Risky railways

A new report has found that there is a pervasive and self-sustaining culture of risk averse or over-cautious behaviour in the UK rail industry.

The report says that the behaviour has arisen from, and been reinforced by, the magnitude of the criticism brought on the industry following the series of major accidents at Southall, Ladbroke Grove, Hatfield, and Potters Bar.

Commissioned by the UK Department for Transport and penned by consultants Arthur D Little, the report examined four areas where it was thought risk aversion might be a significant factor: track worker behaviour, contractor behaviour, rolling stock and signalling acceptance and standards and driver behaviour.

It found that decisions that in the past were made by competent front line staff are now being taken by more senior management who lack the technical expertise – with a view to minimising corporate risk. Senior management are also taking quick, expensive action – to be seen to be ‘doing something’. And there is a reliance on decisions by committee to spread responsibility.

It also claims that there is a reliance on excessive analysis instead of professional judgement – to protect against personal liability. There is also a dependence on strict compliance with standards instead of professional judgement about whether compliance is necessary given other circumstances. Approval for non-compliance is also rarely sought, even when justified – the process is seen as too time consuming and expensive, and not politically correct.

The effects are amplified or reinforced by a lack of incentives to keep the railway running or to develop new or improved services, the fragmented structure of the industry and confusion over roles within the industry and a lack of clear leadership.

On 10 May 2002, the rear coach of a four coach, north bound West Anglia Great Northern electric multiple unit passenger train became derailed just outside Potters Bar station at around 1300 hours. The last coach became detached and slewed sideways, slid along the track, passing over a bridge and came to rest on its side, wedged under the station canopy and bridging adjacent platforms.

The report concludes that there is no single vision for the UK railway and the safety objectives it should achieve.

A complete copy of the report can be downloaded from the Department For Transport site here: www.dft.gov.uk//stellent/groups/dft_railways/documents/page/dft_railways_035013.pdf