Safe and sound on our rail networks

Source: Rail Technology Magazine Aug/Sept 2014

Arnab Dutt, managing director of Texane Ltd, is a public member of Network Rail – one of the people holding the board to account for its leadership and management under the company’s unique governance structure. Safety is one of the key factors he has to take into account.

Britain’s railways are getting busier. While networks continue to grow to keep up with the population and their demands, safety remains as important as ever.

When we talk about keeping people safe on our rails, we’re not just talking about the rail workforce, but passengers and pedestrians too. We need to address safety in different ways to suit the needs of everyone who works, uses, lives near or even passes by our railways.

As a public member of Network Rail, I recognise that safety standards should always be improved. In July, the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) published its annual health and safety report, rightly stating that safety management remains a key concern as the industry expands. The ORR found that there was a decrease in passenger and public incidents between 2012-13, whereas workforce and infrastructure incidents, on the other hand, has seen an increase.

Our rail networks, though safer than our road networks by a magnitude, still contain some inherent risks to passenger and public safety. The rise in passenger numbers brings with it increased risks at stations, particularly when alighting and boarding trains. The ORR notes that the number of passengers harmed between the platform, train and track had increased this year, and this is feared to increase as our rail networks expand.

To counteract this, both short-term and long-term measures are in place. With improved station management and platform engineering, our train stations can safely withstand the increased passenger flow. New and adapted carriages with automated steps and extensions for the infirm and the disabled have been successful in reducing incidents.

The potential for risk incidents increases as we expand our rail network. Any operational machinery can be dangerous for the public as well as the working engineers, if used incorrectly. It is vital that safety procedures and systems are in place. Simplification, signage and individual risk reporting using smartphones are just some of a variety of ways our train companies are using to minimise incidents. The good news is that Britain’s railway network is one of the safest in Europe, however suicide and trespass prevention remains a key concern. There had been a notable decrease in trespass fatalities between 2013 and 2014, according to the ORR.

Clearly, the industry is working hard to prevent access to dangerous parts of the track and has been successful but the number of suicides on our rail network is still too high.

Railway suicides account for around 4.4% of overall suicides in Britain, at an all-time high. Rail track suicide continues to be a national and international cause for concern. Looking back to 2012, we saw an international increase in railway-related suicides, which is often associated with a global economic downturn.

Being proactive is the key to prevention, and Network Rail is leading the way with this. Suicide on the railways is a tragedy that traumatises families, colleagues and rail staff. Working in partnership with the charity Samaritans, Network Rail wants to reduce the number of rail suicides by 20% by 2015 (see page 56). One immediate improvement highlighted by the partnership is the need for suicide prevention training. Today, over 5,000 frontline rail staff are trained in active suicide prevention, and over 600 interventions were made from 2013-14.

This is not the only initiative in place to improve rail passenger safety. The industry as a whole is working hard to educate the general public about the dangers of level crossings. We can see the effects of this education in the figures from the ORR, which show that the level crossing risk in the long-term is declining. Network Rail’s ‘Don’t Run the Risk’ campaign, launched in 2006, was the most extensive public safety campaign ever run by the rail industry. It continues at pace, with more resources being devoted to getting the message ‘out there’.

With the help of teachers and school pupils, Network Rail has also created a number of free, educational resources. Different materials are available for the different key stages and each is aligned to the school curriculum and Ofsted requirements.

Network Rail remains as keen as ever to educate the public about the risks of level crossings. Its ongoing educational activity, with young people especially, has helped stakeholders understand what target audiences need to know. Network Rail’s ‘Rail Life’ is the newest initiative to keep young people safe on our railways. It’s by young people, for young people – there’s no jargon or corporate interest, just safety. Network Rail envision that Rail Life can be a hub of communication for young people, a place where they can discuss rail safety or even career prospects in our industry.

But let’s not forget that level crossings are just one area of concern when we think about rail safety. Our networks are becoming increasingly greener thanks to electrification. The promise of more reliable services and faster journey times is something we all benefit from but it also means that safety has to be the pre-eminent consideration. A country-wide link of overhead power lines and conductor rail tracks keep our networks running smoothly, but they will also mean that more substations will be built near to residential areas. Gaining the public’s confidence that these sites are safe will be an important task for the rail industry as we progress.

Back in 2011, a survey of parents found that the most did not teach their children about rail safety. The survey also highlighted that there are a number of myths about staying safe on the railway – like you won’t be electrocuted if you’re wearing rubber-soled shoes, or if you only touch the wire for two seconds. Myths like this are potentially fatal and only the type of educational programme the rail industry is now involved in will finally expunge them from the national consciousness.

There is still work to be done to promote rail safety to all ages. While Network Rail and the rail industry are on the right track, stakeholders and regulators cannot afford to be complacent on this subject. With the continued expansion of our rail networks and the HS2 Bill having passed, things are changing in the rail industry. A great deal of excellent work has already been done to promote safety on our railways, I see no reason this should not continue into the future. 

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