‘Minding the Gaps’ in safety procedures

One of the railway’s newest acronyms is PTI (platform train interface - the place where passengers get on and off the train). The increase in the number of people using the railways has naturally led to a greater likelihood of incidents at the PTI, and it is an area that is causing concern for Office of Rail and Road Chief Inspector and Director of Railway Safety Ian Prosser. 

“That is where the biggest risk now lies for passengers from a fatality or major injury point of view on the railway,” he says.

Blimey. Really? We’ve had bespoke passenger railways for 185 years now, since the opening of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway on September 15 1830 - yet in the 21st century the biggest risk is getting on and off them?

Is this not just a function of growth? More people getting on and off means that on the basic law of averages, more people are going to have slips and trips in and out of the train?

“This concern is based on the figures that we see, and the fact that some of the other areas where passengers were hurt or harmed in the past have declined. On PTI, the industry really came together in a strategic way with London Underground, train operators and Network Rail coming together to produce a strategic plan for short, medium term and long term. Over a long period of time, you can help reduce risk by getting design right in stations, so that you can improve the platform.”

So, have we seen a bigger risk of people being injured getting on and off trains?

“Well you’re always going to have more pressure when there are more people.” 

That’s what I was asking - clearly not very well. Is it just that there are more people getting hurt as a proportion? In other words, it’s not that the risk is any greater, there are just more people taking it?

“It’s very important when you see growth in numbers to actually address some of the underlying issues,” Prosser replies.

What about the balance between giving people adequate warnings and going ‘OTT’ on notices and announcements about being careful on the stairs, watching your step in ‘inclement’ weather, not running on platforms, holding handrails, not taking your luggage on the escalator… is it all too much? Are we bombarding people with so many safety warnings that we’re all zoning out and not listening to any of them any more? 

I can’t remember the last time I saw anyone rollerblading anywhere - so do we really need to be told half a dozen times at King’s Cross not to do it? I know Ian has a young daughter - does he have notices all over the house about holding the handrail, being careful on the stairs, and so on…?

“I do tell her not to run up the stairs.”

Great. That’s good parenting for a young child. But you won’t be telling her that when she’s in her 20s and beyond?

“I also tell her to hold the handrail which I specifically had put into the house.”

But no signs on every other stair riser… why can’t we just treat people like grown-ups? And there’s a special place in hell reserved for whoever came up with those infuriating hologram ladies at the foot of many escalators, waving their arms about and exhorting us to use the ‘elevator’ which apparently is somewhere close by. Maybe if it was more obvious, we would use it - and Prosser is quick to pick up on this.

“There are a couple of very important points here,” he says. “One is that certain messages can have a beneficial effect - but yes, you’re right, overdo it and people will zone out. 

“But if you intuitively design stations, you actually have an impact unconsciously on people’s behaviour. I think it’s a real balance of some messages - but not over the top, because people will then ignore them, and where they are is particularly important. Designing these things so that people naturally do the safe thing - so put the lifts in a very obvious place so you see them first, before the escalator. They have been doing this at airports for many years.”

“That’s safety by design. We have investigated some of the issues at London Bridge, and some solutions are really simple. Take the overcrowding, which made all the newspapers and TV bulletins with people crawling under gates.

“At first, they had a single set of customer information screens over just one set of the gates. So where did everyone go? Hence the overcrowding. So one of the mitigations was to put another set of screens over the other set of gates. We need to think much more in advance about these things.”

On the profileration of signs, what about the very successful experiments that have been carried out in streets, stripping out many warning signs and even taking down railings designed to funnel people across pelican crossings? It’s worked really well - even right outside King’s Cross and St Pancras, for example. Should we not likewise de-clutter the railway?

“It’s about getting the balance right and being proportionate,” replies Prosser. 

So are we being proportionate? Or have we gone too far?

“I think it’s difficult to say, to make a blanket statement that we’ve gone too far.” 

Hmmm. I can’t helping thinking that he’d like to agree, but can’t. I try another tack. Is it not less about our ‘comfort and safety’ (don’t you get fed up of hearing that?) and more about their liabilities? Does management believe they’re covered if they’ve given us a warning?

“I think if you haven’t designed it well, you don’t assume.”

Double hmmmm! OK, let’s stop beating about the proverbial. I ask him outright: has it become more about arse-covering than genuine passenger safety - even if only in some instances? 

“I think if you go back, every location is specific, so having generalities is not the right thing,” Prosser replies carefully. “This is where management maturity comes in. If you have strong local management, you’ll get the right solutions. 

“Yes, they’re thinking about risk, and they will get the solutions that work for their station. For example, we have safe platform train interfaces at London Underground, which is slightly safer than the main line railway. And yet you would think, with all those people that close to the platform, you’d have more accidents. One of the reasons you don’t is that on LU you have excellent staff interactions with passengers.”

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