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Empty box, golden wrapping

I’ve not yet got my head around Paris Hilton. What is she for? Popularising the phrase “that’s hot” is not, on the face of it, a career with great prospects. How many times can she fall out of her frock before editors tire of this antic? And yet celebritydom continues to boost her fortune. Abandoning all dignity clearly has its rewards.

Could our hunger for all things inconsequential be a product of cosmetic politics? No longer can we feast on robust debate - the spin doctors long since stifled that. Instead we’re served up a drizzle of initiatives by lightweight, cloned suits. Is it any wonder that the young have chosen to graze on the tasteless fodder which now fills the news-stands? Substance has left the building, following on the heels of free speech.

Quite why the railway had to embrace this culture I’m at a loss to explain. But it has. Dissenting voices are rarely heard. All power is vested within the corporate machine. Communication with public, workforce and stakeholders - our opportunity to shape behaviour as well as opinion - has become so insipid that it barely registers on the value scale.

Last month I finally got fed up of falling over the crate of decorations which has been loitering on the landing since Christmas. It’s meant to roost in our eaves alongside a wall of storage boxes. Therein lies the amassed detritus of six years on the SafetyNet treadmill - emails, scripts, logs, reports. As I fought my way out of the gloom, curiosity got the better of me and I teased from its resting place this century’s first Railway Group Safety Plan.

Six of its 45 pages dealt with workforce safety. A further two explored progress towards the stated goals of the previous year’s plan. There was plenty to get my teeth into. Half-a-dozen objectives were defined: measured reductions in fatality and major injury rates; a revised competence management regime; work to improve safety culture; network-wide rollout of CIRAS; efforts to prevent assaults on staff.

These ambitions were supported by statistical analysis, targets and a list of identified actions. Railtrack, for example, would collaborate with contractors and train operators to create sufficient windows for green zone working. Without doubt, there was all the usual candyfloss but here was a plan which offered meat and two veg as well. It was wholesome enough for you to leave the table largely satisfied.

What tasty morsels can we chew over eight years later? The new Strategic Safety Plan - covering the period 2008-2010 - launched in January. The fanfare must have been muted for health and safety reasons, hence this somewhat belated review.

It’s quite an achievement to publish a 40-page tome which tells the reader nothing of any importance. For that, I congratulate RSSB. There are more words on decision making principles than on trackworker safety. The past and future evolution of this plan merits painstaking explanation. Multi-coloured doughnuts occupy six pages for no apparent purpose; one page deals only with benchmarking; another illustrates the industry’s planning cycle, based on the ‘plan-do-review’ model. It’s almost a Pythonesque parody. And amidst all this prattle, space is even found for an Executive Summary. Of what exactly?
It's quite an achievement to publish a 40-page tome which tells the reader nothing of any importance.

The future welfare of 90,000 PTS holders is encapsulated on page 26. Two paragraphs put the issue in context. Five bullet points waft vaguely at projects being developed to make a difference. A line - apparently known as a ‘quantified trajectory’ - heads optimistically down the page, predicting a 14% reduction in risk exposure over the life of the plan. No evidence is offered as to how this figure was calculated or which specific areas of risk will benefit. And that’s your lot. If you’re still hungry, subscribe to OK and gorge on Keira Knightley.

Don’t just take my word for it - download a copy and experience this vacuum for yourself. Another triumph of design over content: a worthless investment of time, money and resources. No challenges, no targets, no substance. An empty box in golden wrapping, designed not to disturb or offend anyone.

So she might be overpaid, superficial and unimportant. What does that matter? Ours would be a much duller planet without the likes of Paris Hilton. But that doesn’t mean the railway’s safety guardian should aspire to the same level of banality.

Story added 1st April 2008
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