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Views from the grandstand

As someone not averse to being forthright, I find myself this month in the uncomfortable position of criticising fellow track safety agitator Colin Wheeler who airs his views in RailStaff, the railway newspaper. His January contribution noted that those involved in motorway roadworks often benefit from a 50mph speed restriction whilst those labouring on the railway generally don’t. He also continued to pour scorn on the industry’s use on lookouts, questioning whether the risks involved are sustainable.

Red zones with lookouts are not the only safe system susceptible to human error.

Although at first glance there might appear to be parallels, there is actually no sensible comparison to be made between worksites on our highways and railways. I have never seen trains running nose-to-tail up any line and a driver doesn't ever steer his unit into a worksite because the one in front has jabbed the brakes on for no reason. I don’t recall hearing stories of delinquents stealing HSTs and thrashing them down the Great Western, or overseas visitors taking charge of trains without any experience or training. Sections of the West Coast are never converted to narrow gauge in order to squeeze four lines into the space normally occupied by three. And despite having often been delayed by roadworks, I am still awaiting my first compensation payment from the Highways Agency. All this makes any analogy feel something of a diversion down a blind alley. The fact that a railway has both rails and signalling - resulting in a train’s course being absolutely predictable - changes everything in workforce safety terms.

More worrying is Colin’s willingness to persistently besmirch lookout-protected red zone working - a system which demonstrates its strengths to thousands of on-track workers every day of the week. Contrary to the impression given in his article, this is not the only protection method susceptible to human error - they all are and the evidence provides clear proof of that.

Anyone whose duties take them onto the railway needs to maintain heightened vigilance. Yet members of our workforce have succumbed to train movements in the supposed safe havens of ES worksites, even in cases where all lines are blocked. Separated green zones - in my opinion, the least safe of all eight protection methods - creates a barrier of air between the person and the train but provides no advance warning that one is about to rattle past almost within touching distance. It was precisely this failing that claimed Mark Falivena at Desborough. ATWSs have to be planned, installed, operated and maintained - all by fallible human beings. And like TOWS and LOWS, they don’t drag people to the position of safety and then strap them to trackside structures until the train has passed. How many people have lost their lives having ventured close to a line that they had previously been clear of?

When Jarvis operated its Safety Check Number system, it was issuing around 1,500 SCNs every weekday and maybe 700 on Saturdays and Sundays. If my memory serves, 92% of these involved red zone working. If we assume that the average group comprised 2.5 people (balancing IWAs, two-man S&T and patrolling teams with larger maintenance gangs) and each work activity lasted 1½ hours, we reach around 1.6 million man hours of lookout-protected red zone working annually. Across the network, the figure is probably six million.

In this context, given the number of deaths and injuries occurring each year, it is untenable to assert that the use of lookouts is anything other than robust. We need to move beyond the reactionary response that any death - such as the one that occurred near Leeds Station in December - must somehow highlight a systematic flaw. They generally don’t - they tell us that human beings continue to be prone to lapses of concentration and errors of judgement. Whilst recognising that every fatality is a tragedy from which lessons must be learned, throwing the baby out with the bath water is neither a sensible nor mature response to most accidents.
...throwing the baby out with the bath water is neither a sensible nor mature response to most accidents.

A D Little’s report into the root causes of red zone working (January 2004) analysed 101 formal inquiries/investigations, finding that red zone working was involved in less than one in three of them. Green zones were the prevailing safe system in 53% whilst 15% resulted from no protection at all having been established. These awkward conclusions have been pushed down the back of the managerial sofa.

Ask most of those working on track today what they think of lookouts and the answer will be unequivocal - they are a safe, simple and effective solution. ATWS is safe and effective but not simple, rendering its adoption disproportionate for most routine activities. Separated green is not safe, simple or effective which is why many COSSs augment it with an unofficial lookout, a role usually combined with that of site warden.

There is a real debate to be had about trackworker safety but the position outlined in Colin’s article - mirroring that of RSSB and RAIB - feels ten years out of date. We need to move on from ‘red is bad and green is good’. It’s very easy for commentators to advocate green zones, ATWSs and TSRs. Unfortunately Network Rail, its contractors and workforce are in the less comfortable position of having a railway to run, with all the conflicts and challenges that brings. The public, through its elected government, is expecting more trains running at higher speeds to extended timetables for less taxpayer investment. NR cannot turn a blind eye to that reality and others shouldn’t either.

All that said, we cannot stand still and there is certainly room for improvement. Network Rail’s failure to develop, approve and install a fixed warning system at difficult and strategically important locations is symptomatic of its unwillingness to meaningfully tackle substantive workforce safety issues and is counter-productive in performance terms. The same can be said of lineside access difficulties. The paperwork burden remains a time-sapping distraction for many people whose focus really needs to be elsewhere. And it is unquestionably the case that both system and trackworker safety is compromised by the unsustainable workload borne by some low-level managers and supervisors. The loss of 1400+ frontline workers must surely raise the threat level further.

These are the issues that demand attention. We need to cast light on them and encourage others to do the same. Choosing to make life more difficult is not a rational approach.

Story added 1st February 2010
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