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Delude Retreat Indemnify Prevaricate Squander

Fetch the cleaver!

Trajectories, risk ranking methodologies, precursor indicator models: just three of the knitted shrouds fashioned by RSSB to hide the Emperor’s embarrassment. One of the Board’s stated aims is to “drive out unnecessary cost”, something it could do best by promoting its own demise. Whilst turkeys never vote for Christmas, I remain confident that the hunting fraternity - enjoying their return to government - will even now be loading their shotguns to help restock the larder.

We didn’t need the 218 pages of RSSB’s recently published Annual Safety Performance Report (ASPR) 2009/10 to demonstrate just how safe the railway is. That’s a truth we knew already, notwithstanding the press’s quest to turn facts on their head. Train crashes - like those of aeroplanes - command so much attention simply because of their exceptionality. And even when they do occur, today’s crashworthiness standards do much to limit the human toll. No, we didn’t need a gargantuan Safety Performance Report, no more than we need thickets of functionaries and naval gazers. What the railway needs is to hack off its fat with a cleaver and then learn to sing its own praises. Step forward please Mr Dewhurst.

The new Transport Secretary prepares to cut the railway's safety fat.
Photo: Fabbriciuse

Lost amongst the ASPR’s hyperbole and normalised statistics is the trackworker - he who stands forgotten on the lineside. Rail might well be 30 times safer than travelling by car (and 500 times safer than walking apparently) but Sentinel card holders have again bucked the positive trend, suffering more fatalities and weighted injuries (FWI) than they did in the preceding 12 months - the third consecutive year that’s happened. On top of three fatalities were 68 major injuries and around 1,300 minor ones.

The ASPR points out that “levels of trackworker harm are historically low”. Whilst true, this will come as scant comfort to the friends and family of those who are no longer with us. It is though unquestionably the case that the focus on workforce welfare forced upon the industry in 1974 by the Health & Safety at Work Act drove a revolution for which many should be thankful. They are alive today as a result of it. HV clothing and PPE, headlights on locos, a proper training regime, the T2 - climate change cultivated them all. But the quick-wins have long since been secured. What will push trackworker safety performance to the next level?

One thing’s for sure - the rising floodwaters of process and bureaucracy have only brought pollution with them. Enthusiastically pinning paperwork and competence regimes to everything that moves is an approach that continues to soak up supervisory time and energy at the expense of all else. Network Rail’s contractual obstacle course would not have looked out of place on ‘It’s a Knockout’ whilst the company’s infatuation with trivia (personal mosquito nets will surely soon be mandated) serves only to aggravate.

In his press statement, RSSB’s Director of Empty Platitudes Anson Jack insisted that senior managers are “resolute in their commitment to safety”. Trouble is, most of them don’t have a clue about ballast-level culture, let alone engage genuinely with the concerns of those who labour there. Safety trucks might offer a convenient space for words to be exchanged but who upstairs is listening to them?
Safety trucks might offer a convenient space for words to be exchanged but who upstairs is listening to them?

Perhaps the next level cannot actually be attained; perhaps the avoidable fatalities and weighed injuries have already been sucked from the system. But we won’t know for certain until a clearing is hacked in the thick theoretical safety shrubbery propagated over the years in rarefied committee rooms. I’ve sat there and heard the rhubarb. No talk of safe cesses or coercion to break rules - here is a world ruled by Powerpoint and human factors gurus. It doesn’t register as an issue unless it can be audited by a Decision Support Manager.

Current safety performance is a credit to the industry - that’s what the data tells us. But the devil is in the detail. Whilst the railway can legitimately waft its safety successes under the media’s nose, it mustn’t lose sight of its duty to those out of the public eye. As more financial pain is felt, greater performance pressure will inevitably be exerted upon those in the four-foot - a community already feeling the strain of reducing numbers. If that reality’s challenge is not to bring the return of uncomfortable headlines then our blue sky thinkers must return to earth and get their hands dirty.

Story added 1st August 2010
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