Reversing a grim track record

Despite attempts to improve rail safety, track workers have the second highest level of occupational risk. Helen Knight reports on plans to introduce technology that should reduce these hazards.

Safety on the railways is continuing to improve overall, but for those working in the industry the tracks remain a highly dangerous place.

The latest Annual Safety Performance Report, published by the Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB), shows a rise in the number of workforce fatalities, with eight track worker deaths in 2004, the highest since 1991. There were also 124 major injuries, compared to three deaths and 83 major injuries in 2003.

‘While some of this increase might be explained by greater levels of activity, it undoubtedly constitutes a sharp deterioration in performance,’ the report stated.

The accident at Tebay in February 2004, in which four track workers were killed when a trolley with no functioning brakes ran from one worksite into another, was the worst single accident since 1991. At Hednesford near Cannock two staff unloading rails were struck by a reversing road rail vehicle, and at Ancaster a person was killed when the on-track machine he and colleagues were riding on collided with another.

Track workers have the highest levels of occupational risk in the UK, second only to those employed in the recycling industry, said RSSB. While Network Rail attempts to do as much work as possible on closed lines, faults are by their nature unpredictable, and it can be difficult to close lines at short notice.

If track workers are to be protected on lines open to traffic, a reliable system is needed to warn them of approaching trains. The use of look-outs, in which a relay of staff warn workers of an oncoming vehicle using flags, is expensive and labour intensive. It has also had safety problems: workers, including the look-outs themselves, have failed to get clear and been struck by trains.

Automatic Track Warning Systems (ATWS), which detect the approach of trains and transmit an alert to workers via cables or radio, are used extensively in Europe, according to Mick Stormonth, project manager for national initiatives at RSSB. But progress in the UK has so far been slow.

In trials, where ATWS has been used in specific projects such as track renewals, it has proved highly effective and resulted in greater productivity and concentration of work, he said. But the previous fragmentation of the industry, which meant a number of companies could be working on the same stretch of track but on completely different schedules, has made introduction of the technology more difficult.

‘In Switzerland and places where it is used extensively, they tend to say, “This area of track will have ATWS installed on it between this date and this date, come in and get lots of work done.” Then they move it a couple of kilometres down the track and work will be done there,’ said Stormonth.

So the reorganisation of maintenance work to bring it under the direct control of Network Rail, which began in the second half of 2003, may help speed the technology’s introduction by allowing work to be better co-ordinated. But there will always be smaller maintenance tasks, and for these jobs installing a semi-permanent warning system of sensors and communications equipment can actually put more workers at risk, he said.

‘If you and I have a small job to do, and we go out on to the track, then we may need two people to protect us and act as look-outs while we do the work. If we require ATWS, the people who are needed to go on to the track and install the system to protect us might actually be on the track longer than we would be,’ said Stormonth.

One possibility Network Rail is particularly interested in is Look-out Operated Warning Systems (LOWS), in which one person is used to monitor the track ahead, but rather than using a flag they are equipped with a portable device to transmit a warning at a high enough volume to be audible. This would allow the technology to be used for more smaller jobs, as it would eliminate the need for anyone to go onto the track to install the equipment beforehand.

By allowing just one look-out to be used it would also reduce the risk of error created by a process in which one person waves a flag that must be spotted and the warning passed on by another look-out, and so on down the track. The look-outs themselves would also be able to stand in a place of greater safety, said Stormonth.

‘Normally the look-out has to be not only where they can see trains coming, but also where they are visible to workers further down the track, and those two may not add up to the most convenient place to stand. A position where the look-out gets a clear view of the track but is in a place of safety might be behind bushes, where they can’t be seen by the work party. But if they’re using an electronically operated system that is not a problem,’ he said.

Network Rail is running trials of two LOWS systems on the West Coast main line, which are expected to last at least until the end of the year. The firm held an internal maintenance conference this month, at which feedback was given on progress in the Office of the Rail Regulator (ORR)-funded trials.

A spokesman for Network Rail said the trials of the handheld, radio-based systems are going well, and the company has applied to Ofcom for radio licences. ‘There has been some fantastic feedback from staff working with the systems, and we would be looking to roll it out across the network pending the successful completion of the trials.’

However, he added that ATWS would not have prevented any of last year’s track worker deaths. To provide workers with even more information on the location of vehicles, Network Rail is also investigating the use of GPS and the European Rail Traffic Management System.

ERTMS, which replaces lineside signals with an in-cab system, is due to be tested on trains on the Cambrian Coast line in Wales in 2007.

‘In Europe ERTMS data is already being used for positioning, and we hope to be doing that here in the UK soon,’ said the spokesman.

So as well as equipping staff with portable warning devices, the industry is also hoping to integrate positioning and sensing systems into the network, to create a safer environment for its workforce.