As soon as we sat down Ian Prosser bemoaned the fact it’s hard to attract and keep engineers in the rail industry; according to him they’re more drawn to the pay and conditions of the consultancies and other big firms.

Prosser has an air of quiet authority, no false charm and one gets the feeling of hidden depths. We talked about the fact that he lives in Cambridge and manages 110 people in a number of offices throughout the UK, before moving on to look at the ORR’s latest health and safety report of performance on Britain’s railways.

The report focuses on four key areas, the first of which – maintaining safe and sustainable assets – refers especially to civil assets whose renewal ended up being deferred due to financial constraints and thus require increased maintenance. ‘That needs to be monitored very closely,’ stated Prosser: ‘last year we had two instances where the consequences could have been a lot worse than they actually were.’

The second area, managing change, turned out to be the thread that ran through the whole interview. ‘All over the sector there’s a great deal of change’ began Prosser, ‘We’ve got a new franchise being mobilised in the middle of August [South Western] at the same time as a major blockade at Waterloo; we’ve got a large quantity of new rolling stock appearing on the network over the next five years, some of it built by companies that have not provided rolling stock here before…’ and continuing the list, Prosser calmly dropped in the cause of one of the most intractable disputes in rail history:  ‘We’ve had some issues around driver controlled operation, so we are focused that all this change is managed effectively by the duty holders, because we’ve seen a number of instances where we wouldn’t have had some of the problems we’ve had if that was the case.’

On the third, culture and occupational health, Prosser believes in general the industry has some way to go. ‘People feeling they’re cared for will help that integration between management and the front line,’ he explained, ‘and mental health in particular is something they need to focus on.’

Delving deeper into this third area, a huge cost to the industry according to Prosser is the £350 million it spends on occupational health, with the largest proportion (along with physical issues such as musculoskeletal) going on mental health. For several years now ORR has been working to shift the industry’s agenda on health and wellbeing, which has lagged, Prosser feels, for historical/cultural reasons. ‘To be quite open about it there was a very strong macho culture, and that has been addressed and is improving steadily, but those  legacies have not encouraged people to talk about mental health and therefore there’s a strong need to up our game.’ To that end ORR and the industry is working with the Samaritans to launch an industry-wide volunteering scheme, primarily to assist the Samaritans as their services have been engaged increasingly by the referrals made after interventions, but more widely, as Prosser pointed out, ‘it’s been demonstrated in other sectors that volunteering in this way helps the mental health of employees through talking and being more open, and that benefits the whole organisation. So we see this as a way of improving mental health care across rail.’

Without pausing for breath he moves on to diversity: ‘It’s very unfortunate. People are putting a great deal of effort into changing that but we do not have great diversity. If we did we’d have a stronger and healthier culture, so if we can affect some of those cultutral aspects that will attract, I believe, more women.’

The fourth area in the report, safety by design, has been around for a number of years with the aim that risk is managed out of a project from the beginning. ‘We’ve seen instances where this could have been done better, particularly on some electrification schemes where if they had done more risk assessment, more ‘what iffing?’ in terms of design we’d have gotten a better solution from both a safety and efficiency point of view,’ opined Prosser, ‘because if you do this sort of work upfront you will also end up with a cheaper project and one that’s on time as well.’

Moving on to other matters, with level crossings stubbornly remaining a significant source of risk, I wondered if Prosser would like to close them all and whether the current measures to deal with people jumping lights and barriers are harsh enough. ‘That’s an interesting question,’ he said, with a wry smile. ‘We would like to close more but it gets increasingly difficult, and while we will still encourage closure and work with Network Rail and local authorities to help that, closing them all is not the only answer,’ Pointing out that the highest risk crossings now left are ‘passive’, Prosser believes the technology being implemented by Network Rail with an audible warning will start to improve risk control and ‘help us a lot here going forward’.

Sitting down together

Some say what the unions want in order to end the Southern dispute about DCO is ever-shifting and unfathomable. Asked about whether he sees it becoming more about the unions’ antipathy to privatisation Prosser is circumspect: ‘Obviously as the health and safety regulator we work with colleagues in the industry and in the unions, and I meet frequently with Manuel Cortes, Mick Cash and Mick Whelan. I’m not going to go into the ins and outs of the dispute but as far as I’m concerned technology moves on, and it’s what’s happened in the railways since time immemorial. So we need to embrace new technology and methods of working because that will improve safety. That does impact people’s jobs and the types of jobs they do, but it comes back to my ‘managing change’ focus; what all parties need to do is sit down, work together and manage this change, because they know there’s going to be a certain end point to this dispute, so it’s about working through what you need to do to take the workforce with you and explain what’s happening in a productive way.’

Prosser’s inspectors talk to local union reps and go into cab rides ‘so we do understand some of the fears and are able to help overcome those’, because as he believes, there’s no discernible difference between the risks of driver controlled operation versus guard controlled dispatch: ‘in many ways there are benefits to driver controlled, like controlling the doors so the dwell times are reduced, as one of the things people lose sight of is that total system risk.’ And in calming tones, he reiterated that ‘it’s a matter of just taking the heat out of the situation by sitting down together to work out what the roles are and getting the best solution, because what we’re all trying to achieve is a safer, more efficient and better railway for the people who want to use it.’

As to whether Southern has fully implemented the changes ORR asked for, especially at stations, Prosser paused slightly: ‘Yes, we’re continuing to monitor that’, and at the point we met he was due to meet with the unions and GTR management to go through any outstanding issues the reps might have.

Simple things really

Looking at Prosser’s tweets, he appears to fully back the revenue and support role (in terms of helping disabled people) of a guard or OBS, and I asked if he believes DOO is the ideal way of working or just that it can be safe. ‘I’ve already answered that in some ways’ he shot back. ‘I can’t see’, I proffered, ‘how the industry can say it wants to encourage disabled passengers to use the railway while at the same time having the aim of DOO’. ‘Hmm’ he replied. ‘There is a requirement to help disabled people travel on the railway and there seems to be increasing numbers of them. Our annual rail consumer report Measuring Up shows there has been a 4.4 per cent increase in the usage of assistance, so that’s good news. What we have to do is take them into account when we’re designing how we’re going to dispatch trains, and that can be done safely in a number of ways – driver controlling the doors, a guard…the role of the OBS is designed to be passenger-facing, and in many ways, for the on-board staff not to have to worry about opening and closing doors gives them more time to help passengers.’

Whether as noun or verb, Prosser is fond of the word ‘focus’ and in this case the focus should be on trying to help all sorts of passengers he pointed out: ‘it’s not just wheelchair users that are important. I’ve been out on the railway with disabled people and what came across very much is that blind people probably face more difficulty than any other group. It’s very important that staff are trained effectively and to realise that different types of disability need different requirements. We do have stations that are unmanned but where there are staff they need to know how to interact properly with the train, and it’s about simple things really, like communication between one station and another.’

Talking about station staff or the lack of them, the ORR recently issued London Underground Ltd with a legal improvement notice following the death of a passenger in January at Canning Town. As well as that the RMT is calling for an independent inquiry into LU’s stations jobs cuts programme Fit for the Future, saying it made a ‘cheapskate attempt’ to run West Ham and Canning Town stations with one member of staff. I wondered what Prosser feels about the situation, given the current terror threat level. ‘Well the reason we issued the notice was that, through circumstances I don’t know all the details of, they only had one member of staff when they should have had more, and that can happen. But what they didn’t do was assess the risk properly, and that’s why we think it’s quite a powerful notice to make sure that LUL does understand the risks they need to mitigate if they haven’t got a full crew of staff on the station. We will and are monitoring the network in terms of stations, so our view is that we are the health and safety regulator and we make sure they meet their legal requirements.’

Mature management

Turning to Network Rail, despite being prosecuted three times for health and safety breaches  during 2016-17 and fined a total of £4,800,070, ORR said it delivered good safety management but that the rate of improvement has ‘slowed’ and the regulator wants to see it has the ‘building blocks’ in place to reverse that. In particular, as the organisation strengthens the routes as part of its organisational structure Prosser wants to witness the capability to effectively manage them. ‘One of the weaknesses we’ve seen in routes is their own internal assurance, and we’re going to be doing our maturity model assessment on them because we find issues the management should have found.’

If Chris Grayling’s plans come to fruition, Network Rail will be working even more closely with Toc’s, and Prosser does not see any safety issues arising from that; indeed he thinks there could be benefits. ‘Do you remember the Wessex Alliance? I put in an ORR inspector who focused purely on that and we saw some real improvements as a result of people working together. As we see stronger route devolution then as long as they’ve got the capability – and that’s something we’ll be watching in terms of working with local Toc’s in areas like station safety, managing disruption, managing and creating enough space for maintenance of possessions etc –  we can potentially see some real improvements, both in safety efficiency and the performance of the railway, for customers and the funders.’

Go Digital

Safety issues around the Digital Railway are taking a front seat, and the ORR’s role is expected to adapt as cybercrime becomes a more prevalent issue for the industry.  Prosser seemed sanguine about the threats: ‘In many ways our signalling systems at the moment are closed, if you like as low-tech as the 19th century. So if we start to move to a more digital base we have to understand the risks that we create.’ To that end ORR is talking to other regulators in the health and safety arena said Prosser, ‘because some of them know a lot more than us. We’ve had some sessions with the Office of Nuclear Regulation and we know we might have to up-skill in these areas, as well as in the area of digital technology.’

But the key point for Prosser is that the Digital Railway will mean risks are going to change across the industry. ‘We have to think about level crossings, about how we protect workers who have to go onto the railway – in many ways the Digital Railway will create a very different operating environment so it has to be thought through. That’s why I’m quite pleased in some ways that Network Rail has taken a step back in starting it, to think about how it will implement it over a fairly long period of time but making sure it gets the first steps right.’

With the industry is changing in so many ways I wondered what Prosser sees as potential future threats to safety. While not expecting an extravagantly abstract theory I was nevertheless taken aback by the brutal practicality of his tone and reply: ‘The threats come in my key areas’, he stated. ‘The future threat is that we don’t address maintaining a safe and sustainable infrastructure. We must think about the house and not just the conservatories we want to build on it. Fixing the leaks in the roof is important, so not taking our eye off the day job with all this other stuff going around and making sure we do the basics of maintenance and renewal. We have made a huge amount of progress in culture and even in occupational health in many ways, but there’s still a long way to go. We need to realise it is about hard work, slog and continuous improvement, it’s not about leaping around.’

Love the job

Prosser has been in the role for nine years now: ‘I love the job, but the time seems to have gone just like that.’ Reflecting on recent events, as he said the tragedy of Croydon hit very hard and overshadowed the whole of last year. ‘My goal since I started the job, and in fact I went to my interview with this, is that we should have a vision of zero fatalities for this sector. When the investigations are complete we will ensure the recommendations are fully considered by the industry and by ourselves and that all appropriate action is taken, because we want to ensure this never happens again and our thoughts are still very much with the families of those who were killed or injured in that terrible accident.’  The industry needs to really learn from the Croydon incident because, points out Prosser, there have been other close calls that could have been equally as tragic. ‘It’s about continuous improvement and focusing on the key areas I spoke about.’

Asked what he would like to see from Toc managers Prosser lost no time: ‘To walk the talk. Simple as that. I’d also like to see them get out more. A lot do, but overall we could all do that more and I’ve talked to my colleagues about not having so many internal meetings. One of the other things I’ve achieved since being here is a real focus on getting inspectors out: there was pushback – ‘Oh, that’s going to mean paperwork’, but I said ‘No’, let’s target 50 per cent of senior managers being out and see what a difference it makes.’

Looking back on the highlights, Prosser pointed to the successful integration of the health and safety regulator of the railways. ‘That has huge benefits for the sector: our vision and the goal of excellence has stuck. When I started that path it was ‘that’s impossible and excellence is just gold plating’, and having developed the management maturity model that is sticking as well. So it’s having shifted the mindset of the whole sector, but we’ve still got a lot to do and that’s why I’m quite keen to stick around.’

In his spare time Prosser enjoys writing poetry, football and photography. Material enough for a further interview, I got the impression. ‘People here know that when somebody retires I write a poem for them’ he told me. At that the press officer proudly interjected: ‘Ian’s poems are famous throughout the building and a lot of the Civil Service.’ ‘And’, added Prosser ‘throughout the sector as well’. Published when he was young, Prosser has a ‘whole stack of stuff that when I do maybe one day retire I can put together, along with the photographs.’ He had been writing a poem on the day we met because one of his inspectors ‘ a very senior and capable civil engineer who has been influential in changing the mindset of Network Rail in terms of civil assets’ was set to retire the following day. ‘I won’t be able to get up to Scotland to see him but somebody else will read it, so yes it’s a hobby.’

A qualified football coach, Prosser was at his most reticent when I asked who he follows. ‘That’s the most contentious question you’ve asked so far’ laughed the press officer nervously. ‘Erm, my dad grew up in Stoke on Trent so I’ve always been a Stoke City supporter’ he revealed, ‘and my hero was Gordon Banks who was in fact a Leicester City player but we’ll put that aside.’ Banks, he informed me was the England goalkeeper when they won the World Cup, and he was at Stoke City when they won their only ever major trophy, the League Cup, ‘and that was when I was really dead keen on football in my teens – I enjoyed playing in goal although I was far too small, and my dad was a very good footballer as well.’

We ended by talking about how passengers can behave on trains and Prosser told of a man who started vaping near him on a journey he was on with his family from Cambridge to Darlington. Apparently the guard ‘hadn’t bothered’ to go through the carriages so, as he told it, ‘I got out my enforcement badge and put a stop to it.’  Replying that my bugbear is people putting their dirty shoes on the seat opposite and that I have noticed staff walk past without saying anything, he countered quickly ‘Oh I would have’. I am in no doubt of that.