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Delude Retreat Indemnify Prevaricate Squander

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One of the many criticisms levelled at New Labour is its occasional but apparent contempt for the due processes of democracy. How many major policy initiatives have leaked into the public domain through unofficial press briefings rather than from the mouth of a Minister giving chapter and verse to our appointed representatives in the Commons chamber?

Politicians are not alone in exhibiting this kind of disrespect; it has become embedded in modern business too. But it’s fair to assume that a radical shift in the approach taken to the railway’s rules would prove immune to such a culture. An information pack would be sent out to Sentinel sponsors and a series of nationwide workshops arranged. There might be a website with resources to download. Surely.

So I suspect that any trackworker who subscribes to ‘Rail’ magazine would have found a recent edition something of an eye-opener. “RSSB rewrites the Rule Book” it proclaimed. Was this news to you?

Christened the ‘New Approach’, this project started to put roots down last year when RSSB finally accepted - a decade too late - that the rules were buckling under the mass of sticking plasters affixed to them, often for no apparent reason. This tinkering had created an unmanageable and confusing tangle, a reality exacerbated by the Rule Book’s inability to differentiate between instructions of fundamental importance and those lacking practical relevance.

The objective now is to provide a set of core rules which are “clear, concise and precise”. Does that sound familiar? Two of these three words were banded about during the last major Rule Book exercise; ‘precise’ has emerged as a replacement for ‘simple’ which was high on the agenda back in 1999. All this might seem quite laudable but, with the undergrowth cut back, the success of any core rules will rely on a truly competent workforce, able to exercise informed judgement. Gulp! Don’t underestimate the massive implications ingrained in that final phrase.

“I think the industry has recognised that it’s just not appropriate to pile up more and more paperwork in the direction of your average guy on the ground.” That pearl of revelatory wisdom was uttered by RSSB’s Chief Executive Len Porter, interviewed in ‘Rail’, claiming that this is a “once in a generation opportunity”. Actually Len, Railway Safety had the opportunity ten years ago but flunked it.

Then the alarm bells start to ring. Having established that the new rules will be ‘precise’, he states that they will only “give people direction as to what they need to do without actually telling them ‘you must do this’”. He went on, “You know best how to produce a safe system of work. We will give you some generic high-level rules and then you work it out from there.”

Let me translate that for you. “As a result of our ignorance, we’ve made a complete horlicks of the rules so we’re doing away with them. It’s down to you now - I’m off to the Bahamas. If it goes tits-up, you’ll be the one in the dock, not me.”

It’s down to you now - I’m off to the Bahamas. If it goes tits-up, you’ll be the one in the dock, not me.

The intention is to implement the New Approach in tranches, starting with basic on-track safety knowledge in June 2010 followed, six months later, by the setting up of safe systems. There are many potential flies buzzing around the ointment, not least the costs involved and nervous trade unions. The RMT has already been vocal in its criticism, describing existing rules management processes as “poor”, resulting in the majority of rules being “unfit for purpose”.

Securing universal buy-in will be crucial to the success or otherwise of this latest scheme. But, to achieve that, RSSB has to get its ducks in a row, moving beyond the fluffy media hype to provide clear evidence of how the New Approach will benefit those on the ground. Will the rules be simpler to apply and easier to remember? Is additional training going to be provided? Or will people find themselves cut loose in a vacuum, searching for direction which simply isn’t there?

If the last Rule Book debacle is anything to go by, there are no grounds so far for optimism.

Story added 1st November 2009

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