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What a performance!

  • ‘World-class’ (adjective): ranking among the foremost in the world; of an international standard of excellence.

Before launching into this month’s tirade, I thought I’d better define the term ‘world-class’ for those of you unfamiliar with it. It’s something Britain used to be before global warming caused sea levels to rise and we were overwhelmed by a tidal wave of trivia. If you’re of a certain age, you’ll still bemoan its passing, along with responsibility, truth and common-sense - all close relatives.

Against the odds and visible only by satellite, islands of world-class enterprise have survived the Tsunami: the BBC’s Natural History Unit, the Royal Marsden Hospital, Harry Ramsden’s Fish & Chip Restaurant, the Health and Safety Executive. Sorry, I could only think of two.

Fifty years ago, our nation took pride in its railway. But for years now, Governments red and blue have turned their backs on the social, economic and environmental advantages just waiting to be exploited. Instead, growth has been stifled and today we suffer the added pain of ‘death by mismanagement’. Every time the industry’s reputation is repaired, we contrive to hole it again below the water line.

Still, it’s great to know that safety strategists can put their own failings to one side and demand world-class performance from those beneath them. My last COSS recert provided evidence of that. A new, fluff-coated session on communications taught candidates about tone, body language and filters. So enthralled was I that, after a while, I found myself checking out the ceiling for somewhere to anchor a noose. And then we were confronted by a slide which told us to ‘Be Professional’.

I looked around the table at my brothers, most of whom had already tied a slipknot in their rope. There was an engineer, an S&T technician and two machine operators. To a man, they demonstrated their professionalism in spades by keeping the railway running or renewing parts of it. And they did this in a high-pressure, high-risk environment - no air conditioning, no coffee machine.
To a man, they demonstrated their professionalism in spades by keeping the railway running or renewing parts of it.

Now Network Rail wants them to become gifted orators too. World-class in fact - that’s the stated goal of its SAF6 initiative. So is it giving practical support to our safety criticals? Can they hone their communication skills offline in encouraging surroundings? No. They suffer crass edicts by Powerpoint.

One area of weakness under the microscope is the COSS briefing, known by many as ‘the brief’.

  • ‘Brief’ (adjective): short in time, duration, length or extent; succinct, concise.

Never was a word less fittingly applied. A typical COSS brief involves more rambling than a Sunday afternoon in the Lakes.

Our “easy to understand and remember” Rule Book helpfully splits the information which the COSS must convey into three distant sections - T6.3.6b, T7.4.6 and T7.9.8. There are 20 bullets in total including the awe-inspiring:

  • details of any line or lines which has had a temporary or emergency speed restriction imposed specially.

Almost Shakespearian. The COSS Handbook - for which I must accept much of the blame - brings all this together on a single page (I didn’t do that Rocket Science degree for nothing) but adds a cream topping to the Rule Book’s blancmange.

So just what does a PTS holder need to be told before working trackside under a COSS’s safe system? Load your gun - I’m about to speak the unspeakable.

In an emergency, the COSS will take charge and assign tasks. If the COSS is under a train, there needs to be a sheet of paper in someone’s pocket to which the senior man can refer. On it will be the phone number of the controlling signal box (and electrical control room) as well as a grid reference - or similar - for the nearest access point.

In less fraught circumstances, it’s the COSS’s job to consider relevant risks and put in place measures to mitigate them. It’s my job - as a member of the group - to do as I’m told. Contrary to the commands of T6, I don’t need to know about “limited sighting conditions” or “noise from sources next to or near the railway”. The COSS can deal with all that.

I’m not blind; neither am I deaf. The lookout is the elderly chap wearing a ‘lookout’ armlet - I don’t need to know his name. The access point is the gate I passed through five minutes ago. The cess is a mythical land from yesteryear where prizes were given for having the best length. I know we’ll end up walking along the troughing or sleeper ends.

How many trackworkers do you know who can communicate all this and more… professionally, to a world-class standard? And we wonder why, sometimes, they just don’t bother or make a complete dog’s breakfast of it.

“All lines are open; the linespeed is 75; the warning will be given by whistle; the position of safety is in the far cess”. If that’s all I’m told, I’ll be happy. Delirium will set in if hazards are pointed out as we walk to site.

Unrealistic expectations result in disappointment. If common-sense was allowed to triumph, we might start to see some progress. Sadly, common-sense went down with world-class. I reckon ‘reason’ is floundering too.

Story added 1st July 2008
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