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Death by design

Let’s stop deluding ourselves. It’s time to wave goodbye to cloud cuckoo land and rejoin the real world. No matter how much time we spend hoping for a fatality-free railway, it’s just not going to happen. Trackworkers will die. There, I’ve said it - a sad and uncomfortable truth. Can we move on now?

Death is the only guarantee in life. You don’t have to be reckless. You don’t have to be incompetent. You don’t have to be stupid. You just have to be human.

If we could have been inside the heads of the four recently deceased railway workers 20 seconds before they died, how many of them would have been thinking "I’m doing the wrong thing here - this is an accident waiting to happen"? None I suspect. Their internal risk assessment mechanisms were telling them that they were safe - these were benign, everyday activities...and then circumstances conspired against them. No rules would have changed that. No empty, high-level sermons would have changed that. No campaign would have changed that.

Did you know that musician Tommy Tucker died of carbon tetrachloride poisoning whilst polishing the floor of his New York home? Writer Tennessee Williams was using a nasal spray when he turned turtle - the cap fell into his mouth and he choked to death. The fickle finger of fate.

So we sit back and do nothing? Of course not. But let’s not waste our time pretending that 90,000 fallible human beings won’t have lapses in concentration or make errors of judgement. Instead let’s invest our energy making sure that when those things happen - as inevitably they will - the consequences are not fatal.

The down cess at Hitchin South Junction,
three weeks after Mark Williamson lost his life.

On 19th December 2001, Mark Williamson was heading back to an access point near Hitchin South Junction after completing his shift. The cess was narrow and untidy - the only means of maintaining a position of safety was to walk on the troughing. A train approached from behind him but, tragically, Mark didn’t turn round to check its route. The unit crossed over onto the line alongside him just as he moved - or possibly stumbled - towards the track. The inevitable happened.

But what if the industry had spent a few grand constructing a proper cess path between the junction and the access gate, well clear of the line? Would Mark still have chosen the ballast shoulder or headed for the walking route? Would he be dead or alive today?
Would he be dead or alive today?

Yes, trackworkers will die….because that’s the climate we’ve created. We can find the cash for a Complementary Policing Seminar but not an extra handsignaller for tonight’s shift. Deficient plans. Inadequate resources. Ludicrous procedures. The relentless focus on meaningless bits of paper. None of it fits with the high-risk domain of the railway trackworker.

It’s time the industry dismantled its cosmetic, tick-in-the-box culture and started to fully engage with the practical challenges of life on a rain-soaked embankment at 2 o’clock in the morning. Enough staff. The right equipment. Decent access. Better protection. Proper welfare facilities. Sensible rules. Less paperwork. Manageable workloads. It’s not complicated - we’ve just made it so.

"Hello. This is cloud cuckoo land calling the managerial visionaries who are ready to arm-wrestle the real world. Hello. Is anybody there?"

Story added 1st September 2005
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