Rail 450: RAIB must have free hand in rail crash investigations

The derailments at Aldwarke Junction and Ealing have again highlighted major safety concerns on the railway. The Government’s announcement of a new body to investigate railway accidents is welcome but, as CHRISTIAN WOLMAR warns, it must be allowed to get on with its job without separate inquiries by other organisations.

The only major transport measure contained in last month’s Queen’s Speech was the commitment to set up a rail accident investigation branch, similar to those already dealing with marine and aviation disasters.

Setting aside the fact that outside the world of tabloid headline and editorial writers, rail safety is probably 56th in the list of problems facing the transport industry, the creation of the new organisation, RAIB, has been widely welcomed in the industry and is seen as essential towards restoring confidence which has been undermined by a series of high-profile rail accidents.

Actually, there are no low-profile accidents on the railway but the two most recent serious incidents – the derailments at Rotherham and Ealing – have attracted less attention than they might have done had the news agenda not been focused on firefighters and terrorism. Of course, if these incidents had resulted in serious injury or death, they would have been big news stories but the lack of attention they received, particularly as one involved a high-speed train going at full whack, was surprising given that they both highlight aspects where there are still major safety concerns on the railway.

They also serve to focus attention on what the new RAIB would actually do and how far its remit extends. Clearly, to be effective, the RAIB will have to consist of a permanent team ready to arrive at the scene of an accident anywhere in the country within hours of its occurrence. So, the first problem is what type of accidents would the RAIB investigate as opposed to the existing procedures where minor events are handled by Network Rail and more major ones referred to the Health & Safety Executive?

According to the Government’s consultation paper on the proposed RAIB issued in June, the new organisation would be subject to European guidelines which require that it should look at serious accidents and those which, under slightly different circumstances, could have been serious. That is obviously somewhat subjective but by my reading, both these recent incidents would qualify. At Aldwarke Junction, Rotherham, the contractor, Jarvis, had removed a crossing without clipping the points, and clearly the derailment of the freight train, which fortuitously happened at night, could have fouled the line in front of a high-speed train. The other incident, at Ealing, involving a broken fishplate, obviously fits into the category of ‘potentially serious’ since the train was travelling at 125mph and again could easily have derailed in front of, say, a Heathrow Express. (Interestingly, the 1987 King’s Cross escalator fire which killed 31 people would not have been within the RAIB’s remit because it did not involve train movements.)

OK, so the RAIB would arrive on the scene in both cases. Then what? Back to the consultation paper. The RAIB would have unfettered access and, moreover, the new legislation would make it an offence for anyone to remove evidence from the site. The paper, however, says that the HSE and the British Transport Police will continue to carry out their own investigations, and this is where I can foresee trouble ahead with people getting under each other’s feet. Clearly, the RAIB must have primacy in the initial stages to ascertain the immediate cause of the crash. But then what? Let’s go back to our two examples.

Clearly, at Rotherham, Jarvis has cocked up big time and the cause is obvious. However, Jarvis’s failure is the result of a series of processes that may need detailed examination. The first question that must be answered is whether there is criminal liability – in other words, could a prosecution be brought by the BTP rather than the HSE? As no-one was hurt, the matter would go to the HSE which is extremely likely to bring a prosecution under the Health & Safety legislation. But what if people had been killed? Then the BTP would remain involved collecting evidence for a possible manslaughter charge. In the meantime, would the RAIB withdraw gracefully and let the other organisations carry out the detailed work? Or would it do it itself and then hand over its findings to them?

There is an issue about witness confidentiality too, as people may be willing to talk to the RAIB but not the police. The consultation paper suggests that for statements to be handed over, a judge would have to decide there was a wider public interest. That may not be enough to satisfy some wary witnesses. At Ealing, the cause of the broken fishplate could be criminal – loose nuts again? So, again, it is unclear who would be the lead authority carrying out the investigation.

The creation of the RAIB will add yet another organisation to the long list involved in these incidents: Network Rail, HSE, BTP, Department for Transport, train operating companies, maintenance companies and so on. It seems clear that unless the RAIB is given the unfettered right to carry on the investigation on its own without parallel ones springing up around it, its creation will simply lead to turf wars. The RAIB should be set up in a similar way to the US National Transportation Safety Board, which establishes the facts and then provides the evidence to whoever requires it. The crucial interface between the various agencies must be set before any accident rather than established on the hoof in the immediate aftermath of one.

While on the subject, the Rotherham incident was an outrage given that the crossing had been missing for several days without the points being clipped, and highlights how far current practice has departed from what would have happened under British Rail. This is not – Mr Bowker and others please note – nostalgia, but common sense.

As an old BR traffic man and RAIL reader, John Fowler, reminded me, under BR there would have been a notice informing all staff that the points would be clipped and padlocked in the normal position until further notice. The ‘Inspector Traffic’ would have confirmed that the clip and padlock were in place before any trains were allowed to proceed and the equipment would have been inspected daily. Instructions would have been issued to signal staff and traincrews. As Mr Fowler puts it, “Thus in BR days the engineer, inspector, signalman and driver would all have had to fail, and if that had happened then all four of them would have been disciplined.” Now, under the new system, either these safeguards no longer pertain or were not undertaken as they should have been.

Moreover, he adds, “the other major point is that we (as traffic) would never have allowed the engineers to take out such a set of points except as a one-off possession and we would expect the points working in both directions after the possession.”

All this reinforces what this column has long argued: while railway safety may well have improved in recent years, privatisation has brought about a new form of, as yet unquantified, risk as a result of the creation of interfaces. The HSE has failed to address that issue in any systematic way and must do so urgently if another disaster caused by the fragmentation of the industry is to be averted.

Good news for a change

As we are approaching the season of goodwill, here are a couple of bits of good news. The first may not strike you as exactly the most cheering item since it concerns fatalities on the track but they are a fact of life (and death), with something in the region of 200 every year, so the way that they are dealt with is important to many rail passengers. Indeed, I have been held up twice for such incidents this year, at Didcot in June and last month at Basingstoke.

The latter was interesting in that both the Down train to Southampton in the morning and the Up in the afternoon were delayed as the police first cleared the line, but then went back because of concerns over potential criminal action. The guard on the Down train complained to me that ‘in the old days’ the line would be cleared quickly, or a blanket chucked over the body and the trains got going.

Well, up to a point, and the good news is that the British Transport Police is taking this issue very seriously. Its chief constable, Ian Johnston, who has earned himself an excellent reputation within the industry during his 18-month tenure in the job, has set a target that 85% of such incidents should be cleared within two hours. I have a deep suspicion of targets as they can be vague aspirations which are meant to look good in the media but, in this case, the target has been accompanied by the necessary action to ensure it can be achieved. Currently, the figure is 79%, having started from the low base of 35%.

This is not a result of rocket science, but a whole series of clear management actions relating to quite detailed matters, such as ensuring that a senior officer is notified so that other forces do not outrank the coppers on the job; giving officers spare uniforms so they can come directly from home if that is nearer; making sure squad cars have all the right clothing for officers to move bodies; having thermal imaging cameras to look for bodies in the dark; and so on.

The Basingstoke incident, by the way, failed to meet the target because of police concerns about why the victim fell off a bridge on to the track.

The second bit of good news is that Transec, the mysterious committee of the Department for Transport which looks at security measures, has relented over the issue of cycle lockers at stations which I referred to in RAIL 448. Lockers will now be acceptable at all stations, including A grade stations, the 70 main stations which are considered a high security risk, provided certain rules are followed. A rare victory for common sense which took a lot of effort by the cycle lobbying groups.

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