'Even the best performing companies can still have things go wrong'

Source: Rail Technology Magazine Dec/Jan 2012

RTM discusses risk management in the rail industry with Office of Rail Regulation deputy chief inspector Allan Spence.

Network Rail has been improving its management of health and safety risk – and management more generally – helped by a management maturity model pioneered by the Office of Rail Regulation.

ORR deputy chief inspector Allan Spence told RTM: “We have used the RM3 model, as we call it, in a good number of railway businesses now, not only in this country but also, by co-operating with partners overseas, we’ve used it outside the UK as well.

“It’s also been picked up and used by a number of companies, most notably, here in the UK, by Network Rail. They decided they wanted to use the model and to help them do that, I seconded two inspectors into Network Rail to help them get to grips with it and use the model. They’re now using the findings from that to help them to improve their health and safety management.

“There are a variety of ways we assess the company and its different functions, through audit against RM3. And they’re using it themselves progressively across different parts of the business.”

The right approach

Spence continued: “The most important point is not assigning a score against each of the 26 elements in the management maturity model but the ‘learning’ point; the ways in which an organisation can progress towards excellence in health and safety management. That’s how we’re seeing it being used.

“RM3 is a way of assessing the maturity, the strength, the robustness of a management system. It doesn’t prescribe each of the elements there might be in a management system. The closest we get to that is the content of a safety management system (SMS) that companies are required to have through the European directive, translated down into UK law, through the ROGS regulations. Those set out the necessary content of a safety management system for infrastructure managers and for railway undertakings – train operators.

“That’s what should be in the SMS. The RM3 tool is really a way of assessing whether that is delivering practical safety on the ground, and likely to do that reliably. That’s the essence of maturity; not just ‘do you have a bit of paper’ and ‘are you putting it into practice’, but do the underlying management arrangements help ensure you’ll achieve what you want to achieve reliably?

“Even the best performing companies can still have things go wrong. But if they’ve got an effective, mature management system, that’s far less likely to happen.”

Although it is ORR’s role in regulating industry performance that has made more headlines in recent weeks, it is of course also the health and safety regulator.

Spence explained: “There are two distinct ways in which we can regulate, or help to improve, the industry. One of them is the licence, but actually that’s not primarily a safety tool, so the way we regulate safety is through the conventional health and safety legislation that applies in any industry. There’s one or two bits of rail specific stuff, ROGS being one example, but by and large this is generic health and safety law. That’s the underpinning legislative framework. We use improvement notices, prohibition notices, prosecution, advice: all of the same things that, for example, the Health & Safety Executive would use dealing with a chemical plant.

“Those are the tools. But as the regulator, we don’t just sit back and wait for things to go wrong and use those enforcement tools. We actually spend the greatest proportion of our time trying to test the effectiveness of the arrangements that the companies have in place.

“That isn’t just an adversarial, ‘we’re the big boys with a warrant’, operation: it’s about working collaboratively with the industry to help them to improve, identify where their weak spots are, and what needs to change.

“That’s what we do through our inspection programme. We get with the company, talk to them about what it is we and they think are the priorities: we work through those with them.

“We’re not in any way compromised. One of our advantages is that we can tell it like it is. We’ve not got to manage messages internally, but we certainly try to do that collaboratively with the company, not as an ‘us and them’ approach.


Unit costs in the rail industry are much too high: that’s long been known, and the Mc- Nulty review spelt it out. Safety management can actually play its part in bringing costs down, Spence says.

He explained: “There are two ways you can improve safety. You can throw money at it, and you can make short-term benefits. Or, if you get the management system maturity right, if you get the arrangements working efficiently, you deliver sustainable, high safety standards – and do that at lower cost.

“So, if we can get the industry – and this is why we put so much emphasis on management maturity – to focus on that long-term goal of having these arrangements in place that are both efficient and safe, we end up with a lower cost and higher safety performance.”

Standard complaint

Everyone knows the industry is burdened with well-intentioned standards, which range from the vital to the counter-productive.

Spence said: “That is one of the things we’re actively talking about with Network Rail and other duty holders: making sure that people aren’t just doing things because a standard says so. Sometimes, doing so won’t be enough to meet health and safety duties and properly protect safety, while sometimes, it may be over the top.

“We’re trying to push the industry towards risk-based controls, with competent people taking sensible decisions – not a slavish adherence to long-established standards that may or may not still be relevant to today’s railway.

“For that reason, Network Rail are going through their standards at the moment, and it’s been talked about and piloted, a process of deciding what ‘must’ be done, what might you be able to get some sort of derogation from, and what frankly is just advice.

“That ‘red, amber, green’ approach to their standards is something they’re actively going through to make sure competent people on the ground, operating in the right management system, are taking sensible decisions and doing the right things, not just doing what standards have said since Adam was a lad.”


Although you wouldn’t believe it to look at some of the rolling stock and signalling systems still in use on the UK rail network, it really is an ever-changing beast, and managing risk through a time of upheaval is an extra challenge. This can be both on the infrastructure side – such as Network Rail’s devolution of power and budgets to its routes – and the operator side, with re-franchising and franchising reform, to name just a few topical examples.

Spence acknowledged: “Risks increase during time of change. Hence, one of the most important components of a safety management system is effective change management.

“An awful lot of our inspectors’ time is put into scrutinising how the companies are managing change, and whether that was the reduction in staffing and restructuring of maintenance in Network Rail, known as Phase 2BC, or the move to devolution, or franchise change for train operators, wherever that change might be, we take an interest. We check their safety management is working effectively, through that proper change management, and where we have concerns, we increase the amount of inspection we do to test that it has happened in practice.

“One of the most significant changes, described as the biggest in the railway industry in a generation, was Network Rail’s maintenance restructuring. So we’ve spent a considerable amount of our time testing how that’s worked on the ground. Very recently, Network Rail has told us that in the light of one of the key components of that change management – post-implementation review – they have realised they need to move some resource around, and put back in some resource.

“When a change is made, it’s important that companies periodically and frequently check it’s worked properly and make any changes that might be necessary. Network Rail is doing that at the moment in light of the things we’ve highlighted, and from things they’ve found out themselves.”

Spence concluded: “It’s not about ORR managing risk; it’s about those who hold the duty in the industry managing that risk.”

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