Rail 754: Safety cannot be taken as a given

On entering the reception area of the airy new offices of Network Rail in King’s Cross, one is confronted with a notice about the company being an organisation that has safety as its first consideration. Then the poor receptionist has to read a short script about how to ensure that no risks are taken while on the premises.

When I suggested to Mark Carne, Network Rail’s new boss, that perhaps making hapless receptionists read out a safety announcement for people visiting the virtually risk free environment of a modern office block and that this was rather dehumanising contact between his staff and visitors, he was utterly unapologetic. Safety, he told me, what his prime concern as, he felt, Network Rail had not done well enough in the past. These little interchanges at reception was part of the change process, inculcating the fact that there was absolutely no compromise on safety.

I did not push the point. While I still have doubts about making receptionists in offices read out statements that no one is going to listen to, in a way it is an impressive demonstration of resolve. Safety is in fact in the DNA of the railway but like DNA sometimes it can be rather taken for granted. I don’t wake up every morning glad I am not a chimpanzee.

This is made clear in a couple of rather contrasting reports published in the past few days. The first, The impact of efficiency savings on Network Rail staff, performance and safety was carried out by two researchers from the London Metropolitan University on behalf of the TUC and is based on two focus groups of railway workers from across the industry. The report highlights a series of concerns such as the development of a culture of putting off tasks because resources are not available to carry them out (think Hatfield here).

Another concern was the way that cutbacks have resulted in people having to take on several roles, some of which they are ill-equipped to perform. As one respondent put it, ‘Let’s make them people dedicated to just carrying out safety. So I don’t care whether a lookout knows how to use a shovel, what I want a lookout to do is protect me from them trains’. The most serious point was that since supervisors now hold ‘responsibility for safety, budgets and targets…there was a very strongly held view that at workplace level, safety had become secondary to the need to comply with the more concrete demands of budgets and targets’.

The issue which can be addressed most easily is the one of zero hours contracts for workers in safety critical roles. This is clearly unacceptable and is something that could be taken up by the various umbrella railway organisations such as Network Rail, the Rail Delivery Group and the Rail Safety & Standards Board. This is something they should unite on to abolish the practice. Some things, though, never change, despite all the attempts to reduce costs: ‘I’ve done nearly 35 years and every year I’ve been told they’re going to cut down on overtime, it’s never happened. And every year I’m earning more on overtime than my basic rate.’ That’s fairly incredible given the number of times I have heard managers in the industry say that they are trying to sort this out and cut down on overtime payments.

The report concludes that there needs to be a pan-industry examination of the effects of budgetary cuts on safety because of fears that they might result in a major incident. Now I have at times been critical of the unions for scaremongering and trying to exploit perfectly reasonable managerial decisions because they may involve reductions in staff, something that is at times inevitable given technological developments. There are limitations of this type of survey, as the authors admit, since it is based on accounts from a few people. However, there is a worrying and consistent tone about what the workers are saying. One has to look no further than the Department for Transport itself which was brought to its knees because of excessive cutbacks that caused the West Coast franchise fiasco to see that there are limits to see that there is a limit to how far any organisation can be cut back before disaster strikes.

Indeed, these concerns rather chime in with the other report, the annual safety report from the Office of Rail Regulation, which warns that despite the excellent record, there are real risks in adapting the railway to the growing traffic as highlighted by the increase in risk to trackworkers. With three fatalities, 79 serious and 1,461 minor injuries, 2013/4 was the worst year since 2006/7 and clearly the situation needs addressing.

It is noticeable, too, that the TUC report highlighted the underreporting of incidents, something that became effectively institutionalised within Network Rail in the late noughties until it was exposed in Rail. That culture does not seem to have been totally eradicated and the absence of honest and open statistics makes prevention more difficult. Underreporting appears to be a problem for the number of signals passed at danger. Statistics showed highest category A SPADs increased by 17 per cent since last year with 293 of the highest risk category, an increase of 43 across the rail network. The high risk figure was the greatest since 2010/11 and it is noticeable that while there was a dramatic decrease in the early years following Ladbroke Grove, the number has stayed pretty consistent since 2008/9. The ORR says that it is challenging train operators to reduce this number through the improvement of driver training but also there appears to be a fault inherent in the TPWS (Train Protection & Warning System) installed across the network in the wake of Ladbroke Grove: ‘it does not self-check or provide an indication to the driver of the reasons for an automatic brake application’. Hence there has been a tendency to simple reset the equipment and not alert the signaller about an automatic application of the brakes, suggesting there may be more SPADs than shown in the statistics.

None of this should take away from the fact that there has only been one passenger fatality across the network in 12 years resulting from a railway accident and this is unprecedented – or, rather more than unprecedented given that previously before 1999, there had never been more than a couple of successive years without a death and until the 1990s there was the expectation of several fatal accidents annually.

However, clearly, in his tour around the railway in preparation for the job, Mr Carne saw at first hand some of the risks of complacency and his instruction to his receptionists shows his concern about safety. There may come a time, though, when he will be forced to tell the regulator and indeed the government that enough is enough and that any further attempts to reduce budgets will result in a very high risk of a major incident. I suspect that time may be nearer than those holding the purse strings would like.




Stagecoach on the warpath


My first book (available on Kindle only I’m afraid) was a company history of Stagecoach (called, imaginatively, Stagecoach) which regaled readers with the buccaneering approach of the company which helped it rise from a one coach company to become one of the country’s biggest transport firms within a couple of decades. There were no shortage of incidents such as the day the company in an act of revenge parked a load of old buses in the centre of Keswick to put pressure on the local council which had turned down the company’s favoured development plan and caused chaos right in the middle of the tourist season. Or there was the time in Darlington that when Stagecoach lost a bid to buy the local municipally owned bus company, it ran free buses which had the effect of driving it to bankruptcy.

Now that it is comfortably ensconced in the FTSE 250, Stagecoach has mostly reformed itself and behaves rather better even if its founder, Brian Souter, still eschews suits and ties. However, its aggressive approach has been reappearing recently in the company’s fervent opposition to any plan to rationalise bus services in the North East under a London type franchising system

. Now, though, Martin Griffiths, Stagecoach’s chief executive has really gone on the warpath warning that he might throw all his toys out of the pram if a government company is allowed to bid for franchises. He said: ‘if you have to start to think it’s not going to be a level playing field then you may stop bidding’.

Now irrespective of the merits of the idea – and I have my doubts – this type of language merely sounds like self-interested whining. Or, as Mrs Thatcher might have put it, Mr Griffiths sounds like he is ‘frit’. Bullies, Martin, always crumble when confronted and therefore much better to simply say, ‘we are confident that we can win bids whatever the opposition’ and make sure you do rather than going back to the language of Stagecoach’s bad old days.

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