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ORR calls for better focus on worker safety

16 August 2021

THE OFFICE of Rail and Road (ORR) has published its 2020-21 annual assessments of rail safety in Great Britain and of Network Rail’s performance.

Overall, ORR found the rail industry responded extremely well to the COVID-19 pandemic; that Network Rail has continued to deliver its planned efficiencies; and train punctuality has been, and remains, very high, mainly due to fewer passengers and services. 

However, ORR has highlighted the risk that punctuality will drop as passengers and services return. Network Rail needs to work cross-industry to retain performance improvements where possible.

The reports jointly highlight the need for Network Rail to focus on drainage asset knowledge, structures examinations and track workforce safety. 

The regulator has also repeated its warning that Network Rail’s financial risk reserves are lower than may be necessary for the remainder of the control period, particularly in Scotland. 

Some of the reports’ main findings include:

Response to COVID-19: The whole rail industry has responded extremely well and collaboratively to the challenges posed by the pandemic. This helped keep freight and those who needed to travel moving.

Network Rail, train and tram operators reacted quickly and worked with ORR to implement control measures to enable social distancing and to keep the public and employees safe. 

Heritage railways also reacted well, implementing control measures from the onset of the pandemic. Many heritage railways also took the opportunity during the pandemic to review and develop plans to consolidate and improve safety measures and working practices.

Safety: The train derailment at Carmont after heavy rainfall, in which three people died, is a stark reminder of the need for continued focus on safety management. Network Rail must ensure it effectively manages its infrastructure, to mitigate the impact of climate change and extreme weather on our railways, with particular focus on earthworks and drainage systems.  

Worker safety remains a top priority as highlighted by the deaths of three rail employees, including two track workers in Surbiton and Roade. Network Rail is taking action to improve track worker safety, including reducing the proportion of its trackside work that relies on human lookouts from 15.9% to 7% between 2019-20 and 2020-21, with plans to remove the practice entirely by the end of 2021. However, it must demonstrate better use and deployment of technology which can reduce safety risks, such as automatic warning equipment, in particular for line blockages. 

It is important that the move to safer ways of working is sustainable and well managed to ensure the railway can be maintained safely whilst minimising risks to railway workers. 

ORR also wants to ensure the downward trend in Signals Passed at Danger risk across industry continues, with the regulator beginning a two-year programme of inspections to look at operational incidents, focusing on control room decision making to help lower risk further.

Ian Prosser, ORR’s chief inspector of Railways said, “This past year has been one of the most difficult for the railway in 20 years, with a mixed picture of health and safety performance, with two track worker deaths and a worker killed at a depot in Eastleigh.

“The year also saw significant failures of a number of structures, and the tragic event at Carmont last August, when three people lost their lives when a train derailed, shows that there must be no let-up in the industry’s focus on safety and managing the impacts of extreme weather and climate change.”