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Plan, resource, deliver

In 268BC, the Romans founded a colony at the mouth of the Ariminus river, a fortified bastion against the invading Gauls. Its strategic convenience, sitting astride the junction of two major highways, attracted trade by waterway and sea. The Byzantines seized control during the Middle Ages before a Papal government was eventually installed. By the 19th Century, grand palaces were taking shape along the Corso Augusto and the city soon established itself as a diverse commercial and cultural centre. Today it’s arguably the best known resort on the Adriatic coast.

Yes, Rimini has enjoyed a remarkable, compelling history. Though it lacks the panache of its Italian namesake, Network Rail’s Risk Minimisation standard SP/OHS/019 also survived the turbulence of conflict before cementing its place in the track safety landscape. This month marks the fifth anniversary of its implementation. So what difference has it made and will it still be with us in another five years?

Love it or loathe it, Rimini was a product of our own failings. In essence, it changed very little - just sought compliance with existing rules. Since the red/green concept reared its ugly head during the mid-Nineties, red zone working had only been legitimate when ‘absolutely necessary’. This, of course, was routinely ignored. Against this background, in 2000, HMRI published an unfavourable report into trackside safety, making ten recommendations to reduce reliance on lookouts.

The fatality at Desborough in August 2001 exposed another weakness - our inability to plan effectively. There, a night-time job requiring T2s of both the Up and the Down went ahead with only the Up line blocked, secured by an unqualified handsignaller. Mark Falivena lost his life as he carried tools to the van - struck by a train which appeared, without warning, on the open line. The inquiry findings did not make comfortable reading.

Rimini’s aim was to strengthen these areas. Surely no-one could argue with its three guiding principles - plan the job, resource the plan, deliver the safest protection. Sadly, the railway’s fire-fighting culture and resistance to change were always going to cause friction when principle was put into practice. Anyone who thought otherwise was in desperate need of psychiatric care.

And so it came to pass. Christmas 2002 and the weeks which followed it became a pantomime. The new line blockage booking system was overwhelmed by requests which could never be accommodated. Fear, folly and mischief - both from within Railtrack and its contractors - drove Rimini to the brink of collapse as a maintenance backlog built up.

At the heart of these troubles were two widely-held misconceptions: every on-track assignment had to be supported by a glut of bureaucracy and red zone working was to be avoided at all costs. This latter notion wasn’t helped by an HMRI ‘Sector Information Minute’ commanding inspectors to take “a strong enforcement line” against companies carrying out unplanned work or using lookouts without proper justification.

In fact Rimini only added one sheet to the paperwork mountain - a form validating each step taken down the eight-level protection hierarchy. It was never likely to drive a substantial increase in green zone working as very few new opportunities were created. Despite this, in those early months, the rural backwater of Midland zone reported that more than 90% of its activities had gone green, presumably after rebuilding its network in Shangri-La. Some of the statistics produced were just laughable.
...the rural backwater of Midland zone reported that more than 90% of its activities had gone green, presumably after rebuilding its network in Shangri-La.

Crises rarely last long, even on the railway. Cracks were filled-in or papered over. Complaints gave way to acceptance and sufferance. What’s undeniable is that the introduction of 019 preceded an upturn in safety performance - a fact often quoted in Rimini’s defence. We’ll never know whether one was truly a consequence of the other.

So is Rimini a precision tool or unwieldy procedural sledgehammer? I’m of the view that COSSs have no place in the land between marker boards - worksites deserve a simpler regime, based on shared protection. On that basis, such work should be Rimini-exempt. Maintenance, by nature, is transient and will remain the domain of lookouts - let’s not pretend otherwise. Here, the hierarchy is a red herring.

But Rimini is much bigger than that. Planning is a high-value discipline and, historically, we’ve not been good at it. 019 brought it to the forefront. Horror stories of new planner posts being filled by supermarket shelf-stackers have been left behind. Training is pushing up quality. When it’s done well, planning lifts a huge burden from the COSS’s shoulders and properly resourced protection is, by definition, more robust.

There have been mixed blessings. Lines of responsibility are less clearly defined. Planners specify the protection method; only managers can approve changes. COSSs sometimes implement plans whether they’re suitable or not. Their talent for developing safe systems on-site - when needs must - has been eroded. And then we have the ‘Rimini Pack’ - a grotesque barrier of inconsequence guarding the corporate nether regions. Some still see ‘planning’ as little more than a clerical exercise.

Whatever our reservations about Rimini, doing nothing was not an option - HMRI would have seen to that. With the resistance movement marshalled and factions pulling in opposite directions, it’s unlikely that anything better could have been served up. In that context, the procedure which went live was actually rather bold.

Improvements to the Hazard Directory have brought much-needed consistency, though the fees charged for it are a scandal. GZACs and the line blockage booking mechanism handle thousands of applications each week, easing the path to green zone working. Although 90% of maintenance work takes place in red zones - more than pre-Rimini - the highest risk systems involving long strings of lookouts are outlawed these days. LOWS, though chronically underused, has been approved for duty.

You get the sense that, before long, Rimini will be afforded the dignity of slipping quietly away. I’m told that, within Network Rail, its requirements are often disregarded. Perhaps it is time to move on. But one measure of success is the sleepy state of our safety regulator. After all its grumbling, when did you last hear HMRI utter the words ‘red’ and ‘green’?

Rimini must have done something right.

Story added 1st December 2007
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