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Full of good intentions

Hoarding, like thrift, is another Yorkshire trait; we hate to throw things away. This though creates a spatial challenge, so we give thanks for attics - a handy place to keep the kids. The filing cabinet next to my desk rarely gets used nowadays but its top drawer remains a bulging receptacle for the video scripts and newsletters I produced for Railtrack Safety & Standards Directorate, then Railway Safety, and finally RSSB for six years straddling the Millennium.

...we give thanks for attics - a handy place to keep the kids.

The newsletter boasted the truly inspired title, Safety Lines. Although I couldn’t have known it at the time, Issue 1 - dated July 1998 - rather set the tone for the years that followed. Lead story: two trackworkers suffering serious injuries in separate accidents; page two carried analysis of three others including a double fatality. There was news of hoped-for approvals for a safety barrier and three ATWSs, as well as a knicker-gripper which asked whether Velcro badges could replace the traditional identification armlet. Another article sported the headline ‘The Rule Book - Time for Change?’ Mmmm.

And then there were two pieces on possession management, including one marking “a new initiative” to reduce irregularities. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Until you delve into the body text which reveals that this involved the establishment of a new committee to develop three extra competency standards. Oh yes, Issue 1 set the tone for the years that followed.

A quick flick through subsequent editions is quite telling when it comes to possessions. Issue 3’s big story (March 1999) proclaims “All Change for Section T”, going on to detail the “major changes” to T3 arriving the following August. And two months later there was a ‘special edition’ to explain why these had been withdrawn! Despite trials of this, studies into that and conferences on the other, the way possessions are arranged today is fundamentally no different from how they were back then, albeit banners have given way to PLBs and there are now two flavours of PICOP. How can that be given the many managerial promises that revolution was on its way, not to mention the safety and efficiency benefits just waiting to be accrued from reform?

At this point I could be tempted down my instinctive path of damning the ineffective nature of the industry’s senior safety boffins and their reluctance to see beyond the theoretical into areas of culture, practical niceties and human factors. I could bemoan the arthritic nature of the Standards change and equipment approval processes which support a state of paralysis.

June will see a third tranche of the Rule Book’s ‘new approach’ implemented, covering all things possession-related. The ideal opportunity you might think to launch T3 from the 19th into the 21st Century. But no. Like Rossi, Parfitt, Bown and Edwards, there’s no moving on from Status Quo.

Surely, with technology advancing at mind-boggling speeds, there are things we can do quicker, smarter, safer - without breaking the bank? At the risk of launching into an advertorial, a presentation fell into my Inbox recently that got me quite enthusiastic. Yes, really.

Dual Inventive’s ZKL3000 does all you would expect of a TCOD but has some clever facilities grafted on. It’s a far cry from the cable and two clamps that you’re probably picturing in your mind’s eye; this is a hinged device that pushes/snaps into place to short the track circuit. But it also incorporates a ‘black box’ which stores data on its status, as well as a GPS beacon. This information can be retrieved and monitored back at base.

Of more interest is the ability to remotely activate/deactivate the TCOD by means of a secure wireless connection and handset - effectively a smartphone/PDA. This means the TCOD can be positioned in the four-foot prior to the activity starting, then switched on and off to protect the workgroup or allow trains to pass. There’s even a ‘gateway’ - a train detection system - which can be placed in rear of the work, alerting the COSS/PC to an approaching train (if you don’t understand the term ‘approaching train’, click here for the definition) and the impending need to give up the blockage. Its status can also be relayed to the workgroup by means of a flashing light or siren.

The battery within the TCOD has a life of about 60 hours between charges, but it can be replaced in situ whilst maintaining the short. External ‘Acupacks’ are available, each providing power for a month. They can be daisy-chained together, effectively creating a semi-permanent installation. And development work is ongoing to create a version that harnesses existing lineside power supplies.

This - or something like it - has real potential if permanently installed at strategically difficult locations. I remember producing a video about the patrolling regime for the eight-track railway out of Waterloo. Inspecting the middle lines involved taking afternoon T2Hs to create a position of safety. Securing these required the COSS to walk, under signal protection, up the relevant four-foot from Vauxhall Station - a distance of about three-quarters of a mile - to place a PLB and dets clear of the West Crossings. And this process had to be repeated at the end of the job too. Effectively a good 45 minutes of blockage time was rendered non-productive by the protection arrangements - a ludicrous waste given the high value of track access through that section of railway. With a remotely controlled TCOD, the protection could have been delivered instantly, without exposing anyone to any risk.

The industry really has to adopt a more proactive and enlightened approach given the aspirations for a 24/7 railway and Sir Roy McNulty’s ‘Value for Money Study’ breathing down its neck. The steadfast resistance of RSSB; RAIB’s obsession with bureaucracy, audit and trivia; Network Rail’s inability to drive cultural change: all these have to be confronted and defeated. There is another way. Revolutions are for the Middle East; there’s no appetite for one here. We just need a willingness to venture beyond the traditional comfort zone, recognising the opportunities that technology presents to deliver the incremental change that’s long been promised. Better safety and improved efficiency: could someone point out the downside please?

Most of the problems affecting workforce safety are, in my not-so-humble opinion, a function of managerial failings. But the ability of frontliners to occasionally shoot themselves in the foot does little to further the cause. One such incident - comprising two distinct parts - has recently appeared on RAIB's website, and the Branch is now investigating....very slowly.

It occurred on 8th March following the lifting of a possession on the main lines between Waterloo and Wimbledon. Two Network Rail track maintenance gangs were involved in setting up a speed restriction following the earlier discovery of a rail defect during a routine ultrasonic examination.

The first group left Clapham Junction Station and went on track at 05:25hrs, believing they were still protected by the possession. Around 20 minutes later, a train formed of empty coaching stock, which had left Clapham Yard bound for Hampton Court, approached the group while their work was ongoing. This was obviously an unexpected turn of events. The COSS contacted the signaller and arranged for trains to be stopped, enabling his gang to return safely to Clapham Junction. He then advised the supervisor of a second gang that he had obtained a line blockage for 15 minutes.

That gang then went on track from a location between Clapham Junction and Earlsfield at about 06:00hrs. They walked to the site of the defect where they intended to clamp the rail and erect marker boards. At 06:08hrs, the driver of another train formed of empty coaching stock, en route from Clapham Junction to Epsom sidings, came across the gang and had to make an emergency brake application. The train struck an insulated shield over the live conductor rail and came to a stand a few metres beyond the site of work.

It sounds quite a hair-curler - and one which could have had far more serious consequences.

Story added 1st April 2011

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