What does your role involve?
I look after safety, health, environment and the broader sustainability agenda. The sustainability agenda is pretty broad and covers a lot of areas which I don’t specifically manage but come under that umbrella such as diversity and inclusion, transparency and ethics. I specifically manage the environmental component but I take an overview of all the rest as well.
As an executive member, I also have other business critical roles including, rather bizarrely, crisis management.
Why is that bizarre?
Because a crisis can occur from anywhere – it can be a financial crisis – anything in fact, but for some reason I got lumbered with that.
Have you noticed that social value is a term that is being used increasingly in rail business procurement?
Social value has been there for a very long time but we haven’t really captured it as well as we could. There’s a huge social value to the rail industry more broadly if you think about what would happen if we shut the network down today for a year. The social impact would be absolutely huge and the environmental and economic impacts would be astronomical.
The Commons Transport Select Committee has begun an enquiry into NR’s level crossing safety record. What do you expect the conclusion will be?
That’s a very good question. We are in a better place with level crossings than we were a few years ago – we’ve reduced the risk by 25 per cent in the control period we’re now in, which is a huge success story really. We’re making the case to make another 25 per cent saving in the next control period and currently talking to the regulator about the right level of funding to achieve that target. When you’ve got 6,500 level crossings though, it’s really difficult to know that you’re controlling the risk every second of every day at every level crossing. So if you have a lot of public misuse, how are you held to account for that when you can’t possibly spend enough money to minimise the risk at every crossing? I hope the Select Committee comes out with a more pragmatic view asking that, rather than having the risk minimised at every level crossing, we take a look across the whole 6,500 and think what can we realistically do for the amount of money that society is prepared to give us – because it isn’t prepared to give us billions of pounds to reduce the risk.
Watching the video of the young girl at the level crossing showed that there is no accounting for human behaviour…
That’s the problem, and I think there’s a lot we can do around level crossings but at some point people have to take personal accountability for what they’re doing. Once we get to a situation where we’re confident that we have all the risks under control as best we can, I think we need to be a more forceful with the public, and when there’s misuse of that type we need to be very forceful…
Where would you like to see the situation with level crossings at the end of the next control period?
There’s another change on the horizon which is that the Law Commission has concluded that level crossing regulations should be put under the Health & Safety banner rather than the current level crossing specific legislation. That’s probably a good step because it will speed up our ability to close level crossings whereas it’s currently very, very difficult to do so. So I hope that we’ll see a faster closure rate at the end of CP5.
I’m also hopeful that we would have closed most of the level crossings that sit on lines with speeds greater than 100mph, particularly those where the user decides when to cross.
How do you feel about NR’s recent track safety record – it doesn’t have the best image?
I challenge that because I’ve been here for two years and we’ve had four fatalities in that time, three of which have been driving related. For me, driving is the silent killer in this industry and it’s something we haven’t paid enough attention to.
We have a very clear safety-related strategy which has been approved by the board and a big component of that is how we keep track workers safe. There’s always been the assumption that the green zone is the safest place to work but the last track worker fatality we had was someone working in the green zone who stepped into the way of a train on the adjacent line. So in the next control period we’ve made the case for money to develop a new technology which consists of a sensor on a signal that’s linked to you as an individual. So when the train gets to that signal, you receive your own personal warning that a train is on its way. It doesn’t rely on somebody tapping you on the shoulder or a horn or a flag. We will roll that technology out for everybody whether working in a red or green zone. It’s something that the mining industry does really well – they put sensors on their big haul trucks as well as the people on the ground, because the drivers can’t see them, and you get a little vibration and a flashing light if a truck is too close to you. So the technology is out there, we just need to deploy it.
What other lessons have you learned from the mining and power industries?
The simplicity of their rules. That’s been driven into both sectors. We have way too many rules in NR, so we’re trying to replace them with fewer rules which are very clear and absolutely mandatory. The technology around warning people and segregation of big kit is something that’s certainly true in the mining industry. In the power industry it’s more about competence; you would never go on to a sub-station without a senior authorised person; but here, you can go on to a trackside with somebody who can be three or four tiers down the supply chain and that’s absolutely wrong.
What is your view of the recent crashes in France, Spain and Canada?
These three worry me. The Canadian one because the brakes were let off that train and it was on an incline so it rolled back down into the town. However we believe that won’t happen here due to the regulations we have around drivers leaving the cab – although drivers do leave freight trains, they are generally stabled in sidings, not on running lines, so that reduces the risk for us. The one in Spain is unusual because we don’t know the real root cause of that yet. It could be the driver or it could be the signalling system and the transition from one signalling system to another. We need to know more about the cause before we can work out whether it’s significant for us or not. However we don’t have the type of rolling stock design here that they have in Spain, and there’s no doubt that that contributed to the number of fatalities. Their seats can rotate so they’re not as fixed to the bottom of the carriage as the ones here, and the two carriages share a bogey rather than having separate ones, so if one shears off it impacts the second carriage as well.
The incident that was more relevant for us was the one in Paris (see page 73) because that was caused by the bolts in a fishplate coming lose and that fishplate going into a crossing, which effectively took the train off the track. We’ve done a huge amount to check that we don’t have that type of fishplate anywhere near our switches and crossings – we’ve surveyed and monitored all 23 of the ones we have here so we’ve learned quite a lot from that particular incident.
What are the innovations in safety that you believe have the most potential for the future?
Probably the best is the ability to take people off the track. So if we can do our monitoring remotely, either by having sensors on trains or using drones or whatever technique, taking people away from those high risk areas would be a huge improvement. Once you’ve monitored and worked out where the problems are though, you need maintenance to go on, and if we also can get that undertaken remotely or with fewer people, that has to be a good thing.
What does NR get right and what does it get wrong in the area of safety at the moment?
Those last few words are important ‘at the moment’. There has been a huge change in the executive board’s perception of how important safety is. Every one of my colleagues is leading part of our 10 point safety plan and they are all totally engaged on it to an extent that I haven’t seen before, which is extremely encouraging. That’s been driven a lot by David Higgins, our chief executive, who is very open about some of our challenges.
The other benefit is that we have trade union safety representatives working for us. Within my team there are nine of them and we have reps at every level of safety governance in the company, which is great because as we design the safety changes the unions understand why we’re doing it and they tend to be on board much faster.
What brought about that change in perception?
Again I think it’s David’s openness and transparency agenda. He doesn’t see any risk really in asking people to contribute to the agenda and he’s absolutely right.
Do you think future cuts in NR will affect safety at all? Does Manuel Cortez have a point?
I’m not going to be caught on that one! The fact is that when we went into the process with our strategic business plan we set out a letter to the regulator saying that we’d only accept a determination if we believe that we can continue to run the railway safely. We’re not going to compromise on that. I mean it would be the death of this industry if a train came of the track because we didn’t have enough money to maintain the line.
Bear in mind we set ourselves two really huge targets in CP5, one is to eliminate all fatalities and major injuries – and this industry hasn’t had a fatality free year since 2006 so that in itself is quite a big challenge. And the second is to reduce the train accident risk by 50 per cent, which is another big challenge when you think that our assets in some cases are over 120 years old.
But in setting ourselves those challenges it drives a different type of behaviour; it has forced people to start thinking about what risks they are managing, how they control those risks and how they can reduce them better in the future. And it’s about doing that on a more disciplined scale than before. We are halfway through that process with the board at the moment and we’ve undertaken deep dives on all the big catastrophic train risks – each of those runs to 5-600 slides, so we’ve analysed everything that we possibly can. We know how much rainfall needs to take place in the 15 days before an embankment will fail for example, and whether that embankment is rock, earth or any other construction, so we know at that level of detail now how to control our risks.
What message do you have for rail managers?
There are four really big pieces of work that we are either towards the end of or about to start which will impact managers. Firstly, on whatever site you go to, it has become pretty clear to us that nobody knows who is really in charge, from either a safety perspective or delivery of work. And in many cases, the delivery of the work is separate from the safety management, which is fundamentally wrong.
We have this concept in the UK of safety down the line, that every line manager is responsible for the safety of the people who work for him, but we are going to change that fundamentally by creating a Safe Work Supervisor, who will be responsible not just for planning the work, delivering the work and hand back, but also for safety, and all safety critical roles will work for that person. And all safety critical roles will either work for us or for our principal contractors and no further down the supply chain because we have had incidences where labour-only suppliers have been undertaking the role of the COSS, and the pressure on that person to get the work done and not upset the client by walking away is huge. That’s unacceptable for us so we will start a pilot on that by early January. That work is being led by David Higgins himself because he thinks it’s so important.
The second thing is that once you work out who is in charge, what information do you give them when they get to a site that says ‘This is what you need to do’ ‘These are the risks and this is how you’re going to manage the risks’. At the moment we do that through the Safe System of Work packs which are about two inches thick. We produce 30,000 of those a week, and they’re so generic they don’t tell you anything about the work you’re going to do. So we’re replacing that with a system called Control of Work – very similar to the oil and gas industry where it just says ‘This is your task’ ‘This is the environment in which you are going to undertake the task’ and ‘These are the risks you’re going to find’. People won’t have permission to do anything else, so if they decide to go and work somewhere else, they do not have permission and that would be a breach, in which case they will go through the disciplinary process. It’s a lot less information than we currently give people but it will focus them more on what they’ve got to do.
The third thing is that we are rationalising our standards process. When I came here two years ago we had 1,650 standards in the business. I have never, ever worked in an organisation with anywhere near that number and we’re going to rationalise that down to about 100 by analysing all the risks in those particular areas, all the controls we have in place and the confidence we have in each of those controls; it’s based on something called the bow tie process which other industries have used for decades. For a particular event, it asks what controls you have in place to prevent that event from occurring, and what controls do you have in place if it does occur. You want to focus on the stuff that’s preventative and that needs to be analysed in a lot of detail. We’ve done all of that work for Plain Line track, and at the beginning of October we started a national trial for all Plain Line track activities in Great Britain. This has resulted in rolebased manuals for various people within NR – around 650 of them, and it effectively says ‘This is what you have to do’, but at the same time it gives them a lot more freedom to do things that are no longer mandatory, whereas beforehand, everything was mandatory, in theory.
The fourth new development is in the Sentinel card. In the past it was a very dumb piece of plastic with just a number on it and the competencies, and we know that people would buy those cards and turn up on track. Your number would be noted and you would go on track, and the person standing in front of you wouldn’t know really whether you’d bought that card or been trained properly. So we stopped that. The new card has a QR (quick response) code which can be scanned by an iPhone or an Android and it connects with the central database, so what comes up on the phone is my picture plus my competencies and whether I’m allowed on track. If the picture on the phone doesn’t match then you’re not allowed on. If you’re outside of a mobile phone signal it has a chip inside it which also has my competencies and my details, and that can also be scanned by the phone.
That system, which will give us 100 per cent authentication (versus two per cent previously) was rolled out at the end of September to all our employees who are able to access the track, and we’ve now started rolling it out to all our contractors, which means that by Christmas it will be in the hands of 100,000 people. So for the first time ever, in early January, every day we will know who is allowed to be on track and who is not. And if somebody breaches the rules we can take permission away overnight. So those four big changes are set to have a huge impact on the market because we’re saying to a lot of the contingent labour suppliers, ‘We’re not interested in having you providing safety critical workers anymore and we’re not going to come to you for that’.
What do you enjoy about your job?
I came here because the challenge was big – and as my wife said ‘You can’t make it any worse can you’. I suppose that is possible but I believe we can make some big changes here which fundamentally affect not just the way the organisation operates but also the welfare of the people that work for NR. Nobody deserves to come to work to get injured or killed and nobody actually sets out to be unsafe either. So in that context it’s about how we can make the changes that guarantee people go home safely every day. That is our vision, it’s not us being trite, it is effectively what we want to achieve.
What don’t you enjoy?
I’m a huge optimist but I think with all these things it’s the pace of change. You’re always desperate to make the changes faster because the sooner you can improve things the safer people will be. But in an organisation that’s been around for such a long time with the culture here, change is slower than you might want.
What’s your vision for the future in the safety arena for NR – what would you like to see?
We are the safest railway in Europe – we don’t often celebrate that fact funnily enough but ought to, and it hasn’t come about as a result of luck, it’s taken a lot of hard work. The RSSB recently summarised all the big incidents in North America and Europe in the last 24 months – 81 serious train accidents and not one here so we have a lot to be proud of.
But workforce safety is not where it should be. It’s better than the construction industry but light years away from some of the more proactive industries such as oil, gas and power.
There’s a lot more we can do in NR, but that requires quite a lot of change, both in the processes we operate and how we introduce new technology such as remote condition monitoring, risk-based maintenance, and multi-skilling – for example when you send somebody out to look at a signal, that they also clear the vegetation around it rather than send other people out – so it’s a whole mixture of things.
What do you think David Higgins’ successor Mark Carne will contribute to NR’s safety processes?
When he was 29 Mark was part of the investigation team into the Piper Alpha disaster where 167 men died, so he has an indepth knowledge of what can go badly wrong. Coming from Royal Dutch Shell, he’s also worked in an environment where safety is significantly higher profile than it’s been here for a long time, so that’s got to be good.