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Sleeping dog dies

Its bark was worse than its bite, not least because it had no teeth. Despite this handicap, the Track Safety Strategy Group proved hard to restrain. It sniffed out developments, made lots of noise and dragged workforce safety from the managerial undergrowth. But as Network Rail took the lead, the TSSG was left out in the cold. Unloved and feeding off scraps, it recently passed away following a prolonged battle with ill health.

As the nineties dawned, the annual workforce death toll was anchored in double figures. The S&T fraternity had suffered a number of losses which, coupled with the tragedy at Clapham Junction, hit it particularly hard.

Accidents were dissected and overseas working practices explored. The conclusions, published in the Eccles Report of 1993, were stark if unsurprising - fatalities were avoidable and the safety regime begged reform. A collection of hand-picked fine minds - christened the Track Safety Review Group - gathered to plot an assault on our failings.

Life on the line was largely devoid of a safety structure. Lookouts offered protection by default. Handsignalmen played a role. But there was no sense of direction. With the Railway Inspectorate taking an interest, PICOWs marched onto the scene, establishing safe systems and briefing the troops. The now-familiar blue armlet brought a heightened sense of responsibility to the man in charge. A safety revolution would then break out trackside. TSRG was in the thick of it.

Innovation was the group’s staple diet - reviewing proposals and offering ballast-level advice on implementation and practicality. Amidst the upheaval of privatisation, bewildering plans to introduce a rainbow of coloured protection zones came under the microscope. Only red and green survived the group’s cull. With track safety performance already turning around (two trackworkers lost their lives in 1994, ten fewer than ’91), it was initially feared that the new rules might upset the apple cart. Far from it - 1997 was fatality-free.

A retitled TSSG wagged its tail enthusiastically, cajoling and coercing the industry in the name of safety improvement. A video series, SafetyNet, confidently stirred the pot and pushed the message out to the front line. Managers shuffled uncomfortably as the real world came into focus, with occasional aberrations from distant planets.

In 1996, Automatic Track Warning Systems were presented to a sceptical workforce through a series of trials, facilitated by TSSG members and funded by contractors. TCODs joined the fray and today’s T2 evolved. Safety barriers followed. Even luminescent hi-vis vests caused the group’s radar to blink.

Trackworkers embraced this technology, but their irresistible force soon met an immovable object - the concrete block of risk aversion. Rain forests were sacrificed to satisfy Railtrack’s grotesque approval process. “We mustn’t allow the best to be the enemy of the good” declared the TSSG’s chairman as his friends wallowed in blancmange on behalf of Minimel-90 - a proven and almost antique ATWS which had been reliably flashing at our European counterparts for more than a decade.

Rule change was equally obstructive. An apparently simple tweak, to authorise badges as well as armlets, was stuck in the machinery for two years. Safety barriers only burst through the dam after a handful of bullet points and diagrams were jemmied into Section B, permitting their use four feet from a 100mph line. Sales of Vortok barrier - which totalled just 2,500 metres in the four years preceding the rule change - went through the roof, hitting 2,500 metres per week in its immediate aftermath.

It was a desperately frustrating time. Passionate safety champions - fighting fiercely on behalf of their colleagues - were losing the will to live.

But the climate was changing. HMRI woke up again. New faces appeared in Railtrack’s invisible management team and, as they found their feet, picked up the track safety baton and began to run with it. Whilst the TSSG could promote progress, Railtrack (and latterly Network Rail) had the power to deliver it. Taking two steps forward and one back, a new order emerged, albeit with many features of the old one.

The TSSG was effectively neutered and disillusioned members melted away. Overalls were replaced by suits and its vital connection with the trackface weakened. Much of its time was spent staring at its own backside - reviewing its structure and goals - or suffering death by PowerPoint as a conveyor belt of researchers (some employed by Muniferole Drope Ltd) rolled out their latest findings. Even SafetyNet, which once growled proudly, now whimpered as a corporate cavalcade stole the limelight.
Even SafetyNet, which once growled proudly, now whimpered as a corporate cavalcade stole the limelight.

As a finale, the group returned to its roots. The COSS Handbook cut a clear path through the tangle of rules whilst a new T2 module - currently out for consultation - should eliminate more clutter. Its sleek Line Blockage Form has been published this month through the deafening silence of the Periodical Operating Notice, making three existing forms redundant and slackening the bureaucratic noose. All worthy achievements.

Current and former members paint contrasting pictures of the TSSG’s legacy. One suggests that it “pushed the pendulum too far”, causing the industry to become over-conscious of track safety. The group “proved its usefulness by raising awareness” counters another. The significance of this contribution should not be underestimated.

Either way, there’s a hole to be filled. Not unreasonably, Network Rail has seized control of the issue and signalled its intentions with characteristic single-mindedness. But it’s not a listening organisation. Contractors, labour suppliers and the man-on-the-shovel will struggle to make themselves heard unless NR’s replacement ‘national groups’ have effective representation and safeguards built-in.

TSSG helped remodel the track safety landscape with foresight and tenacity. It kept the industry’s eye on the ball. Network Rail’s challenge is to build on that success, re-engage with lost constituents and strike the right balance between conflicting needs. The group set the standard for others to follow. By the end, its get-up-and-go had gone but it was a faithful companion to our on-track community through the turmoil of the 1990s and, for that, we pay our respects.

Story added 1st June 2006
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