One day in April last year, two men got in a Class 47 locomotive at Washwood Heath to take it back to its depot at Crewe. The driver worked for Amtrain which provided consultancy advice to the operator of the locomotive, Devon and Cornwall Railways and his companion was a technician employed by a sister company.
What happened next was a near-disaster resulting from a series of safety lapses that begs fundamental questions about the processes for new operators in the industry and about the Office of Rail Regulation’s competency in overseeing these companies. In short, the locomotive, whose drivers’ warning device was out of action and with a malfunctioning speedometer, was driven, deliberately according to the safety investigation, at above the speed limit The driver, a volunteer on the North Yorks Railway for the past 25 years, was actually a former safety director for British American Rail Services Ltd which owns Devon and Cornwall Railways. He had a rather bizarre arrangement as he was a part-time consultant for the BARS group and was on a ‘zero hours’ contract with DCR. He was actually, oddly, responsible for safety for DCR. His experience included train driving as well as managing and training drivers but crucially he did not have route knowledge for the line he was travelling on. Nor did he have much experience of driving ‘light’ locomotives which, of course, have more limited braking capability.
Heading north west out of Washwood Heath, the pair drove for nearly an hour uneventfully to join the Bushbury – Stafford line when the driver accelerated continuously, reaching a speed of 100 mph on a section with a line speed of 90mph. In fact, a light locomotive is restricted to 75 mph on this section of track. The speedometer, according to both men, was stuck at 55 mph but they did not stop, as they should have done, to report it.
The inevitable therefore happened. They went past a double yellow and yellow too fast and were unable to stop the train in time for a red which was protecting the junction on to the West Coast Main Line and they passed at 24 mph, stopping a 100 yards beyond it. The signal was red because a London Midland Liverpool service was about to depart from Stafford and had the two cowboys been a minute or so later, there would have been a disaster.
The driver later complained that the brakes were faulty but the Railway Accident Investigation Branch report published on September 17 says that the fact that he only made a partial application of the brakes when he saw the double yellow was a causal factor.
There is no shortage of worrying aspects to this. The RAIB report makes chilling reading. In sum, the story is that two men in a loco go loco. The broke virtually every rule in the book, at least three red cards worth. In short, they were in a locomotive for which neither had route knowledge, and which had numerous faults that they did not report and they exceeded the line speed. It seems difficult to postulate any other theory than they were enjoying themselves going for a burn up on the West Coast Main Line. It was rather like allowing a 17 year old provisional driver to go for a burn up the M1 in a rickety truck cab with faulty brakes and no speedo.
So what are the concerns here? This has sent shockwaves through the industry. One senior safety source told me ‘this is a theoretical weak point resulting from the vertically separated railway. New companies can turn up and get accredited, and then they can operate, but they do not have a thorough understanding of the rules’.
This highlights the lack of accountability and oversight of this type of small operation on the railway which has come about as a result of privatisation. The safety management systems adopted by new companies tend to be off the peg and the RAIB report highlights the fact that the ORR did not examine the implementation of the system as another causal factor. There are very few new operators coming into the industry and it is surprising that the ORR did not routinely pay detailed attention to them rather than chasing existing established operators. Indeed, on the very day that this report was issued, the ORR was trumpeting the fact that it had fined First Capital Connect £75,000 for not reacting quickly enough or providing sufficient information when a crowded train broke down and was stranded for three hours between St Pancras and Kentish Town in May 2011. OK, that did deserve a slap on the wrists, but was not in the same league as the Stafford SPAD. The ORR, indeed, appears happy to go after easy pickings. First Great Western were once censored by the ORR because the people clearing up after a suicide had the wrong type of overalls and yet in this far more serious case no action is being taken against either the or the various companies involved.
I have always avoided safety-scare stories in the industry. I have frequently been rung up by media organisations concerned about a particular event and refused to comment or tried to deter them from running the story because there had been no serious risk. I point to the fact that there has only been one fatality on the railways due to an accident in the past decade and that they are by far the safest form of travel. This is totally different and the issues need highlighting because this incident suggests that complacency may be creeping in. Everything seems to have gone wrong here, and the role of the ORR, in particular, needs to be examined. The ORR needs to explain why it has not taken any action against either the company or the people involved. It has said that it has tightened up procedures and made changes since this incident –as incidentally has DCR – by, for example, according to RAIB, establishing ‘a framework which is intended to deliver effective safety regulation in the period between the issue of a new operator’s safety certificate and commencement of its operations’. Nevertheless, the lack of prosecution does seem strange and is sending the wrong signals throughout the industry.
The mood music from the ORR and ministers is that the railways need to be opened up to new operators. Open access arrangements are favoured and newcomers encouraged. Well and good, but the controls are clearly inadequate. Much of the regulation is through self-certification, which is fine in the cases of big and established operators such as Virgin or FirstGroup but questionable when newcomers, particularly from the less regulated industry in the US, open up for business. There is, too, a tendency for these companies not to admit to their mistakes or not to be aware of their duties to report incidents. The background to this SPAD would never have been uncovered had it not been for a ‘whistleblower’ – actually a senior manager working for a train operator on the West Coast – raising concerns about this incident. Otherwise, it would have been logged but not acted on, which again suggests a lacuna in the system.
LoL at the complexities of today’s railway
Sometimes, there is only one possible responsible to the convoluted nature of today’s railway and that is simply to laugh. The latest example of the completely crazy way in which this industry is run is the announcement by the government (remember, this was the government that under the privatised system was supposed to have nothing to do with the railway) that there will be a trial of new technology that will allow a more flexible approach to season tickets.
The issue which is being addressed is simple and needs to be tackled. People’s work patterns are changing and in many cases they no longer go into the office every day. This is a Good Thing. That means there is less pressure on the railways at those peak times where overcrowding can only be relieved at great expense – to the taxpayer inevitably – by providing more capacity.
Yet, the fares structure penalises these people. Season tickets which are, in effect, a discount of as much as 60 per cent or more on peak fares, and therefore people wanting to travel say, three or even in some cases just two times per week on individual tickets will end up paying as much as those going in every day. So for a long time transport planners have been suggesting that there should be a more flexible arrangement to allow part-time seasons.
However, this probably implies that the operators need some form of smart ticketing to provide this flexibility. Now, if the railways were a genuine private sector go-getting conventional capitalist industry, the train operators would develop such a system on their own because it would be to their benefit. However, the railways do not fit into that mould and therefore the operators have to seek money and help from Mummy and Daddy to sort it out. Therefore, on September 18, Norman Baker, the junior transport minister, announced that the The Department for Transport will run a competition next year to select a train operator to run a pilot on a busy commuter route into London so it can assess the benefits. Moreover, £45m is being made available to roll out such smart ticketing arrangements on the South East commuter routes.
So instead of train companies getting together to create a new system, the government has to grease their palms with £45m to ensure the operators make changes which, were they as innovative and customer-focussed as they want us to believe, they would do anyway. Except, of course, that the reason that train companies will not do this without help is that it is not in their narrow commercial interests. More flexible tickets may mean ultimately a loss of overall revenue, though in societal terms, by reducing the impact on peak times, it would be beneficial. If ever there was an argument that the railways need to be in the public sector it is little details of their working that demonstrate it time and again because they highlight the irresolvable conflict between short term private interests and long term public aims. QED.