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Safe but not sound

I support the idea of outlawing the use of child labour in third-world sweat shops. I support the idea of outlawing plastic bags. I support the idea of outlawing power generation from anything other than renewable sources.

Hang on a moment, another inviting bandwagon has trundled into view. I now also support the idea of shunting entire train fleets back to their depots so that trackworkers can fettle junctions in an environment devoid of all risk.

Did you know that cycling’s a very good way to get about?

There is a planet on the far side of the cosmos where all this and more has long since been enshrined. Jade Goodey even won the Booker Prize there. Closer to home, the 21st Century continues to set us challenging tests and we can’t prevent the world from turning whilst we sit them. Kite flying sometimes has merits; attacking logic with a wrecking ball never enlightens.

So it was with some bemusement that I studied the views of “a former track maintenance engineer”, exposed to the dazzling light of publicity in last month's RailStaff newspaper. It seems that, for this chap, open lines are about as welcome as Robert Mugabe at an Electoral Commission dinner. He questions whether it’s safe to work red zone around switches and crossings. Bear in mind that unless darkness or fog has descended, someone somewhere will be doing just that as you read. Chances are, dozens are at it.

First let’s take a fine toothcomb through his statistics. From December 1994 to November 2007, 20 trackworkers were struck and killed by trains. Of these he asserts that 12 directly involved red zone working and that the effective figure is 19 as seven of the remaining eight victims strayed beyond the limits of a green zone. That’s akin to blaming the concrete pillar for Princess Diana’s demise.

In fact only eight of those casualties formed part of a ‘conventional’ red system. Of the others, two were legitimately alone in the four-foot; one was working alone on points, contrary to the rules; one was alone in a complex area with no position of safety, contrary to the rules; two were floundering in the lawless no-man’s land of possession arrangements; three moved from blocked lines onto open lines; two were devoid of protection whilst walking or working.

I’m not clear how those varied crimes can be pinned on red zone working - a system which succeeds in safeguarding the welfare of several thousand trackworkers every day of the week.

It’s hardly big news that these rare train strikes are often allied with red zones - only slow, ES-controlled movements are entertained by their alluring, green sibling. Even so, that same time period saw another nine men lose their lives to on-track vehicles in worksites. I won’t bore you again with A D Little’s research finding that, overall, more incidents occur in green zones than red - a fact buried in the graveyard of managerial inconvenience. Oh sorry, I just did.

Given the government’s intention to force-feed our bloated network with more trains, from which hat is this magical engineer proposing to pull all the extra line blockages to accommodate his red zone ban? How would the additional complexities of taking T2s at junctions - accounting for all possible approach routes - be handled logistically? Battalions of handsignallers marching from signal post to signal post? A breeding programme for signalling technicians, allowing one to set up home in every lineside cabinet?

Or perhaps he intends to squeeze the weekly ration of several hundred routine S&C maintenance tasks into overnight and weekend possessions - a regime which, in some areas, is already under pressure. Can you imagine the manpower and planning carnage which would ensue?

If you want to know just how impractical this notion is, look at what Rimini has delivered. It stipulates that the decision-making process behind every planned safe system is documented. If ‘red zone with lookout’ pops out, six or seven excuses - sorry, reasons - have to be found to justify it.

And yet today that method of last resort is adopted more extensively than before. Is that because mankind conspires to thwart better methods of protection or pragmatically selects the only practical one? On all but the quietest lines, line blockages are scarce and hugely valuable commodities, particularly at junctions. In a production-driven business serving a busy railway, nothing else comes close to the success and simplicity of lookouts.
In a production-driven business serving a busy railway, nothing else comes close to the success and simplicity of lookouts.

Advocates for Automatic Track Warning Systems will now be eagerly pointing fingers towards those flashing lights across the North Sea. And so they should. ATWS is harnessed extensively in parts of mainland Europe and, for work of any duration, it does wonders for safety and efficiency. So why not over here?

Let’s shatter the illusion that we never see them. Accepting that one swallow does not make a summer, I have visited several weekend renewal sites benefiting from an ATWS. But they make very little sense for the transient maintenance activity which provides our bread and butter. The kit needs maintaining; operators require competence assessments; plans have to be drawn up and signed-off for every deployment; both the site survey and installation call for safe systems to be established, generally employing lookouts. Would you wade through that lot for a three hour job which one man with eyeballs could protect?

We could invent - as some have proposed - a device to aid point-watching. Built-in warning systems would be great news, offering a no-effort, turnkey solution. We could call them TOWS! Sadly the intricacies of our approvals process would heap an unsustainable cost burden onto such equipment. It’s tragic that manufacturers are deterred from developing products because they’re unable to create something perfect, only something better.

We ought to get the basics right first. Red zone working at junctions is not a black art. It does though demand experience and nous to cover all bases. That’s where tuition falls woefully short. Courses follow the Rule Book; the Rule Book is blind to more than two tracks of plain line. I’ve sat alongside trainee COSSs for days on end whilst they’re saturated with procedural detail but few of the hands-on skills that are vital for survival when there’s ballast beneath their feet.

It isn’t time to throw the baby out with the bathwater again. We just need to impart the right knowledge to the right people in the right way. That shouldn’t be beyond us.

Story added 1st May 2008
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