced by the introduction of the Regulators (or perhaps the industry’s own) Risk Management Maturity Model, RM3, promoting excellence in health and safety management systems. Rail operators are also supported by the regulator with designated inspectors assigned to them to offer guidance. Specific RM3 protocols can focus on Entities in Charge of Maintenance.

Managing change 

The past 20 years have seen a transformation in rail depots, with significant investment made by both passenger freight operators and providers of the latest rolling stock in our network. Rail depots also feature those facilities involved in the refurbishment of wagons and rolling stock. Additionally, rail infrastructure provides a key service with the manufacture, production and distribution of materials from rail, sleepers and ballast. We must recognise that the reduction in depots, as we previously knew them, has depended on a mobile workforce and the expansion of ‘mini’ depots or sheds which may not have the same facilities and protection from adverse weather conditions. As the Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB) points out.

Management of change

When a significant change is made to the railway environment, that change must be well managed. Those with responsibility for safety on the GB mainline railway system are required to consider and control the risk to passengers, the public and the workforce that might arise from changes being introduced. Change to the risk to these groups can arise from technical (engineering), operational, or organisational changes.

A protocol to specifically address the Management of Change has been incorporated into the RM3 ‘toolbox’.


The industry continues to run passenger trains and deliver essential supplies through freight services under restrictions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic. Rail safety is paramount because Britain runs on rails. Maintenance and production has to continue and infrastructure providers operating from depots must keep maintaining the rail network. Meanwhile, an army of cleaners continues to work in the background, protecting workers, passengers and of course, the NHS.

Ed Hodson is Chair of the IOSH Railway Group. Ed is a Chartered Health and Safety Practitioner (CMIOSH) with over 25 years’ health and safety experience in law, manufacturing and the rail industry. He has worked in safety assurance and as head of audit and compliance. Ed is a strong advocate of RM3 and represents IOSH on the RM3 Governance Board.