What new safety challenges do the UK’s railways face?

The challenge that will be particularly on our mind over the next few years is around growth. The increase in the numbers of passengers and trains is having an impact on stations because they have seen more crowded platforms, which is why there is a focus on the platform train interface (PTI).

Also, the network is being used more so that will have an ongoing impact on enhancement and maintenance activity. While this all impinges on operations it is especially important that we have space for maintenance teams – to make sure there is access and time for them to do their job.

Another big challenge is that Network Rail is about to embark on what I think are two of the biggest changes in a generation on the railway. One is around the safe work leader role, which is the person at a site of work who is in overall charge, and the other is what it calls business critical roles. Managing those changes effectively throughout the whole of the supply chain is going to be a big job and we’ll be very focused on that.

The next big change, which to a small extent has already started in this Control Period, is moving to ERTMS (European Rail Traffic Management System), or The Digital Railway as Network Rail likes to call it. Fundamentally, it will alter the way we control trains. The signalling brain, if you like, thanks to radio technology, will be on the train rather than in posts on the railway. And we need to have a very good idea of the planned roll-out of this because the present one is very ‘itsy bitsy’, and that will be really important in CP6 and beyond.

Lastly, we haven’t forgotten about the challenge posed by climate change. It continues to impinge on infrastructure in particular, which shows some of the issues we covered in the periodic review are very important. One of them being the funding of initiatives around track worker safety, particularly with electrics, related to isolations and road rail vehicles, because construction activity is where people can get hurt. Near misses do occur with those devices and, aided by technology, we are looking at improving the way in which we protect workers from trains.

Considering the technology we have available to us, using flags and horns in the 21st century is a little bizarre. £250 million of funding has been made available during CP5 to bring improvements in those areas and we will be making sure the industry does that.

We also funded more work in CP5 around level crossings because as the network grows the risk increases and that’s why we are very keen to continue closing them. Adding footbridges at some of the higher risk crossings is a priority moving forward and that’s why there was around £100 million funding in CP5 to do that.

Excluding suicides, this year’s safety statistics show a slight decrease in overall harm on the network. Why is that and do you expect to see a bigger decrease next year?

Well, the main reason why those numbers are lower is a reduction in major injuries to passengers. This is particularly true at stations where, fortunately, we have not had a train accident passenger fatality for seven years. The last two years have seen fatalities at their lowest-ever level, which is why our continued work on the platform train interface is very important because that is where the majority of serious injuries to passengers occur

One of the other positives, if we can put it that way, from those numbers is the fact that the 21 recorded trespass fatalities is at an all time low, and we have also seen slow reductions in the number of fatalities at level crossings.

Where will we end up this year? Well, at the moment I can’t predict that accurately but we haven’t had any passenger fatalities so far. That statistic is good news but we cannot be complacent, it is so important to remain focused.

In 2014, the Samaritans said that ‘railway staff have approached and potentially saved the lives of more than 200 vulnerable people at railway locations’, however there has still been a 13 per cent increase in suicides on last year – the biggest rise since 2002/3. What more can be done?

The first thing I would like to say is that the industry, Network Rail and the Toc’s working with The Samaritans are doing some great work, superb work in fact.

It is very sad that people, particularly the vulnerable, see the railways as a place at which they want to try and end their lives. That is something that we, as a society, need to think about and to establish what more we can do to help. We will continue to work with The Samaritans and have agreed another five-year programme with Network Rail to continue training people.

One good example that highlights this training can be seen at a disused station with a disused level crossing, which for obvious reasons shall remain nameless. Local residents were so engaged with what The Samaritans were trying to do that they trained with them, so that they can help out in the event of an incident because the station is unmanned. It’s fantastic that we can start to push out initiatives such as that across society, particularly local communities.

There are other things that can be done. Fencing and infrastructure modifications are ongoing to try to eliminate some of the problem areas. However, like a lot of issues related to railway safety, it is about hard graft and not getting sidetracked. If something is working then we need to keep on pushing it out and getting a larger number of people involved to bring continuous improvement.

London Underground’s 2013/14 figures show a drop in passenger fatalities and major injuries. Why is that? How do you reconcile future drops with plans to have fewer staff at stations?

Well, again, I think London Underground can’t be complacent and neither can we. We monitor it all the time but there has been very strong and continuous improvement in its safety performance over the years, both for the passengers and the workforce. It has focused particularly on its platform train interface, which obviously is its biggest risk due to the number of people and the size of some of the platforms. It trains its staff, it has good procedures and its station management is excellent. It is one of the world’s safest railways, there’s no question about that.

Ticketing technology has lessened the need for ticket offices. As far as the ORR is concerned it is about the number of trained staff that are actually interfacing with passengers and managing them through gate lines and on the platforms that counts. That is what is really important and LUL has no plans to reduce staff numbers in that area.

You said recently that contractors who don’t improve their health and safety performance should be ‘off the job’. How easy will it be to enforce this?

Unfortunately we still have to take enforcement activity in this area. This year, starting in April (when ORR’s work year begins), we have had 19 improvement and prohibition notices served on duty holders and 11 of them are to do with worker safety. So, a large proportion of our enforcement activity – we have another prosecution this week – is around worker safety.

It is within Network Rail’s gift to employ responsible contractors. Rather than us finding these events, NR should be finding them before us. In the legal sense, NR is the client and, therefore, it sets the standards, so it should ensure that they are followed and impose sanctions if they aren’t.

It is very important that Network Rail’s £11-12 billion worth of enhancements – which is passenger and public money – is spent well. I agree with Mark Carne on this point: business and safety go hand in hand.  So if NR gets a grip and makes sure all of its contractors are working safely then its performance from a business perspective, i.e. the efficiency of its enhancement work would improve. It is very much for NR – as it is with LUL and other duty holders – to make sure that its contractors are delivering on their promises. One of those is obviously safety standards. There is more to do though, despite the prosecutions.

You blamed ‘unacceptable management failure’ for the electrocution of the Balfour Beatty employee in 2011 – do you think that the major contractors have responded positively since the event?

Some of them have responded but I don’t think as a collective they have responded enough and the sorts of examples that I have shown highlight that. They, along with Network Rail, have a lot to do to improve worker safety – the number of injuries to infrastructure workers went up and the harm went up. That is not acceptable and Network Rail understands that it is not acceptable. It wants to change it but in a few years’ time I would like to no longer find incidents and poor work practices on sites. I want all contractors to continuously improve and move the industry towards our vision, which is very clear: the industry does not need to cause fatalities or major injuries to its passengers, the public or its workforce.

We need to make sure that we take workforce safety as seriously as passenger safety and that will be achieved through excellent health and safety management and risk control. We know the rail industry has a way to go because we use our Railway Management Maturity Model (see box) to tell us where all the duty holders are. Even some of the best have improvements to make, and they know that. The big principal contractors that work for Network Rail need to take that seriously as well.

Balfour Beatty recently asked us for some training on RM3, which I found very pleasing. The feedback from the course shows it seems to be listening and that is why prosecutions are very important – they bring it home to the senior management at companies that they are responsible for health and safety.

How are the steps to improve PTI coming along?

The industry’s long-term strategy on station crowd safety, currently under development, will be supported by research into passenger behaviours and use of new technologies such as automated passenger congestion monitoring systems. To me that is really quite powerful because the strategies, which are due to be signed off by the industry in November, will instill better consistency and aid learning on a day-to-day basis – something that we are already starting to see happen with LUL and the mainline railway.

There are lots of simple things you can do to improve the whole management around the platform to stop people rushing at trains – using simple barriers, for example. If you do your risk assessment right it has to be independent and for each station, it can’t be generic as each station has its own quirks. It’s down to understanding each station, learning from each other and innovating because there are many things that can be done to influence passenger behaviour and to get staff to carry out consistent train dispatch.

CCTV can also help, as can using a learning, rather than a blaming, culture in regards to the things that happen at a station. So that is moving along and we should see further progress after November, but it is good that people are working closely together. Also, Network Rail has shown some good leadership by pulling the mainline railway together with LUL, which I’m very pleased about.

Was safety and Network Rail’s knowledge of its assets integral to setting the funding and outputs for the next five years?

The fundamental thing regarding predict and prevent, rather than find and fix, is about having good asset knowledge – not just knowing where assets are and what condition they are in but knowing how they degrade. That is why in this periodic review we’ve put a lot of output measures on Network Rail for it to improve its actual asset management capability. Understanding those assets to determine what needs to be done in the five years beyond CP5 for things like civils and track is critical and we do have a clear view of what needs to be done.

 

In light of these big changes, will there be new technology for protection of workers?

Well, they have to be taken into account. It is very important when looking at and designing all this that we take into account things like level crossing and workforce safety. It is all too easy to focus on management of the train movements but you have to realise that you are going to have workers on these tracks.

Things like adhesion to the track will become more important as well i.e. braking. The whole autumn issue needs to be thought about because as you make the most of these control systems it’s imperative that the trains brake properly.

What are the ORR’s future plans in the realm of rail safety? Well, my chair, Anna Walker, said when she talked to the staff that she would like to see more of the same. I think we have a good strategy from a health and safety point of view; it’s about driving the industry towards that excellence in health and safety management and risk control. We eventually want zero industry-caused fatalities and major injuries to passengers, workforce and public and we’ve got the tools to achieve that. It is also very important for us to review our regulatory functions, and we have been working with the ERA (European Rail Agency) to understand exactly where we’re at, and where we can improve.

Our own competency management system is important in that it helps us sustain our strategy: maintaining focus and driving our activities where there is risk. We need to act proportionately to risk but also to monitor change, as that’s where things can go wrong all of a sudden if they aren’t managed properly.

Being close to the ground is also important, making sure my inspectors are at the coalface and have ‘boots on ballast’ so that we know what is going on. We don’t want to be in offices. I do my own cab-riding around the network, which I find invaluable, and all of our inspectors do the same – such as for monitoring vegetation, which is particularly necessary at this time of year. Following some of our enforcements, Network Rail has done a lot of work on vegetation over the last 12-18 months.

When we do audits, our process is about talking to management and looking at documents but there will also be site inspections: do the talk and the paperwork match up with what we are actually witnessing? Or are there some blockages or disconnects inside the company, or certain processes, that means it does not? You’ll never know how good you are unless you are testing it on the ground. Even when you do a lot of a more audit-type approach you have still got to go and eyeball it on the ground and it explains the reason why we have inspectors all over the country – with six offices covering Scotland, the North West and the South West.

We don’t just manage the mainline railway, we have a strong team that covers TfL, a growing organisation that is taking on more of the mainline railway around London, and it is important to also manage that change well.

We still keep an eye on our friends in the heritage and light rail sector who, following quite a lot of enforcement from ourselves, have improved a lot over the last few years and are taking on a lot more responsibility too.