Rail risk: reality and perception

George Bearfield, director of system safety and health at the RSSB, looks at risk – reality and perception – and how the industry needs to preserve its sound risk-based approach to safety as we consider a more automated future.

Technology development is leading to increased automation. Electronic control systems and other initiatives such as train-operated warning systems and obstacle detection at level crossings are all moving the rail industry forward. Indeed, automation can help us overcome a range of challenges, for example unlocking capacity bottlenecks.

When it comes to safety, automation will enable us to make the next step change by reducing exposure to harm, removing the variable element of human behaviour managing important controls and making better use of our unique talents as human beings.

However, it’s not always perceived that way. For example, the current disputes on the safety of driver dispatch have become emotive and confused, suggesting that changes in roles render the railway intolerably unsafe. Yet a rational approach to the evidence shows quite the opposite.

TOCs undertake risk assessments and monitor all aspects of their operations including train dispatch. Systems are in place to manage risks, including monitoring and investigating safety performance which are supervised and enforced by the rail regulator. This has been highly effective, as seen by the relatively low safety risk in rail compared to other transport modes.

Indeed, the totality of risk facing passengers in all scenarios is already very small, so the risk that actually comes specifically from train dispatch is even smaller still, at just one fatality and weighted injury per 850 million journeys.

Of course, the debates have been about a perceived difference between the risk from driver dispatch and guard dispatch. Our analysis shows the highest rate of more serious incidents occurred for guard-dispatched trains from unstaffed platforms. But the rates are so low that in reality it is very difficult to provide any meaningful estimate of the difference. Put simply, any difference in risk that might exist is so small it can’t be estimated. The conclusion: passengers are very safe, and there is no discernible difference in the risk whichever dispatch method is deployed.

According to HSE guidance, for any activity if one or less than one in 10,000 people die a year, then the risk is tolerable – as this is comparable to the background level of risk people are exposed to in their everyday lives. The total fatality risk per year to a regular commuter due to all causes is estimated as one in 400,000 per annum. The train dispatch-related risk (by any method) is approximately one in 6.7 million per year.

These risks are well below the level that the HSE defines as ‘negligible.’ In other words, the risk associated with train dispatch (by any method) is a tiny fraction of the risk people face in their everyday lives, and far less than the chance of being struck by lightning, for example.

The risk-based approach to safety management in the UK is a beacon of successful safety regulation over the last half-century, with steady improvements seen since the enactment of the Health and Safety at Work Act in 1974. To achieve the best safety outcome, safety risks must be evaluated and a rational approach taken to addressing them.

Rail has benefitted as much as any industry sector from this enlightened approach and needs to continue to analyse data objectively and take timely, rational decisions. By applying this risk-based approach, we will continue to improve the health and safety on Britain’s railway – and fears about safety should not be an obstacle for embracing innovation and automation.

Perhaps most crucially, automation removes the risk of human error from the chain of events that can lead to an incident; it’s no coincidence that the railways have become progressively safer over a time when better technology has been adopted.

This also frees up people to focus on more useful activities, and in the case of dispatch it can mean staff on-board trains and on platforms are able to focus on looking after passengers and providing more accessibility support.

At the heart of industry’s success has been the ability to accurately assess and manage risk in a proportionate way, ensuring both safety and efficiency. This will be crucial in taking advantage of more automation.

RSSB has begun a new series of articles exploring automation on Britain’s railways, which can be found at:


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