Director of railway safety's overview

An overview of health and safety on Britain's railways in 2014-15 from our director of railway safety.

Looking back over the last decade, safety on Britain's mainline railways, metro systems and London Underground improved steadily as passenger numbers have grown considerably. Over that same period, Network Rail increased its efficiency by more than 30%. Key investment in regulated safety enhancements, such the requirement for train protection, helped drive the industry towards continuous improvement in risk management. It's why our mainline network is now regarded as the safest railway in Europe, but we cannot be complacent.

In 2014-15, there were some positive improvements to health and safety, particularly the small reduction in overall harm to passengers at the platform-train interface and low levels of harm from train accidents, areas we and the industry have focused on. 

There are also historic achievements worth noting, it's the eighth consecutive year without any train accident-related passenger fatalities. There were no passenger train derailments for the second year - a significant achievement. Harm to passengers has reduced by a third over the last decade when normalised by the growth in passenger numbers. 

In general though, improvements have plateaued. In 2014-15, we saw:

  • actual harm to passengers increased 2%, but when normalised by the 4% increase in passenger journeys, decreased 2%; 
  • actual harm to workers reduced 3%, but stayed the same when normalised by the 3% fewer workforce hours worked; and
  • actual harm to the public, excluding suicides, increased 10%. This was driven by two additional level crossings fatalities.

The industry's level of management maturity showed only gradual improvements. It's still some way from the excellence in health and safety and asset management culture that is central to high reliability organisations. However, we found that some passenger and freight operators and London Underground are beginning to edge towards excellence in some aspects of their risk management maturity such as employees actively involved in developing processes and management understanding the competencies needed for safe working.

Almost all the safety performance metrics we monitor look backwards. It's important that we also look forward proactively. Otherwise, there is a danger of over-relying on risk models and their perceived stability to inform our judgements and losing sight of the fact that each incident had the potential to cause significant harm. Also, major train incidents are now rare on Britain's railways, so we require a more sophisticated reading of underlying trends. With that in mind, the three key strategic safety points I want to focus on within the current risk landscape are:

  • the ongoing challenges of managing growth and change: growth continued with 1.66 billion mainline passenger journeys (up 4%) and 1.3 billion passenger journeys on London Underground (up 3%). Considerable transformational projects put pressure on the industry, which is also managing resource constraints. Station management is proving more challenging with passenger growth alongside modifications and upgrades. These pressures will continue to grow and we are focused on improving industry safety by design and change management processes. Use of our railway management maturity model (RM3) assessment helps us all target the right areas. 
  • maintaining and renewing a safe, sustainable mainline infrastructure: while a lot of good work is being done in different areas, Network Rail has not delivered all its renewals plans and CP4 maintenance backlogs are now putting added pressure on maintenance teams, with the potential to increase risk. We are pressing Network Rail to assess this and will monitor and take enforcement as necessary. 
  • some meaningful improvements in occupational health and safety management: our latest report on industry occupational health performance identified some examples of excellence, but overall the sector still has a way to go. A robust health management culture will aid industry management maturity to face the growth and efficiency challenges. Similarly, there's scope to significantly improve workforce safety, especially around infrastructure and construction activities.

Particular risk areas we are scrutinising across the sector include: 

  • drainage on the mainline railway: poor drainage management can cause embankment instability and track quality weaknesses. We had to take enforcement action on Network Rail this year.
  • station safety: overall harm to passengers and others at mainline stations increased 2%, but reduced 2% when normalised by the 4% increase in passenger journeys (the best estimate for the growth in station use). The harm to passengers from the platform-train interface (PTI) decreased 21%, but by 24% when normalised. The PTI forms the single largest source of harm to individual passengers at stations, most involving slips, trips and falls. Mainline duty holders must implement the new PTI strategy as passenger numbers and infrastructure investment pressures grow. Using a safety by design approach will be important. 
  • signals passed at danger: there were 299 mainline signals passed at danger (SPAD) - numbers increased 4%, but overall SPAD risk declined 7%. The industry is producing a strategy to reduce SPAD risks as the mainline moves towards automatic train control, through the implementation of the European Train Control System (ETCS). We will monitor SPAD trends closely, particularly those that are high risk.
  • infrastructure risk: there were overall reductions in the risk from earthwork, cutting and embankment failures - but it's unclear if these resulted from benign weather. Following our enforcement in 2013-14, we saw track geometry improvements. However, we saw significant variations between Network Rail's routes on how it was managed and their performance levels. Freight train derailments increased to 14, up six. We took steps to accelerate industry discussions about the system solutions needed to reduce derailment risks.
  • mainline workforce safety: minor workforce injuries declined 2%. Of the 175 major injuries, 63% involved infrastructure workers. Our sector lags behind some comparable industries, levels of harm to railway infrastructure workers are worse than in other engineering professions. Important workforce safety initiatives are being rolled out by Network Rail, but they require long-term commitment. We took significant levels of enforcement on construction activities. 
  • level crossings: overall harm at level crossings increased 22%, primarily due to 10 fatalities, two more than 2013-14, but none involved any breaches of health and safety law. Of the 10, eight were pedestrians. Incidents involving road vehicles continue to decline. Network Rail closed 118 crossings, improved its crossing risk assessments and is implementing new technology. We expect the Law Commission's 2013 report recommendations to be implemented by the Department for Transport (DfT). It will help drive future risk reductions.
  • electrical safety: Britain's railways are still some way off achieving compliance with the Electricity at Work Regulations 1989. Applying a safety by design approach is key. We issued a third rail electrification systems policy statement pdf icon PDF, 56 Kb to help clarify our position.

I report with great sadness that four industry workers lost their lives at work. Two were electrocuted and two were killed in occupational road accidents. The electrocution fatalities were tragic, but avoidable events and are still subject to our investigation. We challenge the sector to better manage electrical safety and occupational road safety.

Network Rail continues to show strong leadership in suicide prevention, collaborating closely with partners including the Samaritans. However, I note sadly there was a 5% increase in suicides and suspected suicides - the highest level ever recorded. This compares to a consistently lower level of suicides on London Underground. 

Transport for London has maintained a high level of safety for its passengers and workforce as passenger numbers and services grow. We took more enforcement than expected on London Underground's construction activities. Its management response was mature, but it highlighted the challenge of operating a safe and busy railway during a very significant long-term investment programme. 

We continued to discuss health and safety matters with the trade unions. Their frontline insight and perspective informed our overall evidence picture and priorities, for example, alerting us to substandard occupational health management.

We set up specialist teams to look at Network Rail's work on level crossings, track, civil structures and electrical and workforce safety. These have proved very effective and will ensure the challenges of Control Period 5 (CP5) 2014-19 are met without compromising safety. Our train and freight operator, metro, heritage and Transport for London teams are focused on their specific risk areas, such as station safety, driver management and workforce safety. 

We have developed a programme to manage our approach to safety by design. It includes an experienced senior inspector to lead our monitoring of High Speed 2's (HS2) design. We revised our memorandum of understanding pdf icon PDF, 3,348 Kb with the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to clarify our role in enforcing road vehicle incursions on the tracks and are developing a new agreement to take enforcement on design aspects of new-build projects.

We continue to monitor the changing risk profile and landscape and will consider any necessary changes to our regulatory approach and business plans to meet our 'drive for a safer railway' strategic objective. As part of this, we reviewed and revised our health and safety regulatory strategy and implemented an integrated business management system to improve how we regulate. The equivalent of 115 full time workers were devoted to our health and safety work in 2014-15, which was close to half our resources pdf icon PDF, 1,785 Kb.

We enjoy a very strong reputation as a respected railway health and safety regulator among stakeholders in Britain and overseas. Over the last year we provided expert advice and assistance to regulators in Canada, USA, Singapore, Hong Kong, Greece, South Korea and Dubai. 

2015 represents a huge milestone for the inspectors of Her Majesty's Railway inspectorate, now part of ORR's Railway Safety Directorate, we celebrate our 175th year. On 10 August 1840, the first Chief Inspecting Officer, Sir Frederick Smith, was appointed. I am the 25th Chief Inspector and it has been a great privilege to lead the inspectorate over the last seven years, and into the future, with my very dedicated team. 

The importance of why we were created still remains central to our current role - to ensure Britain's railways protect the health and safety of its passengers, workforce and the public.

Ian Prosser, director of railway safety, ORR
HM Chief Inspector of Railways