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The emperor's new clothes

My wallet was in tears again this morning when our fuel statement squeezed through the letterbox. I didn’t hear a forklift trundling over the patio but the postie must surely have been driving one. Buried amongst the T&Cs and glossy promotional twaddle was news of an eye-watering 28% rise in our monthly direct debit.

Out came the calculator. Steam was slowly rising by the time I’d finished bashing the living daylights out of it. Validating a gas bill can only be marginally less mind-boggling than one of John Prescott’s sound bites. Input the units used, multiply by the calorific value and volume correction factor, then divide by 3.6. This converts cubic metres to kilowatt hours. Split the atom, solve world poverty and the true cost is revealed. Simple really.

I rang the customer services centre. Note that it’s no longer called a helpline. “Press 1 or 2 if you are dodecaphobic. Press 3 to order a dictionary. Press 4 if you have lost the will to live and would like to speak with a Samaritan.”

Eventually Marie came on the line. I immediately went weak-kneed - I’m a sucker for the lilting tones of west Highland lassies. She tried tempting me with a £19 reduction - within spitting distance of the correct figure but still not right. There were tuts and sighs as I requested an audience with someone higher up the food chain. Two minutes later, a saving of £24 had been secured. Better in my pocket than theirs.

A cynic might think that all this aggravation is deliberately put in place to deter the consumer from complaining. It probably works for some. But I’ve long since learned that turning a blind eye to shortcomings never works to your advantage.

Two months ago, with characteristic gusto, I drove my coach and horses through the 2008-10 Strategic Safety Plan. In essence, I found its approach hugely underwhelming compared with the defunct Railway Group Safety Plan.

It seems that my disapproval ruffled feathers within the upper echelons of RSSB, the SSP’s author. Indeed one of its directors, Anson Jack, was so “concerned” that he fired off a retort to the editor of the RailStaff newspaper. As you might expect, he stoically defended both the plan and those who wrote or contributed to it. As far as I’m concerned, he also missed the point.

My dictionary defines a ‘plan’ as “a scheme, program, or method worked out beforehand for the accomplishment of an objective; a proposed course of action.” This requires problems to be identified, targets set and steps put forward to resolve them. Unlike the Railway Group Safety Plan, the SSP does none of this. Cobbling together a few ongoing workstreams and predicting the gains which might result does not challenge the industry in any meaningful way. It merely endorses the status quo.

Mr Jack contends that today’s Strategic Safety Plan has a different purpose - “to inform the industry and wider stakeholders of key initiatives…” and “to inform and assist employers of key risk areas and allow them to share areas of good practice with other employers.” That sounds remarkably like a ‘report’ to me.

According to Mr Jack, on-track safety doesn’t get much of a look-in because it is “managed principally by Network Rail”. Actually the SSP affords similar exposure to all nine of the railway’s ‘key risk areas’ - one page of surface-scratching each. The remainder - all 31 pages - contemplates its own navel with a microscope.

So just how informative is that single sheet on trackworker risks? Five ‘key initiatives’ feature in bullet-point form, amongst them: “improving processes for briefing of operating rules”. Why is this work needed? Who is leading it? How will it impact on others? What are the timescales? These questions go unanswered. Employers - the plan’s supposed audience - can evidently glean all they need to know from just those seven words.

What Mr Jack didn’t mention was that RSSB’s own review of the last Strategic Safety Plan recognised that it contained “few workforce safety improvement commitments”. Changes were recommended. A need for it to “go down to a greater level of detail” was raised at a policy meeting. Even spread thinly, the combined total of printed copies and website downloads didn’t reach all corners of the industry. Perhaps I’m not the only one to question its relevance.

As a footnote, I ought to make it clear that contrary to Anson Jack’s inference, I was not damning those who pieced the SSP together. It is the product I take issue with.

Railway safety has been enveloped by an ‘Emperor’s new clothes’ culture, stifling healthy debate. This places beyond reach those who earn a very comfortable living from seminars, risk modelling, human factors and the like - all of which have their place but guzzle far too much cash and attention. They offer little for the forgotten folk exposed to physical danger.
Railway safety has been enveloped by an 'Emperor's new clothes' culture, stifling healthy debate.

Evergreen House’s delicate flowers might not be accustomed to outsiders poking their cosy cocoon but they cannot be immune from scrutiny. Afterall, whilst Network Rail and the train operators climb mountains to make the railway function, RSSB can look down from its ivory tower, pontificate and scatter verbiage without ever getting its hands dirty.

With that enviable position comes a duty to generate output with real practical significance. Substance and value-for-money should not be overlooked. Today’s Strategic Safety Plan does little to bolster RSSB’s reputation. Don’t get me started on the Rule Book or its over-funded research programme.

Story added 1st June 2008
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