The deaths of two track workers near Port Talbot on 3 July was a tragedy that could possibly have been avoided. Initial reports are that the two workers were using loud equipment and relying on a touch lookout – someone who would tap them to warn them of approaching trains. Exactly why that didn’t happen is not likely to be clear for several months until the Rail Accident Investigation Board publish their report. Some of the lessons to be learned are probably ones that could have been learnt already though. RAIB has published several reports into worrying near misses in recent years, and Network Rail has often not implemented the recommendations.
When track workers are required to go out and work on the line a system of work is designed to allow them to do so safely. The safest method of working is “green zone”, where all train movements are stopped. If that is considered impractical other arrangements have to be made, for example providing lookouts to warn workers of oncoming trains in enough time for them to move out of the way. This is referred to as “red zone” working. Plans are designed so that lookouts have sufficient sightlines, depending on the linespeed and the curvature of the track, to see trains and warn people while there is still a decent amount of time. However, time and again Network Rail’s plans have not provided people with adequate protection.
RAIB published their annual report for 2018 a few months ago. In it they detailed that Network Rail have so far failed to properly implement at least 8 recommendations into incidents where track workers were hit by trains or forced to dive out of the way at the last second, dating back to 2011. These include recommendations relating to planning of work, ensuring staff competency, and promoting a culture where people feel able to speak out about unsafe practices.
Following this annual report RAIB have also recently published reports into near misses at Peterborough and at Sundon. At Peterborough a lookout narrowly avoided being hit by a train as the planned system of lookout working wasn’t sufficient for the location. Staff under pressure to get the job done were left using unofficial hand signals over long distances, leading to confusion. RAIB also concluded Peterborough depot were using “red zone” working as the default. Network Rail is required to use the safest method, green zone, by default and only use red zone where nothing else is practical. This is a worrying reminder of the investigation into the death of a track worker at Newark North Gate in 2014, which also concluded that the most dangerous method of working was being used by default and without proper consideration of alternatives.
At Sundon the planned system of work was so vague about how to get to the worksite that the track workers ended up working on the “Up Slow” line, which was open to trains. They had intended to go to the “Down Fast”, which was closed to traffic. This investigation has led to the RAIB writing to the Office of the Rail Regulator to request action. RAIB have not yet completed their investigation into the death of a track worker last November at Stoats Nest Junction, near Croydon.
The safest method of working on the tracks is to stop train movements. Network Rail has a duty to plan work so that this method is always used by default unless it is not feasible. This is, of course, rather unclear and leaves a lot of wriggle room. A large amount of work is still done with lines open to trains. At a minimum we should be demanding that the requirement to eliminate all other options is properly enforced.