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Occupational Health & Safety | Transport & Logistics

How the UK redeemed its rail safety profile following five track fatalities

11 Apr 2022, by Amy Sarcevic

For many years, the United Kingdom’s rail industry was well-known for its upward safety trend, but in 2017 this all changed when five track workers lost their lives in the three years thereafter.

The fatalities prompted an immediate response from the national safety regulator; and in 2019, Network Rail Director Nick Millington was asked to set up a taskforce to reduce the risk of track workers getting struck by trains.

Almost three years on, Millington’s program has cut ‘near misses’ from one every 900,000 hours to one every 3 million hours – a reduction of 75 percent.

How was this achieved? Ahead of the RISSB Rail Safety Conference, hosted by Informa Connect, Mr. Millington shares his approach.

The right technologies

At the heart of Millington’s strategy is a desire to altogether remove workers from strike zones. “The way I see things, if you don’t need to put workers in strike zones, then why would you?” he said. To this end, he has “not been shy” in his use of remote monitoring and diagnostic equipment, particularly drones and trackside devices.

“We deployed thousands of predictive maintenance tools around the railway, modernising the way we maintain, inspect and access it. Previously, there was no way to inspect switch and crossing work remotely, but in just three months we developed a suite of drones that could perform quality aerial inspections of the headline equipment,” he said.

An infrastructure-monitoring fleet of trains also proved to be a stand-out technology. These run a cycle of the track every four weeks performing pattern recognition and capturing high definition imagery.

“Thanks to this fleet, we now have 14,000 miles of our railway that doesn’t require human inspection. This stretch captures some high risk locations for derailment, so it’s been an invaluable safety tool for passengers too,” Nick added.

COVID-19 was a further catalyst for tech adoption, with the UK’s public health orders prohibiting inspectors from riding in cabs. In response, Millington and team worked with suppliers and quickly installed battery-powered cameras that could transmit high definition recordings to the cloud.

“These tools give us quality, real-time images of the whole railway,” Nick said. “Inspectors can see CCTV footage of any track section they want from their desktop; and the footage is as clear as seeing the sections in-person.”

All the tools have been rigorously trialled, as per the UK’s regulatory standards. This has largely quashed any safety concerns that new technologies sometimes introduce.

“We have worked with trade unions, trialling and consulting around the technologies extensively. There has been a lot of rigour in making sure anything we change doesn’t create new safety problems,” Nick said.

The right leadership

Underpinning the tech procurement efforts has been a strong focus on leadership and culture. Mr. Millington sees this as the greatest driver for meaningful change within rail.

“In my view, leadership intervention is always needed before you embark on a program of change.

“Admittedly leadership and culture has held the rail industry back in the UK for quite some time. Previously, we were sloppy with planning and accepted high risk work methods because they were easy.”

“As part of our modernisation efforts we have put in a lot more leadership rigour in the context of planning and assurance. With this in play, high risk methods are being challenged and no longer tolerated. It has forced us to innovate and experiment with the unfamiliar”.

The final product

The net result of such a radical transformation has been not only better safety outcomes, but cost savings too.

“It seems counterintuitive, but procuring all this technology can positively impact the bottom line for rail operators. While this program was done out of safety necessity, it has stripped out tons of unnecessary tasks and, as a result, is expected to become self-financing over the next five years. Ultimately, we will end up with a safer and cheaper system,” Nick said.

Regardless of the figures, Mr. Millington believes the measures should be considered by operators everywhere. “In my view, safety should not have any commercial boundaries,” he concluded.

Nick Millington is a Director at Network Rail. Join him for further discussion at the RISSB Rail Safety Conference, where he will share further insights into his program.

This year’s event will be held 3-4 May at Collins Square Melbourne.

Learn more and register here.

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