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Close encounters

Human fallibility is inherent in every one of us (although some would like to think otherwise) and this uncomfortable reality poses the greatest safety challenge to practitioners and theorists alike. Life on the line is acutely unforgiving and the errant trackworker can pay a high price for their failings.

Euphemistically known as ‘near misses’, life-threatening incidents have been part of the railway's furniture since Stephenson launched his Rocket. Even now we average ten close encounters between trackworkers and trains every month. But this figure proves how far we’ve come - fifty years ago, ten was a typical monthly death toll.

It does me no credit to admit that I’ve witnessed three near misses during my time on the railway and none was reported. In last month’s RailStaff Colin Wheeler attributed such shortcomings to “the safety culture of our people”. He may be right. But what triggers that culture?

My mind’s eye can still replay a near-death experience at Apperley Junction, on the single line which filters trains off the Leeds-Shipley route and on towards Ilkley. The job, which I was COSSing, had been ongoing for several hours and my safe system - one of those managerially-despised red zones - was working well.

A warning was given, we moved clear and waited for the train.

It was at this point that one member of the group made a misjudgement which almost cost him his life. The train was not, as he thought, en route to Shipley - instead it crossed over onto the line alongside us. Whilst my attention was fixed in its direction, Mr Deathwish had wandered out of the position of safety and was standing, back to traffic, on the sleeper ends.
...Mr Deathwish had wandered out of the position of safety and was standing, back to traffic, on the sleeper ends.

By pure good fortune I turned around. Confronted by this accident waiting to happen, I had a flash of literary inspiration and uttered the ludicrous yet immortal line “Are you training for Billy Smart’s Circus? Get in!” He did, and the train rattled past.

And now fear really sets in. You can see Sentinel cards burning on the fire as the machinery of hindsight, inquest and punishment is cranked up to speed. No I didn’t report it and neither, I assume, did the driver. My colleague had suffered a software glitch which nearly caused a fatal crash. A salutary lesson was learned.

It’s easy to underestimate the wider consequences of such incidents but ‘Hit or Miss’, the new film from Network Rail, pushes them firmly in our faces. There are no platitudes from the pulpit, just real life with rough edges.

In three minutes, we’re shown how the difference between life and death can sometimes be measured in fractions. And when a trackworker is mown down, the door is opened on an empty world - new home to his loved-ones, workmates and the driver. In the final moments, a collection of scattered body parts takes your breath away. And the last shot - a silent close-up of the sobbing widow’s face - is deafening.

Near miss? Not this message.

Story added 1st February 2006
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