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Hell and damnation

Do you fancy being shackled to tablets of stone, elaborately carved by master craftsmen and dating back to the 19th Century? Or would you rather flounder in a glutinous trifle, gorging yourself on thick, sickly layers of froth and fancies? Instant gratification can be yours without the need for an internet search engine. Enjoy these dubious pleasures in the privacy of your gang’s van by signing-up to the railway’s front line.

Be warned - it’s a harsh world out there. Only results count and the pressure to perform has never been so high. Fortunately (and contrary to their public proclamations), your leaders will turn a blind eye to many convenience-driven short cuts around the jungle of regulation. At least they will until an accident sharpens their focus.

Don’t bother quoting from the Handbook of Feeble Excuses if it all goes belly up. Your actions will be subject to intimate examination and measured against defined standards. Competence, fitness, culture and lifestyle will all be tested and probed. Then, from a lofty perch, the jury will deliver its verdict and bring the burden of accountability to bear. Findings will be documented and posted on a website. Your shortcomings will be exposed.

But there’s an underlying and unpalatable truth behind this hell and damnation - some corner-cutting is inevitable and relied upon. High-level strategists are leaving no stone unturned in a legitimate crusade to up the railway’s game. We have new working practices. Technology has been harnessed. Timescales are tighter.

Yet much of this upgrade is incompatible with existing safety machinery. Replacing the obsolete parts requires painful, protracted development which few are willing to embrace. And why would they? A rusty, self-perpetuating merry-go-round of committees, consultation and conjecture revolves behind health and safety’s cardboard façade, creating institutional resistance to innovation.

Those eagerly anticipating a rules revolution are heading for disappointment. Effectively, we’re bound by outdated instructions with Victorian roots. A streamlined, accessible and responsive change process would encourage free-thinkers to engage with it, rather than push existing boundaries. But that’s a pipe dream and, as a consequence, irregularities manifest themselves at worksites across the network.
Effectively, we're bound by outdated instructions with Victorian roots.

And then there’s the creeping gloop of fine words and tick-boxes consuming all in its path. Method statements. Competence regimes. Good practice guides. Standards revisions. Rimini packs. Notices, policies and bulletins. An overload of bureaucratic and procedural responsibility rests on the shoulders of hard-pressed supervisory staff. Our gargantuan, semi-detached safety industry demands an investment of time and effort which is wholly disproportionate to the benefits delivered. And we wonder why the basics get overlooked.

Responding to its own agenda, Network Rail has begun to hack away at the worst excesses of red tape. But the real breakthrough will come when we respect practitioners as valued partners, encourage a sense of ownership and confront their concerns.

Cut the shackles. Mop up the trifle. Let’s rediscover a simple, forgotten principle: safety stems from people, not process.

Story added 1st May 2006
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