London, United Kingdom: Parliamentary Select Committee quizzes rail sector

5 Nov

In a second oral hearing held on November 4th, 2013, the House of Commons Transport Select Committee (TSC) quizzed the rail sector including associated government bodies as part of its inquiry into level crossing safety.

First up was Ian Prosser, the Office of Rail Regulation’s Director of Railway Safety and HM Chief Inspector of Railways, who was probed on the role played by the safety regulator in approving the configuration of the Moreton-on-Lugg level crossing prior to a fatal accident. The TSC said that the position taken by Mr Prosser did not align with the Rail Accident Investigation Branch’s report which referenced approval of the configuration to be adopted as a partial renewal of the crossing equipment. Mr Prosser affirmed that he had sufficient technically trained inspectors to address level crossing issues.

A significant point that emerged from Mr Prosser’s oral evidence was a deep seated concern that Network Rail’s risk assessments at level crossings had been systemically flawed. However, it was recognised by ORR that Network Rail had made significant improvements in this area and was now properly resourcing the arrangements for the local management of level crossings through appointment of more than 100 Level Crossing Managers, each with an exclusive portfolio of level crossings to manage.

Funding for the continued removal of level crossings was also addressed by Mr Prosser who said that Network Rail was funded to eliminate some 500 crossings between 2014-2019 to build on the more than 750 removed in the last 4 1/2 years. Underlying Mr Prosser’s evidence was a belief that a combined economic and safety regulatory model was correct and it was because of this that Network Rail was specifically funded to address level crossing risk.

Thee ORR’s ability and willingness to take enforcement action against highways authorities and the authorised users of private level crossings was another string to the TSC examination of Mr Prosser who said that where necessary such action would be taken.

Mr Prosser welcomed the recent Law Commissions joint report and made clear the ORR’s support for the draft Bill and a wish to see it enacted. The supporting regulations would be developed with input from the rail industry and other affected parties.

Second witness was Carolyn Griffiths the Chief Inspector of the Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB). Ms Griffiths was asked by the TSC to set-out the key issues and lessons learned from RAIB investigations, she explained that the underpinning concerns were flawed risk assessments and the inadequate consideration of location specific risk factors. A component of the concerns relating to risk assessment was that the algorithms integral to the risk model were flawed – an issue being addressed by the Rail Safety and Standards Board on behalf of the principal duty holder, Network Rail.

The questioning of Ms Griffiths was the position taken by RAIB in relation to the Mexico footpath level crossing in Cornwall where, following a fatal accident, improvements in the risk controls at the crossing were recommended whereas the Coronial Inquest said that the crossing should be closed. In essence, the RAIB position was that the crossing would be acceptably safe if improvements were made. In the event the crossing has been eliminated despite some local objections to the closure.

Next on was RSSB, represented by Deputy Chief Executive, Anson Jack and Michael Woods, Head of Operations and Management Research. Mr Jack made it clear that there was a close correlation between road safety in a jurisdiction and the harm arising at level crossings. There is no coincidence that the UK’s top spot in the level crossing league table is to a significant extent determined by the country’s position in the overall road safety league table in Europe and beyond.

Unsurprisingly, Mr Jack was asked to explain how RSSB’s independence was assured and to demonstrate that it had the means of validating that information input to the industry’s Safety Management Information System (SMIS) was complete in terms of events and that the data for the events input was similarly complete. In response Mr Jack was able to show that the RSSB Board’s processes are robust in protecting the independence of RSSB and that the necessary SMIS health checks are undertaken.

Mr Woods was questioned on the adequacy or otherwise of signs and signals at level crossings in minimising human error. Mr Woods explained that the present arrangements could be improved and that there was work on-going to recommend a way ahead that constitutes good practice and will contribute to reducing human error.

The final point put to RSSB related to the correlation between increasing barrier down times to accommodate an increasingly intensive train service and safety. In response, Mr Jack explained that the key to addressing this point was local factors and as such he did not provide a general answer as to the correlation.

The Heritage Railway Association, in the form of Bill Hillier a HRA Director and chair of the association’s Operating and Safety Committee. The points made by Mr Hillier centred on the legal changes recommended by the Law Commissions and the impact of this and the supporting regulations that have yet to be developed on the spectrum of Britain’s heritage railways where the overwhelmingly volunteer nature of the heritage rail labour force. In essence, Mr Hillier was asking that the new arrangements did not place a burden on the heritage sector that was disproportionate to risk on low-speed railways whose very existence might be challenged. A specific point raised was the timescale and resource implications of getting level crossing plans agreed for the 1,000 plus level crossings on Britain’s heritage railways.

Another point made by Mr Hillier was the importance of their being a consistency of approach to the signs and signals used at and in association with the United Kingdom’s level crossings. This was, to me, a plea that any change to the signage required took account of the nature of the heritage sector.

Central to yesterday afternoon’s TSC oral examination was Network Rail represented by Robin Gisby, Managing Director Network Operations and the silent Phil Verster, the London North Eastern Route Managing Director. The TSC opened with questions concerning the accident at Elsenham in December 2005 that took the lives of two teenage passengers who, in a Network Rail document had been inappropriately described as trespassers. Mr Gisby said that Network Rail had been negligent in its handling of the repercussions of this accident and that it had led to a root-and-branch review of the company’s approach to managing risk arising at level crossings. In making this public apology, Mr Gisby referred to an welcomed the help that Tina Hughes – mother of Olivia Bazlinton, one of the Elsenham victims – in helping Network Rail to reform the way in which it managed level crossings.

A strongly voiced concerns from the TSC at the way in which Network Rail related to those bereaved through level crossing accidents hit home with Mr Gisby and should with others having responsibility for level crossings was the inappropriate language used by the company, including the use of the term misuse when , in fact, the issue was one of human error other than where misuse was wilful. Also, Network Rail was asked if turning up to inquests with lawyers and public relations staff was appropriate when, often, the bereaved were representing themselves. The other point to really hit home was the need for Network Rail to provide a compassionate link with families bereaved through level crossing accidents. Indeed, Mr Gisby’s position was that Network Rail had, in the past, been callous towards the bereaved.

Mr Gisby was unable to offer any explanation as to why key documents that made it clear the extent to which the company knew that the Elsenham level crossing was unsafe and should be upgraded were only disclosed following the subsequent actions of whistle-blower. This eventually led to Network Rail being successfully prosecuted and fined GBP 1,000,000.

Having atoned for the ways in which level crossing risk was being managed by Network Rail at the time of the Elsenham accident, Mr Gisby explained the significant steps that the company had taken to secure improvements in level crossing safety, in particular the appointment of more than 100 Level Crossing Managers, improvements in the risk assessments for each of the more than 6,000 level crossings for which the company was responsible, media campaigns and the reduction in the number of level crossings already achieved with more to come and road-rail partnerships with highways authorities in some areas.

Asked how many high risk level crossings there are on Network Rail’s infrastructure, Mr Gisby said that there were presently 282 such crossings. This led to questioning on the closure of level crossings with Mr Gisby saying that there were 600 level crossings within 200 metres of another level crossing and that one of each such pair should be eliminated. However, Mr Gisby made it clear in response to being asked to set a date when the company would have no level crossings that there would always be some level crossings where closure through grade separation and consolidation was not possible. However, Mr Gisby explained that major route upgrades provided an opportunity for a step-change reduction in the number of level crossings along a corridor.

Finally, it was the turn of Stephen Hammond MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State with responsibility for railways and supporting civil servants to face the TSC. Mr Hammond’s opening statement was full of the wrong language and, to me, reflected poor briefing of a Minister new in his post. This became even clearer during subsequent questioning when Mr Hammond’s limited grasp of level crossing issues was repeatedly exposed. After the TSC business was complete, Tina Hughes and Chris Bazlinton whose daughter was killed at Elsenham tackled Mr Hammond over his repeated use of the term misuse when describing a human error at a crossing known to be unsafe.

However, Mr Hammond did reveal that the Government’s response to the Law Commissions’ report in respect of level crossing legislation received on September 25th, 2013 would be the subject of a next steps response in the New Year.

I’ve ranked the contribution of the various witnesses as follows: Robin Gisby in first place followed by Carolyn Griffiths, then Anson Jack and Michael Woods, Ian Prosser and then Bill Hillier because everyone seems to treat them as a noise on the margin of the big railway. Stephen Hammond brought up the rear and suggested a need for relegation to a lower division!

2 Responses to “London, United Kingdom: Parliamentary Select Committee quizzes rail sector”

  1. Tina Hughes November 5, 2013 at 22:52 #

    Brilliant commentary!

  2. aidannelsonAidan Nelson November 6, 2013 at 09:02 #

    Thank you

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