Published: 26th August 2015
The UK rail system is now officially the safest major railway system in Europe and this statistic coincides with the 175th anniversary of the Railway Inspectorate (RI). The RI has gone through several organisational changes but the underlying remit of the railway inspectors has been to investigate accidents and near misses to establish what went wrong and to learn from these incidents.
The RI has undergone several changes in the last 20 years or so due to rail privatisation and is now part of the Office of Rail and Road (ORR). But whoever the inspectors report to, they have a long history of improving railway safety and when one researches the history of railway safety, it can be seen that safety inspectors have saved countless lives. For example, 80 years ago it was announced that only eight passengers had died annually in recent years, an excellent safety record the RI said at the time.
It all started in 1840 when using the Railway Regulation Act, the Board of Trade appointed the first Railway Inspector to inspect construction and equipment of new railways. Following many accidents and the explosive growth of railways, from 1871 railway inspectors were given powers to investigate accidents and recommend ways to avoid them. These included the mandatory use of fully braked trains, how to avoid steam locomotive boilers exploding and signalling rules designed to ensure trains were kept apart from each other!
Other initiatives were rules for lookout men for engineering works and designing safer driving cabs in case of a collision as well as setting noise level maximums in driver cabs, and emergency train evacuation rules.
The ORR’s annual safety report just published highlights the rail industry’s literally strong track record improving safety and the challenges of meeting an ever busier network. The next task for ORR is to help the rail industry take a more proactive approach to predicting and preventing problems before they become a safety risk. This latest report highlights the downward trend in harm to passengers reducing by a third in the past ten years making Britain's railways the safest in Europe.
Last year was the eighth consecutive year without any train accident-related passenger death and the second consecutive year with no passenger train derailments. The rail industry has collectively reduced the risk to passengers alighting or joining trains but this work is ongoing.
ORR's Director of railway safety, Ian Prosser, said:
Great Britain’s railways have a strong track record on improving safety, and after a decade of investment and growth, are now statistically the safest in Europe. While this improvement is to be commended, statistics only tell part of the story, the industry cannot become complacent. ORR’s inspectors have identified that there is still room for improvement.
ORR’s evidence highlights the challenges facing the rail industry, in particular, the need to manage growth safely.
Our safety inspectors report a mixed picture, with improvements at level crossings, on platform safety and asset management. However, inspectors are also seeing scope for improvement in safety risk assessments and worker health and safety.
The regulator is working with the rail industry to help it take a more proactive approach, recognising and managing safety issues before passengers or rail workers come to harm.
One example of how ORR and their RI work is demonstrated by the prosecution of a qualified train driver, Andrew McKenna who was fined £2000 by the Birmingham Magistrates Court with costs of £1,581.87. This was for failing to follow safety rules while driving a Class 47 locomotive in April 2012 on the West Coast Main Line. Mr McKenna pleaded guilty to a prosecution brought by the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) for a breach of health and safety law.
Mr McKenna was driving a Devon and Cornwall Railways locomotive from Birmingham to Crewe when two crucial safety devices – the Driver Safety Device (DSD) and National Radio Network (NRN) radio – stopped working shortly after he set off. Railway safety rules and his knowledge of them dictate that he should have notified the signaller immediately to take instructions as to whether to proceed to a siding or another place to assess the locomotive.
He did not do this and then the speedometer failed and he again ignored safety procedures. He also drove the engine exceeding the speed limit by some margin.
The prosecution was brought after the ORR investigation into the incident and found Mr McKenna was driving a locomotive with three failed safety devices. The signaller had no knowledge of the problems on the train and therefore had no means of contacting the driver.
Driving trains is a safety critical task requiring extensive training and in order to be declared competent, train drivers must have knowledge of and adhere to the RSSB Rule Book. By not following safety rules, Mr McKenna failed in his duty to manage the safety risks associated with driving a train.