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Not a laughing matter

“What do I do with my old 78s?” utters Mel Smith’s character naively, having walked head-long into the 1980s to find that the world has moved on. The line is from a cringeworthy Not the Nine O’Clock News sketch set in a hi-fi shop. Behind the counter is Rowan Atkinson, oozing with condescension, who reveals that “I don’t think we’ve got any gramophones here Granddad.” Smith ends up with a bag on his head, dowsed in salad dressing.

Written just 30 years ago, the cutting-edge technology of the time was apparently a ‘deck’ (“a Trio automatic cut direct-drive turntable unless I’m very much mistaken”), an amp, rumble filters and a tape recorder with Dolby. Since then CDs have almost been and gone. Not even a figment of the imagination was the MP3 player, with entire album collections compressed onto cards the size of your toe nail.

Then the internet arrived…and mobiles. I can now point my smartphone at the night sky and it will map out the constellations for me. Walking down the street, its camera captures the scene and overlays information onto the display - the nearest fish and chip shop, opening times for the library. Everything I could ever wish to know is literally at my fingertips. The whole experience is mind-boggling.

'There's no app for that': how 'Layar' might treat a typical access point.

It would be a nonsense to suggest that IT is the panacea for every ill. Only last week the coalition pulled the plug on the pan-NHS computer project - a monument to incompetence - that has cost taxpayers £12.7 billion in the past ten years. But such calamitous failures cannot mask the benefits brought to businesses by effective implementation of new hard/soft ware - that’s why so many invest in it. How come then Network Rail can still not provide its contractors with a reliable, user-friendly and up-to-date means of learning about the infrastructure and the risks it poses?

The Hazard Directory is a cornerstone of planning, sitting alongside but unhelpfully detached from the Sectional Appendix. Its failings have been cited in inquiry reports, notably into cable strikes. At Handsworth in March 2002, a metal spike was driven through a duct carrying a 132,000V cable, causing an explosion from which two men received burns. The system by which buried services information was provided to their employer had “broken down”, found HMRI. Network Rail was hit with a £16,000 fine.

Work to establish the National Hazard Directory, under the auspices of Railtrack, was completed in 2000. Thereafter it was issued on CD every three months. Initially free of charge, an annual fee of over a thousand pounds had been slapped on it when I first subscribed in 2002, although updates were then appearing bimonthly. The interface was clunky and frustrating, with separate databases for each Zone which had to be located on the disk and then manually ‘attached’ for interrogation. It rarely functioned satisfactorily.

Times have changed of course - technology has continued its forward march. And Network Rail’s stated commitment to safety continues to be embellished too. But the misfit between the firm’s words and deeds are exemplified by the costs now involved: contractors typically have to fork out £2,500 for a year’s access, with additional licences costing £600. There is no moral justification for levying any charge on vital safety information, neither is it compliant with the spirit of the law. When will the regulators wake up to this scandal?

There is no moral justification for levying any charge on vital safety information...

Management of the Hazard Directory has changed hands over the years. Achilles inherited it from Technical Indexes; since June 2010 it’s been with OnTrac. The latter has added some bonus features - you can now, for example, compile and download Safe System of Work packs based on your inputted location. But there remain substantive problems with it, as illustrated recently by one of this website’s visitors.

Despite checking and rechecking his log-in details, attempts to access the system are often met with an error message - “You are not authorised to access”. This can occur several times in a week. Resolving the issue involves a call to OnTrac, requesting a reset. Though rather inconvenient, this is tolerable if you work normal office hours but it has the potential to screw things up grandly at weekends and overnight. There is no online rescue facility.

Information is presented in largely the same way as it was ten years ago. Searches often prove unpredictable, with the filters resetting themselves as you navigate through the results. More worryingly, some hazard information is either out-of-date or missing altogether. Access points remain a black hole. On one nine-mile section of line, our correspondent counted 16 of them; the Hazard Directory only lists four and those are accompanied by OS grid references - useless for SatNav users - or links to spurious places on Google Maps. What key do you need for the padlock - a 222, an 859? It doesn’t say. He recalls the pantomime of walking to site from one access point only to find another right next to the site of work.

And why can’t the Directory be integrated with the Sectional Appendix and signalling diagrams to create one seamless resource? Viewing the Appendix through OnTrac’s system requires ‘SVG viewer’ - an antique application that Adobe no longer supports. To find the relevant page, you have to input the location in miles and yards but the document itself still quotes Chains.

This disjointed, haphazard approach is not the mark of a modern, efficient and professionally-run industry. Planners should not have to ring the signalman via a friend of a friend, or quiz the bloke sweeping the yard to glean the knowledge needed to properly discharge their duties. It should all be freely available - at their fingertips, just like my star chart. Instead the Hazard Directory has the makings of Jim Davison comedy…just not funny. As Gerald the Gorilla retorted in another classic Not the Nine O’Clock News sketch, “If I may say so, your teaching methods do leave a bit to be desired.” From the mouth of a primate eh?

Great news. The Rail Accident Investigation Branch is looking to strengthen its front-line team by recruiting new investigators. So if you fancy a job in the railway but know nothing about it, you're besotted with bureaucracy and audit, have no grasp of human factors, benefit from the sharpest hindsight and work at the speed of an arthritic donkey, why not submit an application?

But be warned, the work can be arduous. Over the course of each year you will be expected to complete at least 0.8 inquiries and invest considerable time counting your £75,000 salary. It's reassuring to hear that at a time of deep public sector cuts, the high-value service delivered by the Branch has been granted complete immunity.

Story added 1st October 2011

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