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Delude Retreat Indemnify Prevaricate Squander

Blood squeezed from precious stone

Getting old is a cruel business. Why do so many body parts suddenly creak, sprout and wheeze when the clock strikes 40? Sometime soon I hope to be offered a full body transplant - indeed the wife’s quite excited by this prospect too. In the meantime, Boots have opened a dispensary in our bathroom cupboard.

Still, I thank my lucky stars that I’m not suffering the pain of our ageing possession procedures. For years, treatment was promised then cancelled, until inquiries discovered fractures in the instructions governing on-track plant. These have come under the knife of a cross-industry working group. Their extensive surgery is about to be implemented but just how cosmetic has it been?

Innovators on major projects, most notably the West Coast leviathan, have long been exploiting the flexibility of OTP to ratchet up output from limited engineering access. Squeezing blood from this precious stone has been nothing short of miraculous, even if the poor old rules have been condemned to life in a nursing home.

Next month’s changes are a catch-up exercise - more renovation than innovation. Eight modules have been scrutinised - T4 and T7 were reissued in December whilst T8 is taking the scenic route via module AM and the PON. This leaves OTP, OTM, T3, T9 and T11 to appear in their new form on 2nd June.

Looking down from my hobby horse, it’s not easy to find a clear path through the briefing leaflet’s burgeoning verbiage, almost 6,000 words thick. Closer inspection reveals a few, welcome quick-wins hiding amongst a memory-testing tangle of tiny tweaks. Hold onto your hats as I canter through the finer points.

Crane controllers are awarded their own armlet. The term ‘OTP’ is redefined to include attachments and trailers. A machine controller can keep their eyes on more than one piece of OTP provided authority is buried in the method statement. Plant with a top speed over 20mph requires a headlight - no mention of whether it has to be lit.

Although OTP is a ‘train’ and used for engineering work, T9 informs us that it’s not an ‘engineering train’ (unless it’s a Thursday and the wind is from the south-west). Several collections of rules have been duplicated across different modules for no apparent reason and extra text is piled onto islands of existing clarity to fully gild the lily. You get the idea.

Handsignallers have been made redundant where protecting detonators are within 440 yards of points used for normal train movements. And, to prevent staff from dozing in the bushes, it’s been enshrined that drivers of on-track plant must sound a warning before moving their vehicle. I bet that prompted riotous debate on the Train Horns Steering Group (or ‘Mountains out of Molehills Committee’ as it was otherwise known).

Prior to consultation, the broad acres of the reworked Possession Arrangements Form had a degree of elegance, addressing known weaknesses with the present version. Evidently Stevie Wonder has since redesigned it, tearing user-suggested improvements from the page whilst adding spurious fonts and a loose array of randomly-sized boxes. It’s a triumph for the distinctly average.

One item of practical significance does loiter with intent. The time available to get a job done is often eaten into from both ends by the delivery and despatch of engineering trains. The revised rules will allow a possession to be given up around one train - lessening the impact of overruns - and taken around several. As more movements will be made under the protection of the signalling system, this change offers real safety benefits.

You do get a sense that the tail has wagged the dog here. June’s transformation serves two purposes - to formally endorse practices which are already commonplace and paper over known procedural cracks. The inquiry into last year’s derailment at Haymarket revealed confusion and complexity within T3, despite it flaunting the Plain English Campaign’s Crystal Mark. This is only bestowed on documents which can be “read, understood and acted upon by their intended audience”.

I now understand that the PEC was uneasy about the new-look Rule Book from the earliest stages of its involvement six years ago but received assurances that both content and style were appropriate for a typical, Sun-reading trackworker. Having being lead up the garden path, the campaign is keen to prevent the Rule Book’s flaws from tarnishing the Crystal Mark. It’s raising concerns with RSSB and, unless a way forward is found, it’s just possible that the ‘Plain English’ Rule Book could be stripped of this accolade. What a damning indictment that would be.’s just possible that the ‘Plain English’ Rule Book could be stripped of this accolade. What a damning indictment that would be.

At the heart of the problem is our rule guardians’ head-in-the-sand mentality. Development continues to be driven by intellectual contortionists who contrive narrow responses to emerging issues. When the end user steps back to see the bigger picture, they’re challenged by a bewildering hotchpotch of directives. Cock-up ensues, pushing the cycle of decline up a gear.

As a PEC rocket scientist declared, if lots of readers find the Rule Book difficult to understand then it needs to be made simpler. Unfortunately, ‘simpler’ seems to be an alien concept to the railway’s safety professionals.

Story added 1st May 2007
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