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‘Manage increases in rail traffic safely’, warns rail regulator

22 July 2014  •  Author: The Office of Rail Regulation

The Office of Rail Regulation’s (ORR) annual safety report published today warns the industry of safety challenges in managing record levels of rail traffic and calls for better infrastructure management. Britain’s railways remain amongst the safest in Europe, however latest data highlights an increase in track workers coming to harm and safety incidents on platforms, such as when passengers get on and off trains.

ORR’s latest health and safety report provides an in-depth analysis of statistical trends with insight from its inspectors’ ‘on the ground’ interventions. The report shows that Britain’s railways continue to have one of the best safety records in Europe, with passenger and workforce fatality rates well below the European average. Britain is ranked best at managing passenger and level crossing safety, and among the best at managing employee and public safety.

However, ORR’s report highlights Network Rail must improve its management of the network so that it predicts and prevents problems before they create a safety risk or cause disruption for passengers. In the past year, ORR took enforcement action to address serious issues which impact on safety, including earthworks which were too overgrown to be inspected, and increases in repeat track twist faults. The industry also faces pressures from rising passenger numbers, up 5.7% to more than 1.5 billion passenger journeys in 2013-14. Managing crowd congestion is a major challenge on stations and platforms, particularly during service disruptions and temporary construction works. ORR inspectors will be working with the industry as it develops a long-term strategy on station crowd safety.

The report also shows that workforce safety continues to be a significant challenge for the industry. The trend in track workers being injured increased to its highest level in seven years, with 79 workers suffering major injuries and 1,641 reported minor injuries. There were also three rail worker fatalities during the past year, subject to ORR’s on-going investigations. The regulator wants to see rapid progress across the industry to introduce new technology and reduce risks and protect workers. ORR has approved more than £250m in funding to improve protection and warning systems for track workers.

ORR’s Director of Railway Safety, Ian Prosser, said:

“Britain’s railways continue to report one of the best safety records in Europe, particularly for passengers on trains and at level crossings. Despite this success, there is no room for complacency. Station and platform safety presents a major challenge as the industry faces pressures from rising numbers of passengers and trains, and the large volume of enhancement projects underway to improve the rail network.

“The regulator has approved dedicated funding for the next five years to improve the safety and performance of Britain’s railways. More than £250m has been allocated for better track worker protection and £100m made available to close level crossings. ORR’s on-going programme of targeted inspections will focus on station management, electrical and worker safety, level crossings and the condition of tracks, bridges and tunnels, to ensure that there is no compromise on safety.

“A proactive approach to managing risk on the railways is both the safest and most efficient way of working. ORR will work with the rail industry to improve its management and culture so that it ‘predicts and prevents’ problems before they create a safety risk or cause disruption, protecting all those travelling or working on Britain’s railways.”

This year’s report highlights a number of successes, including:

  • Network Rail helped to improve safety at levels crossings across Britain, with more than 800 closed over the past five years.
  • The well-managed industry response to severe weather across the rail network. This required the rail industry to work together and ensure the safety of passengers and staff while continuing to run services as normally as possible. Network Rail is now better at managing the safety risks associated with severe weather and there were fewer incidents of trains running into landslips or hitting trees than in previous storms.
  • Transport for London (TfL) continues to maintain a high-level of safety for its passengers and workforce with ever-increasing passenger numbers and service frequency. There were 1.72 billion passenger journeys on TfL systems in 2013, with no railway operational-caused fatalities. ORR inspectors found that well practiced station monitoring procedures are used to ensure the risks from station crowd congestion are properly managed.

The report also highlights some areas where the regulator is pressing for improvements:

  • The industry has worked hard to make platforms safe for passengers, but overall harm to people at the platform train interface has increased. There were four fatalities and over 1,250 other platform related injuries in 2013-14. As passenger numbers grow and station improvements continue this is a priority. The industry’s long-term strategy on station crowd safety, currently under development, will be supported by research into passenger behaviours and use of new technologies such as automated passenger congestion monitoring systems.
  • The number of signals passed at danger (SPAD – where a train passes a red stop signal without permission) increased by 17%, with 293 of the highest risk category occurring across the mainline rail network in 2013-14. ORR inspectors continue to challenge train operators’ to reduce SPAD numbers, focussing on driver training and management. The regulator is also pressing train operators to upgrade on-board equipment which applies an emergency brake if the driver makes an error. 
  • ORR inspections found too many instances where work was taking place without appropriate risk assessment. Examples include workers at height with insufficient protection, such as handrails, netting or other risk control equipment.  The regulator has taken enforcement action, including prosecution, to force improvement and continues to focus attention on this issue.

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