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Utopia in a real world

Perhaps I’m just old fashioned. If my daughter’s not looking, I tuck my shirt into my trousers and, yes, I expect music to have a tune. Why do we engage in protracted, time-guzzling email exchanges when a one-minute phone call would nail matters? And what prompted newsreaders to emerge from behind their desks? I’ve no wish to see their legs, Angela Rippon excepted.

Despite the mind-expanding communication gateways opened by technology over the past decade, I still haven’t found a more powerful means of conveying a safety message than through video - an ageing product of the 20th Century. Of course, as the former producer of Safety Net, I am grinding my axe as I scribble.

Unearthing this article has demanded effort on your part. Now you’re multi-tasking - translating shapes into sentences and mulling over their meaning. Are you really sitting comfortably hunched at that desk? Moving pictures and their associated audio enjoy huge advantages over other media. Spoken words filter freely into the audience’s consciousness unless they’re so banal as to induce a state of stupor. Have you endured Jeremy Kyle’s show?

When Safety Net bit the dust, a positive link between office and trackface was broken. Those of you suffering withdrawal symptoms might like to visit YouTube and search for ‘safetynut’.

And it doesn’t end there. Anyone who attained their first track safety competency last year might have been puzzled by the redundant, glass-fronted box perched behind the trainer. Beyond a couple of ‘shock horror’ movies with all-too-predictable plots, key learning points have lacked any video reinforcement since Network Rail despatched the PTS training film to the knackers yard, insisting it was too long in the tooth to live on.

They had a fair point. Brick-like mobile phones, antique rolling stock, non-compliant HV and Sentinel cards emblazoned with the dreaded R-word - Railtrack - all featured. Moreover, many heads lacked protection from the ever-present danger of asteroids passing somewhere between Mars and Jupiter.

So I spent much of last summer touring the network with camera, microphone and wrinkled assistant, creating 20 new video modules aligned (ish) with the PTS Handbook. These were premiered in December at learning centres across the network as well as being offered for download from the NCCA website.

For much of the past ten years I’ve been committing our track safety rules to tape and paper. Though preferable to real work, time has not made the business any easier. The Utopian railways found in the Rule Book - one Up line, one Down - have well-tended cesses and very few trains. Robots replace people. Shooting the clinical theory of PTS in a real environment presents many challenges, some of which cannot be overcome.
The Utopian railways found in the Rule Book - one Up line, one Down - have well-tended cesses and very few trains. Robots replace people.

Exposing those rules to the light of critical scrutiny reveals many to have flakey edges. If TOWS is in use, should a lookout also be appointed? Must a safe system be set up when working between two lines which are 30 feet apart? No two juries reached the same verdict.

There’s little doubt that twitching pedants - equipped with magnifying glass and slow motion control - will spot some procedural oddities in the half-hour between titles and credits. In my view, the occasional glimpse of human nature should serve to stimulate debate about what is and what is not important.

On-screen talent from local maintenance depots fought their embarrassment to give sterling performances. The two halves of a zip rarely meet each other on-track so, before pushing the record button, we would issue a directive for all HV to be fastened, having first exchanged it for something less filth-coloured. When ‘action’ was bellowed, eagle eyes would remain peeled. Did that site warden glance towards the train? Will anybody notice Frank’s red socks?

In the presence of a camera, rails and sleepers generate a gravitational pull which attracts the feet of every passing trackworker. My time on Safety Net was blighted by incessant junk email about such trivia. One particular trainer had a ludicrous obsession with it. “The rules clearly state that you must never step on a rail or sleeper” he insisted. Except of course they don’t, only when you’re crossing the line. Still, far be it for me to shatter his illusions.

Such difficulties apart, shoot days always wrapped with smiles across our faces. We went cap-in-hand for assistance from hard-pressed Section Managers and, on every occasion, they came up trumps. Manpower was provided by the van load at times and locations of our choosing. When possessions or isolations were requested, they were duly arranged. This new movie, though not perfect, would never have entered service without the enthusiasm of its facilitators and contributors. For that, I owe a huge debt of thanks. Cheers guys.

Story added 1st February 2008
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