Interviews

12.09.16

Maintaining the safety momentum

Source: RTM Aug/Sep 16

Britain’s railways are currently the safest they have ever been, but there is still room for improvement, Ian Prosser, HM chief inspector of railways and director of railway safety at the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR), tells RTM’s David Stevenson.

A milestone moment was achieved in 2015-16 when, for the first time ever, there were no worker fatalities on Britain’s railways. 

This is an achievement to be proud of for the industry, but one which is “overdue”, according to Ian Prosser, HM chief inspector of railways and director of railway safety at the ORR. 

The regulator’s annual report on railway health and safety revealed there was evidence of top-level safety improvements, particularly around reductions in harm at level crossings and among the workforce, but there were also a few slightly worsening trends, including high levels of earthwork failures and an increase in harm to passengers at stations. 

Increased passenger harm 

Although overall levels of harm reduced  by 4%, the actual harm to passengers and public in stations and on trains increased by 8%. When normalised by the 2% growth in passenger journeys being factored in, overall harm to passengers increased by 7%. This was largely due to an increase in fatalities at stations  although none were the fault of the industry. 

“Harm as a whole has gone down, that’s what we want,” said Prosser. “Our goal is reduced harm year-on-year. But harm to passengers went up, mainly due to the increase in fatalities – none of which were industry’s fault, but it is something we must all remain focused on as the growth on the railway continues.” 

Improving the connection from board to ground 

During the interview at the ORR’s office just off the Strand, Prosser was keen to reiterate the message that there is “always room for improvement” and the industry must keep “the peddle on the floor in its quest for excellence”. 

One of the key messages to come out from this year’s report, added Prosser, is the need to improve the connection from the board to the ground to ensure everyone feels they are cared for, which is why the regulator keeps pushing for improvements in occupational health. 

“Mark Carne [Network Rail’s CEO] has brought the strong belief that everyone should go home safe every day,” said Prosser. 

“He’s come from a background [oil and gas industry] where he’s seen much lower worker harm. Both he and Phil Hufton [Network Rail’s MD of network operation] are focused on workforce safety, and as you improve workforce safety you are improving the whole industry’s health and safety culture.” 

 MG 8725 HiRes-2 edit

Safety by design 

As well as improving workforce safety, the ORR is working with the industry to improve safety by design, as ever busier stations are upgraded and modified. The regulator has also entered a new agreement with the Health and Safety Executive, which delegates enforcement functions to the ORR for health and safety law at the design stage of new-build railway infrastructure projects. 

“This enables us to ensure the industry takes opportunities to eradicate and reduce risk at the design stage, which is when such risk management interventions are most effective and provide the best value for money,” said Prosser. 

“Ten years ago we weren’t really building very much on the railways, but now we are building new railways, like Crossrail and HS2 and extensions to the Tube, plus major new stations and refurbishments. 

“I see opportunities to really improve safety by design that will not only improve the safety, but how the projects are done in terms of cost effectiveness and time.” 

He added the progress of the last decade has been built on a shared commitment by industry leaders, managers, workers, trade unions, government and the ORR to improve risk management. 

However, Prosser said its enforcement activities serve as a reminder that inconsistencies in health and safety standards mean it is still required to step in to ensure compliance with the law or to deal with an immediate risk. 

The regulator added the serious incident at Wotton Bassett junction involving a train operated by West Coast Railways Company passing a red signal, which led to a swift and wide ranging response by ORR inspectors, is one such example. 

Going forward

This year saw the publication of a unified mainline railway health and safety strategy, a key milestone which the ORR endorsed fully. It identifies improvements to the maturity of the industry’s collective risk management including important health issues, such as worker health and wellbeing. 

“That is big step forward,” said Prosser. “Some of the next moves around momentum are about co-operation and collaboration between the players in the industry. It does focus on some of my other challenges and issues, like occupational health, where the industry is much less secure and can learn from other sectors.” 

Prosser, who has worked in safety critical industries for over 30 years, added that as the industry’s regulator the ORR has two clear goals: reduce harm and check compliance with the law. 

“We are here to check legal compliance, and encourage duty holders to become excellent,” he said. “That excellence will drive continuous improvements and the need for less enforcement.”

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