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Delude Retreat Indemnify Prevaricate Squander

Wise after the event?

If I’ve learned one thing during 13 years of track safety reporting, it’s that trains are not to be tangled with. When flesh competes with metal, there’s only ever one winner.

The blustering rookie I once shared a COSS with at Hanslope Junction had not yet woken up to this. My companion showed no fear until a thundering Freightliner took his breath away. In an instant, roaring lion became startled rabbit and, for the rest of the shift, he was as good as gold.

Complacency kills. Senses should heighten when a monster machine is tearing up the track. Those whistling rails, building to a climax. The power surge, pushing at your face. Then peace prevails as the tail light fades away.

And that’s how it is. At a known point in the distance, the yellow-fronted vehicle comes into view, passes predictably on steel guides and then disappears. Trains do not plough across fields, career through access gates or do handbrake turns into Sainsbury’s car park. However hard the fog-platters might try to persuade us otherwise, it doesn’t take the genius of Stephen Hawking to appreciate and mitigate those risks.

What then is behind the drip-feed of near misses - and hits - which continues to underline our mortality? Although space is found for a flock of woolly diagrams, near misses are omitted from the railway’s Annual Safety Performance Report. Apparently RSSB has refused to release the relevant data (so much for our honest, open safety culture) rendering it impossible to analyse trends, but a cursory thumb through the archives reveals two basic, unsurprising causes - a failure to detect the train at all or a mistaken belief that it will fly harmlessly by on a far-flung line.

The first factor can come into play when one train has grabbed our full attention, only for another to sneak up from behind when we’re least expecting it. Then there’s the lunacy of safe system by crossed fingers which descends after dark. Instead of proactively warning staff, we delude ourselves that a site warden can generate some mystical force-field to thwart all excursions into no-man’s land. Research and inquiry suggest that this can’t be relied upon, so why do we persist with it?

Having sighted a train, an unwelcome degree of doubt is added by points, particularly those which remain locked in one position for hours on end. Over the past decade, several unfortunates have been robbed of their lives as trains changed course - April’s Ruscombe Junction victim being the latest. How many others have scuttled into the undergrowth as buffers loomed large?

What can be done about this? Those seeking revelation amongst the chapter and verse of Safety Bulletin 29 - which announced the Ruscombe fatality - would have emerged none the wiser. As usual, it blindly regurgitated rules which any PTS holder could repeat parrot-fashion: set up a safe system dealing with all relevant movements; always move to the position of safety; enforce the ‘worksafe’ procedure. All desperately enlightening.

Conspicuous by its absence was any sensible guidance as to how such a tragedy might be averted in similar circumstances. Calling the job off is a copout which just creates a problem for tomorrow. Our safety supremos seem hopelessly dazzled by activities which are only partly covered by the umbrella of our written instructions, as so many seem to be.
Conspicuous by its absence was any sensible guidance as to how such a tragedy might be avoided in similar circumstances.

I once spent a day dodging trains near London Bridge as a welder repaired a crossing in the middle of our network’s busiest junction. There was a blast on the lookout’s horn every 45 seconds - the COSS would then instruct us whether to sit-tight in the four-foot or move clear, which involved striding over two live conductor rails.

Stationed by the points, he simply checked how they were set. Hairy moments occurred sporadically when the signaller had a late change of heart but we all survived to fight another day. No doubt our rule junkies will tut-tut at such pragmatism despite being unwilling to offer better solutions.

Route indicators also point the way forward for the next approaching train although such signals can be unhelpfully distant from site. Personally I’d like drivers, by default, to sound an urgent warning - a rapid series of blasts on the horn - whenever they see staff working near a junction at which they’re switching tracks. This would draw immediate attention to a higher risk movement.

Staff are sheltered from all such concerns within the sunny limits of a green zone. Once upon a time, these were heavily promoted by the Wishful Thinking Departments of both RSSB and HMRI, neither of whom had a railway to run. It will be fascinating to discover what, if any, effort was made to plan a line blockage at Ruscombe on that fateful Sunday, bearing in mind that the Relief lines offered a ready diversion around the deceased’s site of work.

Anyone can be wise after the event apart, it would seem, from our leaders. Whichever safe system they’re advocating today - be it red or green - why can’t they venture courageously into the real world rather than spout theory from their office suite?

Story added 1st July 2007
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