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Death defying

Instinct dictates that the chances of surviving an impact from a 60mph train - or any train for that matter - are pretty slim. There’s something acutely unforgiving about them. The fact that several trackworkers have, over recent years, made reasonable recoveries from accidents that looked inevitably fatal is something we should all give thanks for.

The latest entry on this list was made on Sunday 12th June when a man in his 30s - an Assistant Section Manager - was seriously injured at Stoats Nest Junction, a four-track section on the London-Brighton line just south of Purley. Shortly after midnight, possession had been taken of the Up & Down Quarry (Fast) lines; the Up & Down Redhills (Slows) remained open to traffic. At 01:05hrs, in accordance with the plan, the block was extended to include the Up Redhill, with pilot working instituted over the Down for movements in both directions.

A track gang was installing a closure rail between the A and B ends of T1666 points - the crossover between the Up Redhill and Down Quarry. But the rail was discovered to be too short so the team had to source a longer piece to complete the works, delaying their progress.

At around 05:10hrs, the possession reverted to the original arrangements with both the Redhill lines open. Twenty minutes later, 1U11 Gatwick Airport to London Victoria, travelling on the Up Redhill, struck the ASM at around 60mph. He sustained multiple life-threatening injuries but his condition subsequently stabilised in Tooting’s St George’s Hospital. RAIB has launched an inquiry; its conclusions are expected shortly after I retire. I’m sure everyone wishes the casualty a full and speedy recovery.

A busy scene at Stoats Nest Junction, with the crossover between the Down Quarry and Up Redhill lines obsured by the signal post centre-right.

Photo: Steve Poole

The railway’s immediate response to such events is best alikened to bird species. It fluctuates between ‘ostrich’ (bury your held in the sand)(see post-Potters Bar) and ‘chicken’ (headless variety)(see post-Hatfield). The latter approach is illustrated by the instructional molasses smeared by Network Rail in the aftermath of a tamper driver being struck by a train at Torworth (Nottinghamshire) back in January. That incident also involved a blocked line alongside on open one but, on that occasion, the casualty survived a glancing blow from a London KX-Leeds service travelling at 100mph!

Initially communicated by text message, new orders commanded that -

  • [engineering] train drivers arriving on site by van must attend the site access cabin (which seems perfectly reasonable)
  • receive a site briefing from the ES or agent (which suggests that a driver’s route knowledge and ability to read the WON/ballast notice have somehow been lost)
  • then be escorted to their train.

Just imagine the logistical impact. Half-a-dozen drivers - more maybe? Their trains at far-flung corners of the worksite. COSS-certificated nannies needed at both the beginning and end of each driver’s shift. Are you listening Mr McNulty?

And those arriving at the worksite aboard their train must also be briefed. But what of those sitting for hours in PICOP land, between PLB and marker board? Who was briefing them on the status of the lines outside their cab? It all felt a little ill-conceived - a product of Messrs Knee & Jerk - and the directive has subsequently been amended…at least twice.

As my correspondent eloquently puts it, “We have a stupid situation whereby, when someone fails to comply with the rules and any incident or near miss occurs, all the rules are deemed faulty and changed at the behest of someone who wouldn’t recognise a railway if it didn’t look like the ‘Jack and Jill’ Rule Book drawings. This does nothing to make the job safer of course - it simply confuses everyone because their rules knowledge is weakened by constant change.” simply confuses everyone because their rules knowledge is weakened by constant change.

It seems that Network Rail compensates for imposing new rules by unilaterally not enforcing others - even when they’ve been developed over many months and agreed through established processes. So, on 26th May, just a week before their due implementation date, Sentinel sponsors were informed that NR had decided not to bring into force two requirements of the new Handbook 11 (Duties of a PICOP). Signallers are not issuing authority numbers when granting a possession (do you sense industrial relations at play here?); neither is Network Rail allowing possessions to be taken around a train, except on a track circuit block line. Isn’t power a wonderful thing?

Well, not if it’s unexpected. Another trackworker defied death in June…twice in a few moments: having avoided electrocution, he narrowly escaped being struck by a train. Just four hours before the Stoats Nest incident, a COSS from JBS McGinley had applied earths to lines 4, 5 and 6 at gantry J01/35 on the Great Western Main Line near Westbourne Park. He then moved on to attach others above the same lines at gantry J02/18. Although he had previously worked in the vicinity, the COSS had not been to that specific location before; neither had a site visit been arranged.

He had successfully done his duty on lines 4 and 5 but then mistakenly attempted to fit an earth to line 3 - this was still open and its OLE still live. Unsurprisingly there was an electrical arc. His assistant, standing in the four-foot of the adjacent blocked line, then saw a train approaching so shouted at the COSS to move clear. He jumped to a position of safety but left his fibre glass isolation pole in situ. The train struck it, causing the driver to apply the emergency brake thinking he had hit someone.

Network Rail is to be commended for making details of these incidents known as quickly as it has. Are you listening RAIB? Where it has failed - woefully, particularly in the latter case - is in its list of required actions. The best it can come up with is to state that all employees, when on or near the track, should “be vigilant…and know their position of safety at all times”. How does that help? The guy thought the line was blocked; he thought he was in a position of safety!

Yes, we should all give thanks when fate smiles upon the vulnerable. Lessons must be learned of course, but our safety professionals really must seek an appropriate and proportionate response. It’s out there somewhere, between ostrich and headless chicken. Let’s have more Wise Owl, less Bearded Tit!

Story added 1st July 2011

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