Published: 17th December 2014
The Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB) is part of the Department for Transport (DfT) and its aims are to improve railway safety by investigating railway accidents and incidents to establish what went wrong and then to recommend improvements to reduce the likelihood of further accidents.
The RAIB is an independent organisation and does not prosecute, if legal action is required, the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) undertakes this. The RAIB’s activities cover the UK mainline railways, metros, light rail and heritage railways, the Channel Tunnel plus tramways in England and Wales. It is mandated to investigate any serious railway accident and can also investigate other accidents or incidents where it believes that an investigation could significantly improve railway safety.
In 2013, the RAIB published 22 reports containing 84 recommendations, with 48 of these directed at Network Rail with the rest mainly divided between train operators and railway contractors.
Level crossings again were the main cause for concern despite the UK’s mainline railway having one of the best safety records compared to European Union Member States. RAIB investigated 54 level crossing accidents or incidents in 2013 which regrettably resulted in 29 fatalities.
One set of findings concluded that the accident had been caused by the vehicle driver to see the warning lights or half barrier due to sunlight and glare. This brought recommendations to improve the light output of road traffic signals at this and similar crossings.
Incorrect user behaviour at level crossings is a recurring theme and crossing design is now being looked at to protect those who are unwilling to obey the instructions for their own safety. RAIB says that in some cases extended waiting times increase the likelihood of non-compliant behaviour at crossings.
Other issues which can be mitigated are removing local obstructions to the sighting of trains and looking at how environmental conditions such as traffic noise and visibility at night can be made safer. Anxiety to cross the line to catch a train at station crossings is an issue. The RAIB welcomes the recruitment during 2013 of local managers to improve level crossing safety.
Another area of risk is that of road vehicles getting on to the railway line which obviously carry a significant risk to the railway. The 2001 accident at Great Heck resulted in ten deaths illustrated this growing risk as did the accident that occurred at Ufton Nervet level crossing in 2004, killing seven. In 2010, a cement mixing lorry fell from a bridge at Oxshott, onto a passenger train which derailed and caused serious injuries.
In 2012, a car lost control near Stowmarket, crashed through the railway fence and came to a stand on the railway when it was hit by a train travelling at 50 mph. As a result of these, and more similar incidents, the DfT is preparing guidance on improving safety in these areas. The ends of railway bridge parapets may be protected to reduce the risk of bridges being struck by road vehicles while guidelines on how to assess, identify and mitigate local safety hazards at road over rail bridges should be completed by February 2015.
In 2013, RAIB published five reports and two bulletins relating to track workers’ safety. One regrettable death was of a track worker employed by a recruitment agency to work on Network Rail’s infrastructure and this led to important recommendations relating to the management and monitoring of agency workers.
Track faults caused three freight trains to derail, Castle Donington, Camden Road and Gloucester and these were exacerbated with the way wagons were loaded. RAIB says that in all three accidents, the consequences could have been much worse had circumstances been slightly different and at Camden Road and Gloucester the derailed wagons were dragged for a considerable distance before the trains were brought to a stand
The recent extremely wet weather has caused a significant number of earthwork and drainage issues on adjacent land to the railway. Accidents to passengers on platforms brought ten investigations, six on the national network, two involved London Underground and two involved a tram and one a train on Newcastle’s metro system.
Three accidents involved people falling between the train and platform, four involved people who were trapped in train doors and dragged for a distance. As a result of this, RAIB suggests that there is potential for new safety learning for the rail industry. The risk of wheelchairs and children’s push-chairs rolling off platforms and onto the track was also an issue in 2013.
One of the more unusual incidents RAIB has had to investigate was when a train hit a signal that had collapsed and fallen across the track between Newbury and Newbury Racecourse stations.
The accident occurred on 17 November 2014 when the 1041hrs First Great Western train from Truro to Paddington hit the junction indicator attached to the head of signal.
The signal was attached to a metal post which was lying across the line having fallen from its normal upright position. The train was travelling at about 110 mph but was not derailed despite sustaining damage to the driving cab and a ruptured air pipe.
There had been no indication of a problem to the signaller because the signalling cables were still intact and the signal still illuminated. A freight train had previously used the line around 15 minutes earlier without incident.
The signal had last been examined in June 2014 and no defects were reported for it but the base of the post was hidden by ballast and corrosion at and below ground level was not detected. The signal head was replaced on 28 September 2014 and no issues were reported with the signal post at that time.
RAIB’s investigation will focus on the examination regime for this signal post and will seek to understand how it came to be susceptible to corrosion and why this was not detected before it collapsed.