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A charmed life

Chris Smith needs to buy a lottery ticket. At 10:37hrs on the morning of 22nd March, he was standing alongside the Great Western’s Up Relief line at Hillingdon, where Old Stockley Road bridge used to cross the railway. Employed by a labour agency, he was acting as intermediate lookout for a group carrying out surveying work further down the line. For reasons not yet clear (and if RAIB has its way, they never will be), the 42-year-old was then struck from behind by a First Great Western Oxford-Paddington train. Linespeed there is 90mph.

Although he was sent flying and knocked unconscious, the father-of-two miraculously survived the impact. Speaking to The Sun, Chris, from Gants Hill in Essex, recalls that when he came round “I was twiddling my fingers, but couldn’t see my arm. I was expecting it to be up the track.” Fortunately, rather than being ripped off, it had only been broken. Doctors have inserted two metal plates to help the healing process but he faces months of physiotherapy due to the nerve damage sustained.
The site of the accident (bottom right), with the Up Relief line running alongside the cess.
Photo: Dave Hawgood (sourced from Geograph and used under Creative Commons licence)

Appointed to observe a distant lookout who was watching for Down trains, Chris would have effectively been standing with his back to traffic approaching on the line adjacent to him, but his position on the Up side of the railway was vital in order to obtain the required sighting. It seems that RAIB has already decided where the fault lies, launching an inquiry into what “caused [him] to undertake his duties when standing too close to the line used by eastbound trains.” Planning, on-site management, training and competency issues will also be examined.

Don’t expect insightful analysis of how cess conditions influenced this event; don’t expect any exploration of human factors, such as the effect of boredom or distractions; don’t expect scrutiny of the Rule Book and its misfit with transient activities. Such matters are beyond RAIB’s comfort zone. But do expect a blind audit of procedural compliance; do expect yet another assault on open line working - a safe system infinitely more robust than that involving site wardens. Stand by for recommendations banning intermediate lookouts and the positioning of distant lookouts alongside lines where the normal direction of traffic is from the rear, irrespective of their consequential impact. Who knows, they might advocate the strapping of lookouts to overhead line structures or housing them in trackside cages. And you can certainly anticipate the addition of another crucial bullet point to the definition of approaching train: “You should consider a train to be approaching at all times unless you have eyes fitted in the back of your head”.
The view back towards Hayes & Harlington showing the site of work and track curvature.
Photo: Nigel Cox (sourced from Geograph and used under Creative Commons licence)

Chris is a very lucky man. He’s alive and, in the circumstances, he probably has no right to be. Nobody should expect to survive a coming-together with a train at that speed. But there will be fallout. Office-bound headless chickens - with the regulator’s hot breath on their necks - will feel compelled to impose further restrictions, making life harder - but not safer - for those who keep the railway running.

As has been the convention recently, there is no mention on Network Rail’s Safety Central website of this latest near-death experience or, more importantly, the lessons we can take from it. Prompted by legal fears, these absences do little to advance the aim of an open and robust safety culture. The website was in lock-down recently while “improvements” were made to it. In my experience, ones and noughts are easy to adjust so I’m not clear why updates should take weeks to implement. Perhaps Safety Central is still hosted on a Mark I stone tablet server where masons have to carve the data onto the disk. The result is better but hardly overwhelming; certainly not worth enduring a paralysis for. It seems to have been driven by cosmetics rather than substance.

These absences do little to advance the aim of an open and robust safety culture.

Talking of which, I am told that there is much angst amongst the managerial ranks at RSSB about my monthly outbursts. Jolly good! Apparently my lack of fairness and failure to give credit where it’s due is affecting morale. I didn’t realise I had quite so much influence.

What I would find truly depressing is a career shuffling words for an organisation whose top brass seems only to embrace adequate and average, rather than striving for excellence. When the ORR sought industry views as part of its 2010 review of RSSB’s activities, respondents asserted that the Board “lacks leadership”, delivers “poor, unprofessional, costly and damaging communications”, commissions research of “questionable output value”, needs “more independence of duty holders and less concern about how it is perceived by its members”. Critically, RSSB can be “remote from operational practicalities”. Not my words - those of its stakeholders.

The Board was established ten years ago last month, promising to be “independent and challenging” of the industry. Today it meekly tugs its forelock. No-one would notice if it quietly melted away. Commemorating the anniversary, Chief Executive Len Porter claimed that “RSSB has become part of the fabric of the rail industry”. That’s right Len, by adding pure wool to it. Happy birthday!

Story added 1st May 2013

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