When my esteemed editor Nigel and myself had one of our regular breakfasts (pow-wows perhaps best describes them given our differences over some aspects of the railway!) at the beginning of the year, we agreed that one of the threats faced by the railway was safety. We were both very concerned that an element of complacency had crept in and that some of the safety procedures had become box ticking exercises rather than proper risk reduction strategies.
Safety risks by their very nature tend to come from unexpected sources since those that are easily identifiable can be mitigated more easily. However, neither Nigel or I would ever have guessed that the worst near miss in years on the railway would come from a railway tour operated by a steam engine. It is no exaggeration to say that the most catastrophic disaster on the railway since Ladbroke Grove in 1999 and, indeed, perhaps since Harrow in 1952 was averted by a minute or so.
The early reports of the incident at Wootton Bassett on March 7 suggest a quite remarkable series of events. Any locomotive on the railways that can travel at more than 20 mph has to be fitted with the long established Automatic Warning System (AWS) and the Train Protection and Warning System (TPWS) introduced in the wake of the Ladbroke Grove disaster. It seems that the driver of the West Coast Railways went through an unexpected AWS magnet installed because of a temporary speed restriction (of 85 mph which was actually irrelevant since steam locomotives are restricted to 70 mph) and failed to cancel it. Instead, remarkably, he disconnected both AWS and TPWS and as a result went through a yellow without slowing down – one suggestion is that he was too busy disconnecting the system to note the signal – and then the subsequent red resulting in a lengthy overlap which meant the train stopped foul of the junction. Fortunately, the train for which the red had been switched on had just passed (and luckily the points had moved to accommodate the Tangmere which meant there was no derailment) but had the steam special been a minute or so earlier, the consequences hardly bear thinking about. It was a near miss that is almost off the scale and fortunately for the industry there has been little publicity around the event as the newspapers were so preoccupied with politics and often fail to recognise the importance of near misses.
There’s two features of this near disaster that need highlighting and from which lessons can be drawn. First, it is noticeable that dangerous incidents on the railway disproportionately relate to smaller organisations involved in the industry. The last near miss I covered extensively in this column (Rail 732) featured a locomotive running light without a functioning AWS and which was driven deliberately fast by a driver seemingly fancying a burn up on the West Coast Main Line. Again, this was a small company, Devon and Cornwall Railways, the driver was, as on the Tangmere on a zero hours contract and was also extremely experienced.
These types of incident could easily be characterised as people being allowed to play with trains on the network. That would be grossly unfair as these are, one hopes, rare incidents but had either of them ended in disaster, the repercussions would have been enormous.
Secondly, West Coast Railways has had a long record of lack of transparency and remarkable hostility to the press. Pip Dunn, formerly of this parish, and now editor of Railways Illustrated, says that West Coast has refused to talk to him – and indeed any other journalists – for a long time. He says that he fell out with Smith when he reported on a story involving an engine that somehow went missing and found its way into one of WCR’s locomotives. Dunn says: ‘They have banned lots of journalists who have reported on stories they don’t want to appear and they never talk to the press except when they want to publicise one of their trips’.
That is a very worrying sign which perhaps should have raised concerns among the regulatory authorities. And, indeed, it was to a great extent the aftermath of the incident, when West Coast demonstrated its lack of readiness to communicate that led Network Rail to take the unprecedented step of suspending the company’s access to the tracks. The company, used to working in its own self-contained bubble, according to Network Rail, had ‘appreciated the seriousness of the Wooton Bassett incident’ but ‘didn’t appreciate the wider implications for their operation and were treating it as an isolated incident’.
It is important to get this in perspective. SPADs involving steam engines are a rarity with the last one dating back to 2007 but there is clearly an issue around the ability to disconnect the TPWS system so easily. Normally this would be in a closed box with seals but the rapidity with which the driver disengaged the system suggests that either the seals were broken already or there were none.
However, this raises the fundamental point and it is a difficult one for the safety authorities: if rules become too onerous for small organisations on the railway, or those operating very old kit – such as, by definition, steam engines – then it will become impossible for them to function. The privatisation of the railways was motivated in part by a desire to make the industry more flexible and open to innovation, which is often introduced by small new companies. However, there is no doubt that by opening up the railways, new risks were introduced and that is there has to be the right supervisory regime.
For example, there is an issue about drivers’ route knowledge. WCR was well known for managing to provide drivers for all kinds of out of the way routes. These were often retired professional drivers who could keep their hand in with route knowledge on lines for which more mainstream companies, such as DB Schenker, could not provide anyone. However, ensuring that these people had genuine recent route knowledge, and kept up to date with any changes, is not easy. Every company must have a competency management system to be able to show a driver’s route and traction knowledge, among other things, but there is a suspicion within the industry that sometimes this was not maintained properly.
The repercussions of this incident could be profound. By its actions, especially in the aftermath of the near miss, West Coast Railways has put at risk an important part of the railway industry. Steam trains are a fantastic boost to the economy of many deprived areas where volunteers and enthusiasts have restored trains and track to provide an attraction that brings millions of people on to the rails every year. Incidents such as this gives ammunition to those who oppose allowing these small companies access onto a busy rail network. Thankfully, the accident did not happen but a positive result from the experience must be be extra vigilance from all those working for all businesses, big or small, in the industry.