The Office of Rail and Road (ORR) has said that one of the central messages of its annual report on health and safety was that the rail industry should remain “focused on the basics of health and safety management as it prepares for reform and substantial change”.
The annual report covers the period from 1 April 2021 to 31 March 2022. Positive findings in the report included that Britain was one of the safest railways in Europe and that risk on the mainline rail network was at at all-time low.
However, the report also expressed concerns about recent accidents and near misses and said there was a need to strengthen safety management and oversight after the pandemic.
The ORR said it was “not yet fully satisfied” with the risk management of earthworks and drainage, one of the key priority areas to the regulator even before the Stonehaven derailment in Scotland in 2020 that led to the loss of three lives.
The ORR has focused heavily on post-Stonehaven inspection activities and said the Network Rail task force set up following the derailment – the Weather Risk Task Force Steering Group – had done a diligent job of overseeing the 17 action plans for improvements to earthworks and drainage management and the ways in which the rail industry handles forecasts of both adverse and extreme weather. The regulator also noted, however, that it found “significant variation” between the regions in the approach to putting the action plans into practice.
Although there had been fewer earthwork failures, the ORR said there was a heightened risk of objects on the line, such as trees and flooding. In Q1 of 2022 storms Dudley, Eunice and Franklin occurred back to back and the risk of objects on the line went up by a third.
One of the focus areas in the ORR’s activities was looking at how Network Rail complied with its enforcement action aimed at improving track-worker safety.
It found a 98 percent reduction in red zone unassisted lookout working since July 2019, saying further that this year there had been no track-worker fatalities on the mainline rail network. Furthermore, the moving annual average of track work-related near misses had fallen by 70 percent.
These findings mean the ORR is now “satisfied” that Network Rail has complied with the two track-worker safety improvement notices issued in July 2019.
Notwithstanding these positive figures, there were two serious track worker incidents in May 2021. In one instance a track worker suffered electrical burns from contact with overhead lines at Wolverton in the North West and Central region. This, together with previous, similar incidents, led to the ORR taking enforcement action requiring Network Rail to improve the way in which it demarcated and proved dead overhead line isolations.
The central section of the Elizabeth line opened on 24 May 2022. Prior to that there had been extensive trial operations during which more than 150 different scenarios were tested. The ORR noted that there had been challenges, including the processes around emergency communications in tunnel cross-passages, but said that these had been resolved to its satisfaction.
Moving forward, the ORR said it would “continue to work closely” with Rail for London Infrastructure, which manages the central section. Rail for London Infrastructure is planning to introduce ‘auto-reverse’ movements to enable the Elizabeth line to run 24 trains per hour.
There were four prosecutions during the time-period the report looked at, including one involving WH Malcom Limited, the operator of Daventry International Rail Freight Terminal, which was given one of the largest fines in a health and safety prosecution – 6.5 million GBP.
During the report period the ORR served nine improvement notices. This is two fewer than the previous year.
“The last twelve months proved to be a further challenging year for all in the railway family and we can look ahead to a period of change and reform that will impact the whole sector in some way.
“We will continue to work closely with industry and government to provide valuable support and advice and strive to see continuous improvements in health and safety management across the industry, for the benefit of all.”
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