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Elephant in the room

Media scrutiny, characterised by hype and ignorance, forces the railway onto its back foot every time our front one suffers self-inflicted bullet wounds. Grayrigg and the revelations which followed it damaged public confidence in the industry just when Hatfield and Potters Bar were being filed at the back of the mind. No doubt Network Rail will soon embark on a reorganisation to make the garden appear rosy again.

It’s fortunate that the press shows little interest in workforce safety. Why would it? Last year’s performance figures suggest a healthy recovery from the tragedy of Tebay. Fatalities are at a ten-year low; major injuries have fallen too.

Statistics though are creative instruments, often used to distort rather than enlighten. Their collators rarely dig deep to explore culture and circumstance, where the real story lies. One easy route down is to peruse the pages of CIRAS’s bi-monthly journal. Like the tabloids, it’s hardly a bastion of objectivity but, by sidestepping the thought police, it provides some insight into the troubles of our on-track community - no bad thing in my view.

Let’s read the health warning before proceeding further. Half-a-dozen reports of unsafe working practices have, in themselves, almost no significance in the context of an industry performing thousands of tasks each day. Those involved might have grasped the wrong end of the stick or perhaps had a chip on their shoulder. That said, similar stories are heard on the grapevine and it’s implausible that all are works of fiction.

Over the summer, CIRAS was approached by several welders, concerned about the equipment they were expected to carry. One correspondent insisted that heavy loads were often lugged down access steps by parties of two men rather than the specified four, adding that ‘welders are sustaining injuries almost every time’. Other accounts described cumbersome kit being transported across several open lines at night, with falls occurring due to wet or uneven conditions underfoot.

Network Rail’s response touched on a whole gamut of workstreams: risk identification training, lifting techniques, a guidance matrix, increased use of trolleys and skates, better planning. RSSB regurgitated the contents of its Rule Book.

Last month’s journal featured three more hair-curlers. The first alleged that two-man S&T teams were routinely being assigned to tasks requiring three people. As a result, the lookout often felt compelled to get his hands dirty - for example, by winding points - thus compromising the safe system. Staff shortages and stringent performance targets were cited as underlying causes.

During the Portsmouth resignalling scheme, one group of contractors set to work on a curve with no lookout protection at all. When a passenger train made a surprise appearance, it’s claimed that several men had to throw themselves clear. Loss of life was only averted thanks to the warning sounded by the driver.

And another contributor described how several wooden sleepers were removed from the conductor rail side of a DC line whilst the current was still live. The work was apparently done without insulated tools. Network Rail has since issued a maintenance procedure banning this practice.

Complacency can set in when performance is looking good. We shouldn’t forget that we’re only ever one human error away from the next fatality. Any one of these last three cases could have had a fatal outcome, giving a very different complexion to the headline figures. This is as good a reason as any to look beyond them.
We shouldn't forget that we're only ever one human error away from the next fatality.

Our much-vaunted ‘worksafe procedure’ is one of two threads which tie these incidents together: all could have been prevented if it had been applied. No-one ever does of course. Worksafe has become a distraction - when livelihoods are on the line, it would take the bravest of souls to employ it. Managers seem oblivious to this elephant in the room or have chosen to turn their backs on it.

Also significant is the pursuit of these concerns through CIRAS rather than internal channels. What does that say about the trackside climate? According to one reporter, “an overriding factor is productivity above safety”. Another claimed that staff are under pressure not to report injuries. Perhaps our safety statistics are not as robust as we’d like to think.

Mistrust is a feature of today’s society - the masses tend not to swallow the gospel of high office. Trackworkers hear the ‘safety comes first’ message but still, on occasions, find themselves pushed beyond reasonable boundaries. Commitment to safety must be proven, not just spoken.

Story added 1st November 2007
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