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Delude Retreat Indemnify Prevaricate Squander

Back where we started?

What we often overlook when deliberating the Rule Book’s shortfalls or a pitiful management edict is that for some members of the railway community, safety is not a theoretical paper-shuffling exercise that can be deferred ’til next month. That truism became tragic for the North’s infrastructure staff on 4th December. One of their own, 26-year-old Scott Dobson employed by SkyBlue, lost his life during routine maintenance work when he was struck by the 11:19 Scunthorpe-Lincoln Central train about half-a-mile from Saxilby Station.

You can read much into Network Rail’s silence about this event - the first on-track fatality since that of Ernest Rodgerson almost exactly three years earlier. In stark contrast to RAIB’s timescales, the firm usually issues a bulletin outlining an incident’s bare bones - and offering fatuous advice to avert a recurrence - within just a day or two. But not this time. Nothing. NR has pulled the shutters down.

The site of the fatality near Sykes Lane at Saxilby.
Photo: Richard Croft (taken from Geograph and used under Creative Commons licence)

I can’t offer you a definitive account of what happened at Saxilby; only a few clues from a local source. What I understand is that the work involved sleeper changing and kango packing, with the planned safe system specifying a blockage of both lines. But this had to be downgraded, allowing the Lincoln-bound track to remain open. With inevitable activity in the six-foot, lookouts should then have been appointed to warn of trains passing the site, probably by touch or cut-out device. There was no place here for site wardens…but that was the role Scott had been asked to perform. Investigations will have to determine whether appropriate planning procedures were followed, why the safe system was amended and on whose authority, and whether sufficient numbers of qualified staff were then available to establish robust protection.

The circumstances feel uncomfortably similar to those that led to the death of Mark Falivena on the Midland Main Line at Desborough in August 2001. He was part of a group changing sleepers on the blocked Up line while movements continued on the Down. An unsuitable safe system had been implemented, driven by planning deficiencies, performance pressures, unhelpful rules and competency issues. The accident resulted in an unsuccessful prosecution for manslaughter against the COSS, track chargeman Beverly Swane, and development of the now-defunct Rimini procedure.

It’s telling that this latest tragedy did not involve traditional all-lines-open (formerly known as red zone) working - the safe system loathed by so-called safety professionals, RAIB, RSSB and the ORR. Four of the last five fatalities resulting from train/machine movements have involved some or all lines at the site being blocked. How many more people need to die before the blinkered academics who define our safety standards recognise that looking out for trains is not an activity to be treated with contempt? As safeguards go, it is simple, effective and inherently sensible when heavyweight machinery could rattle past at close quarters. But devoid of any feel for life on the ballast or practical risk assessment skills, desk jockeys just can’t see it.

You can be confident that even now they resemble headless chickens - scratching around for excuses that explain away any managerial failings; hence the silence. However, having ditched Rimini, if their new safety processes are proven capable of breaking catastrophically - just as they did 11 years ago - the regulator must surely have cause to ask some very awkward questions of them.

Back in September, I asked some awkward questions of my own regarding the parlous state of the Rule Book, aimed towards the ORR in the guise of Ian Prosser, its Safety Director. Whilst many in the industry recognise that the Rule Book is teetering on the brink of being unfit for purpose, those who oversee it prefer to delude themselves that its pages smell of roses, not crap.
...those who oversee it prefer to delude themselves that its pages smell of roses, not crap.

After a gentle poke, I recently received a response. On the basis of my anecdotal evidence, I could not reasonably have expected a tonne of bricks to rain down on RSSB, the Rule Book’s addled guardian. But I had hoped that the regulator might at least have committed to seek independent views from operational users, rather than swallowing RSSB’s propaganda and questionable survey findings hook, line and sinker. But that’s what I got - a ringing endorsement of the Rule Book that completely sidestepped two of the key problems: its perpetual state of fluidity and the madcap means of communicating changes - the biannual treat that is the Amendments Module. December’s was a meaty 152 substantive pages.

The ORR seems to be labouring under the misapprehension that the Rule Book is just a teaching aid, citing empirical psychological testing that preceded implementation of the modular Rule Book in 2003. This was conducted by splitting candidates on initial training courses into two groups - one with the old Rule Book, the other with the new - and then asking questions of them. The latter apparently achieved consistently higher results. But what use is that to the 72% of respondents who, according to RSSB’s own study, could still not find rules quickly or the 51% who thought the modules’ content was not set out in a logical manner? It should be the definitive reference resource that’s consulted whenever critical enlightenment is sought, but it can’t fulfil that role as most modules are now riddled with out-of-date instructions.

As far as The New Approach handbooks are concerned, “RSSB has complied with the Railway Group Standards Code and has carried out industry-wide consultation at all stages of the drafting process”, proclaims the ORR. “Comments from consultation are reviewed by TOMSC, the relevant standards committee, prior to authorisation for consultation and subsequent publication. RSSB has also carried out a number of workshops when the draft modules were finalised before being presented to the standards committee in order to gain feedback from the end users of the rules.”

In many respects, this rather damns the process. There must be systemic flaws if we still end up with a shabby final product despite this investment in time, effort and cogitation. I’m told that RSSB will evaluate progress with The New Approach at its Board meeting later this month. The ORR has promised to provide me with an update. So what should I expect of RSSB: critical analysis recognising that operational-level rules knowledge is being undermined by instability and the hiding away of key instructions, or characteristic self-aggrandisement from an underperforming organisation desperate to protect its empire?

Answers on a postcard please.

Story added January 2013
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