Latest Rail News


ORR warns of level crossing safety risk as industry moves towards ROCs

Rail safety could be compromised by plans to give a single signaller control of a larger area as part of industry moves towards introducing the digital railway, the chief inspector of railways said yesterday.

Network Rail is already taking measures to reduce level crossing deaths, which are at their lowest since 1996. These include safety campaigns, closing level crossings and introducing new safety infrastructure.

However, in during a Transport Select Committee hearing on rail safety, Ian Prosser, who is also director of railway safety at the ORR, said that the there was a risk of “issues of human reliability” as rail operating centres (ROCs) control larger areas, potentially giving one signaller responsibility for more level crossings.

Prosser said: “I understand and I believe that the industry understands the issue and is thinking through very carefully how to manage it. It’s a challenge for the future.

“Looking ahead, it may need some quite deep thought in order to think through ways of managing this issue. In essence you’ve got a single point of failure. It may take one error by one individual at one moment for an accident to occur. The consequences can be catastrophic.”

Introducing digital railway involves replacing signal boxes, of which there are over 400 in operation, with 12 ROCs over the next 15-20 years.

Prosser said there had been a recent incident at Hockham Road level crossing in Norfolk, where a signaller had wrongly cleared a pedestrian to cross, which “could easily have derailed the train”.

However, Mark Carne, chief executive of Network Rail, who also appeared before the committee, said he “strongly disagree” with the idea that new technology was being introduced too fast and said it was needed.

“There’s no way we can continue to run a modern railway system in the 21st century using Victorian systems,” he said.

He added that Network Rail was ensuring that the new systems had “the highest level of safety” and would have mobile operations managers in place to attend any incidents.

Prosser also said the ORR was working with the DfT to bring about legal reforms which would make it easier to close level crossings and replace them with new technology and to clarify the regulations on public and private level crossings.

Simon French, the chief inspector at the Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB), who also appeared before the committee, stated that the level of near-misses at level crossings remained “persistently high” and might even have increased slightly, which was partly due to incidents involving elderly and disabled users.

“We believe it is important that work is done to look at the management of risk to vulnerable users,” he said.

The RAIB is currently investigating the death of Derek Thomas, an 83-year-old mobility scooter user who was struck and killed at Alice Holt level crossing on 5 October.

Power to enforce recommendations

The committee members asked how much power the ORR and RAIB have to enforce safety recommendations on Network Rail. Prosser said the ORR was “listened to” but the rail industry had to “manage its own business and its own conclusions”.

He added that “in some cases” the industry was allowed to implement a cost-benefit analysis to decide the cost-effectiveness of safety recommendations.

Carne said in some cases, Network Rail would “propose alternative means” of achieving the RAIB or the ORR’s objectives.

He added: “There have also been some occasions, I regret to say this, when we haven’t carried out the actions with the speed we should have done and that’s on occasion led to the ORR believing that further action was required.

“I don’t believe there are any cases to my knowledge where we’ve simply set well we’re not going to do it, we don’t agree.”

In August, Network Rail was fined £70,000 for failing to comply with an ORR improvement notice to make electrical cabinets on the railway safe.

Carne said that the rail industry had seen “a continuous period of improvement” in worker safety, but that there was “a long way to go” to reach the standards of other industries.

Last year was the first year in British railway history that passed without any worker fatalities.

Close call culture and PDSW changes

Carne added that he was trying to embed a “close call culture” where workers are encouraged to report potential safety breaches.

There were 120,000 “close calls” in the rail industry last year and an expected 150,000 this year, which Carne said was a “tremendously positive sign” of a “more open, caring culture”.

Carne also admitted that the process of Network Rail’s Planning and Delivering Safe Work (PDSW) reforms had suffered problems because of Network Rail trying “to bite off too much in one go”.

“We were changing the way in which work is done, we were changing the job descriptions and responsibilities of individuals, and we were trying to introduce technology to enable better planning and management of the work, and we tried to do it all at the same time, and that met with some considerable resistance in parts of our workforce,” he said.

Carne added that Network Rail was now “regrouping” and would introduce PDSW “in steps”, with the new process introduced first, then new jobs, then new technology.

Have you got a story to tell? Would you like to become an RTM columnist? If so, click here.



Railway Safety   16/11/2016 at 07:01

You Quote Mr Prosser as follows: 'Prosser said there had been a recent incident at Hockham Road level crossing in Norfolk, where a signaller had wrongly cleared a pedestrian to cross, which “could easily have derailed the train”.' Catastrophic possibility for the pedestrian but would never derail a train. Perhaps that the signaller had cleared a driver to cross whilst the driver was opening the gates. Accuracy rather than scaremongering needed.

Add your comment

Rail industry Focus

View all News


The challenge of completing Crossrail

05/07/2019The challenge of completing Crossrail

With a new plan now in place to deliver Crossrail, Hedley Ayres, National Audit Office manager, major projects and programmes, takes a look at ho... more >
Preparing the industry to deliver trains for the future

04/07/2019Preparing the industry to deliver trains for the future

The move to decarbonise the rail network involves shifting to cleaner modes of traction by 2050. David Clarke, technical director at the Railway ... more >

Most Read

'the sleepers' blog

On the right track, Sulzer is awarded RISAS accreditation for Nottingham Service Centre

29/06/2020On the right track, Sulzer is awarded RISAS accreditation for Nottingham Service Centre

Following an independent audit, Sulzer’s Nottingham Service Centre has been accepted as part of the rail industry supplier approval scheme (RISAS). The accreditation reinforces the high-quality standards that are maintained by Sulzer’s... more >
read more blog posts from 'the sleeper' >


Andrew Haines, CE of Network Rail, tells BBC News his organisation could issue future rail franchises

24/06/2019Andrew Haines, CE of Network Rail, tells BBC News his organisation could issue future rail franchises

Andrew Haines, the Chief Executive of Network Rail, has told the Today programme on Radio 4's BBC’s flagship news programme that he would not rule out his organisation issuing future r... more >
Advancing the rail industry with management degree apprenticeships

08/05/2019Advancing the rail industry with management degree apprenticeships

In answering the pressing questions of how current and future generations of managers can provide solutions to high-profile infrastructure projects across the UK, Pearson Business School, part of... more >