With the industry going through significant change, David Porter looks at the health and safety implications…

Strong passenger growth in Britain’s rail industry has led to high levels of government investment, along with the desire for ongoing improvements in the way it is managed.

In pursuit of efficiency, capacity and customer focus, ongoing change is becoming a feature of railway management.

At last year’s annual conference of the Rail Delivery Group, the then transport secretary Sir Patrick McLoughlin highlighted the fact we are at the start of an ‘unprecedented construction and modernisation programme’ which will make Britain ‘the leading rail investor in the western world’. Examples given were the finishing of Crossrail and starting the HS2 project.

There are, of course, other changes in progress. We are currently experiencing devolution to routes in Network Rail, new ways of working between significant industry bodies and proposals for new funding, franchising, ownership and operational models.

At the same time, it is pleasing to report that Britian’s railways continue to enjoy a very good safety record. High levels of risks are matched by health and safety management systems which help to keep people out of harm’s way.

However, change brings both opportunities and challenges, something that Sir Patrick admitted in his speech.

Not least among these challenges are those related to the management of health and safety risks to both workers and the public. The art will be to reap the benefits of change without loss of control of risk.

A key health and safety challenge is that change can destabilise established measures of risk control and maybe introduce new hazards. New organisational forms can add complexity and lengthen lines of communication and accountability, hampering effective risk management.

Devolution of the Network Rail routes, for example, will bring greater autonomy to those in charge of routes with the aim of providing incentives to improve performance through creating ‘reputational rivalry’ between routes. The focus on performance and efficiency will need to be balanced by an appropriate emphasis on safety to ensure that there are no unintended consequences for safety from the new incentivised structure. A balanced approach across performance, efficiency and safety will be necessary.

It is crucial that, no matter how the UK’s rail network evolves, health and safety remains central to the plans of all route and train operators. Yes, the need for change is imperative, but so is the need for ongoing health and safety management.

The recent ORR Annual Health and Safety Report1 identified four key issues.

  • maintaining safe and sustainable assets. The age of the civil assets and its susceptibility to rapid deterioration in adverse weather make it a high-priority area.
  • managing change: as well as growth continuing in some parts of the sector, new franchises will lead to an increase in the number of services, as well as new rolling stock. This increases the inherent risk which duty holders need to cooperate to mitigate.
  • culture and occupational health: Although there are pockets of excellence, the sector still has some way to go in developing its overall safety culture and management of health to achieve widespread excellence.
  • safety by design: As new strategic assets are introduced, whether a major infrastructure project, a rolling stock project or smaller enhancements, it is vital that the critical principles of excellent safety by design are employed by the sector.

So safety needs to be maintained while the industry adapts and evolves. It should be an integral part of the change process woven into the fabric of new arrangements and new organisational structures.

IOSH’s railway group has seen the positive change in the way that senior bodies in the industry organise themselves. This includes the Rail Delivery Group and how safety is collaboratively managed with RSSB.

We have also seen this need for change play out through the safe systems of work for those working on the tracks and management of driver only operated trains.

We know that managers in the industry understand the difficulties that change can bring – as well as the advantages.

That is why our group will focus on these issues and more at the IOSH Rail Industry Conference in November.

One of our expert speakers will talk to delegates about the devolution of Network Rail’s routes. Delegates will be able to take away information on the impact on health and safety and how to ensure they continue to look after workers. We’ll hear how new incentives in the industry are avoiding creating a negative impact on worker and passenger safety.

The conference is important for us, the health and safety professionals, and others working in the industry to understand better the changes and the implications for our practice. We wish to better understand how the context of the rail environment is changing so that we can better guide our practice. We aim to provide a high-level overview as well as the details in some key areas.

We shall also view how technical advancements shall change the way the industry is run.

For further information visit the events page at www.iosh.co.uk and search for the Rail Industry Conference.

David Porter is a vice-chair of the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health’s (IOSH) Railway Group

1. http://www.orr.gov.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0020/25229/annual-health-and-safety-report-july-2017.pdf page 8