‘Minding the Gaps’ in safety procedures

“It’s very important that the process is straightforward and easy to use. Then we drive cultural change, and that too is now starting to happen. Network Rail culture is now, finally, starting to change. 

“It was only five years ago, Nigel, that you and I talked about the culture of fear at NR - so we’re on a journey. And that journey needs to continue. Mark Carne has certainly been given a strong message from us that this journey must continue. Yes, there are cultural issues that still need to be worked through, but it will take time. It also takes perseverance.”

Are you happy that workforce safety is going in the right direction?

“It’s going in the right direction, but not fast enough - not fast enough at all for me.”

There have also been concerns about variable safety standards among contractors used by NR?

“I’ve been quite clear on my views on contractors in relation to doing safety-critical work,” Prosser replies, in a deadpan tone that leaves no doubt as to his distaste for what’s been happening here. 

He goes on: “NR has now changed its contractual arrangements, and is now moving towards all its safety-critical staff either being employed by them or their principal contractors, on proper contracts.

“That is very important, because all the research I’ve seen says that to drive a strong health and safety culture, you need the key leaders on your own payroll. A CoSS or an engineering supervisor are leaders - and it’s so important. This is why I pushed Network Rail to do this - it now has it in place, and we’re starting to see the changeover.

“It’s very important because these leaders directly drive and shape both behaviour and attitudes on the ground. We’ve seen terrible examples which we’re still investigating, where we have instigated prosecutions. 

“We’re also looking at another example where an individual was killed, where there were issues with performance by contractors, and the fact that there had been an individual with known examples of unsafe behaviour who was still in a leadership role. That’s the worst thing that can happen, because it drives the wrong sort of behaviour that the guys on the front end think is the norm. Leadership right through NR needs to be really joined up.” 

I have one last subject to discuss - the Signal Passed At Danger (SPAD) by a West Coast Railways steam excursion at Wootton Bassett on March 7, a potentially catastrophic incident that has been extensively reported in RAIL.

I know Prosser can’t say much about this specific incident, given the possibility of legal proceedings against both West Coast and the driver involved. My questions are therefore very simple and very general - and they come from a position of my wishing steam to continue on the main lines, but under much more professional management and train operating control than was the case at Wootton Bassett.

Given that Mk 1 stock was banned from everyday passenger use well over a decade ago, has the time now come to review their use for charter trains, given that the West Coast incident at Wootton Bassett was a heartbeat away from a spectacular, fatal catastrophe?

“That is a very good question which we are asking, too. But it’s one that I’m not going to answer directly today. We will have to stand back as a regulator, and look and talk with the industry about where we go from here. It’s a very good point. This instance has taught us a few things - specifically about pockets of culture that still exist… this old culture. It’s also taught us about thinking through what might have been. We have a lot of deep thinking to do.” 

That’s the coaches… what about the traction? Does ORR think it right that in 2015 steam should continue operating on 125mph main lines?

“That’s another very good question,” he deadpans. “I’m not going to give you an answer today, but it’s something that I’ve actually asked my team to look at and talk to the industry about.”

So the presence - or otherwise - of steam on 125mph lines is being discussed?

“It’s definitely on the agenda. Especially as we’re in a very different place than we were ten years ago. So that’s why it’s a very good question, and something that I’ve asked my team to address and think through with the industry.” 

  • This feature was published in RAIL 782 (September 2 - 16 2015)

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