Rail Industry Focus

15.01.20

Time for change on track worker safety - ORR

Source: RTM Dec 19/Jan 20 

Tom Wake, head of national rail route teams at the Office of Rail and Road (ORR), discusses the importance of improving the safety of track workers. 

On June 24, 2014 a group of 12 track workers near Redhill, Surrey, stood clear of a passing train, one of 30 per hour in both directions on the double- tracked, 90mph line. As it passed in one direction, a distant lookout gave warning of a train approaching in the other direction.

While the team sat waiting on the steep embankment slope, the team leader got up and began walking alongside the track with his back to traffic, unaware of the second train and without the permission of the young controller of site safety (COSS). The driver of the fast-approaching train braked and sounded the horn, but struck the man a glancing blow, throwing him down the embankment.

He suffered life-changing injuries and his friends and colleagues had to live with the trauma of witnessing the accident. This was an accident waiting to happen; a large work group, working between fast trains every two minutes. Everyone needed to follow the safe system of work to the letter; any mistake could be fatal.

This accident and ones like it often make headlines, but the tragic deaths in July 2019 in South Wales prompted questions of established working practices.

Certainly, it seems easier, less bother, to grab some papers and tools and head out onto the track. Relying on Victorian protection methods is straightforward. No need to plan access when trains are not running, or identify, set-up, and use automatic protection or warning. Just rely on the lookout. But it is outdated and fallible and more frequent trains increase the chances of accidents.

Accidents impact on workers, they affect passengers through delays and witnessing incidents and they erode trust in the managers and leaders who allow work to be done in the most convenient way.

Positive Change 

Many of these accidents are entirely avoidable. Routes often have timetabled  gaps  in  services  that  allow work to be done without trains running. Systematically identifying and scheduling work for these gaps is a big task. But it is possible, with good planning, to allow workers to maintain the track in safety. This benefits passengers as well; better planning of scheduled maintenance makes for a more reliable railway.

Thanks in part to ORR providing £10m in funding in CP5, Network Rail developed technological solutions such as the lineside early warning system, the remote disconnection device, and the remote control track circuit operating device to improve track worker safety. These have the potential to remove the over-reliance on vigilant lookouts in many situations.

In 2018-19 ORR carried out a national programme of inspections to find out how much had changed on the ground. We found that too much work still relied on lookouts with flags and horns. So we required Network Rail to embark on significantly changing the way it manages track worker safety.

Although serious accidents have reduced significantly since 2000, entirely avoidable accidents and near-misses continue to happen. However, the availability of track worker protection technologies and better planning offer the industry the real opportunity to make these accidents, and their impact on the railway and passengers, a thing of the past.

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