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Talking Trains: accidents & safety with Daniel Fox

Talking Trains: accidents & safety with Daniel Fox

Following the re-opening of the line through Carmont after the tragic Stonehaven derailment of August 2020, we talked with Daniel Fox of podcast and website ‘Signals to Danger’. Rail professional Daniel studies and writes on rail accidents and their prevention.

ATT: Daniel, you’re a railway professional and safety is paramount in your working life. Did rail accidents, and the prevention of tragedies fascinate before you joined the industry?

DF: The railway is an industry underpinned by safety as necessity. The job is moving hundreds of tonnes of metal around at high speeds, threading them through the gaps between others carrying countless, fragile, humans. Not to mention managing all the places where these two have to interact in very close quarters. Working within this system means that safety has to be at the forefront of every decision I make in the workplace and it follows that it would be present in my everyday activities.

My own interest in this field is something that has been part of me since before I even joined the industry. After each significant incident, a report is written, and they contain such an impressive amount of detail. Ever since I read my first one, which I think was the report into Great Heck, I wanted to read more. While the media, or a Wikipedia article, will tell you why an accident took place, I wanted to find out why the accident took place. How the unfortunate placement of a points closure rail at Great Heck turned a simple derailment into a disaster, or how events at Ufton Nervet could have been altered by the presence of a few inches of steel. Reading the reports and understanding the sequence of events became something of a hobby, perhaps not the most athletic hobby, but one that had me hooked!

ATT: Writing and commenting on rail disasters was more commonplace when there were a lot more accidents than there are today. Scholars like LTC Rolt chronicled the tragedies of the past. Is the discipline today as much studying how accidents are avoided as much as how they happened?

DF: Writing on the subject is done retrospectively. We’ve been fortunate enough to not have a lot of contemporary disasters to write about. I won’t say that we’ve been lucky. Luck has had little to do with this safety record. You might say that it has been paid for in blood – a little dramatic, but I have always felt like it sums up how we got here. Rolt’s Red for Danger is still the go-to recommendation for people looking for a book on this subject, and yes, it was written at a time where significant accidents were at least an annual occurrence. The conclusions reached by the reports of the time, and indeed Rolt himself, carry no less significance today, which speaks volumes considering the “Recent Accidents” chapter of that book covers a period up to 1957.

One of the locomotives involved in the Harrow and Wealdstone train crash of 8 October 1952 in which 112 people lost their lives. Remarkably Coronation Class Pacific 46242 ‘City of Glasgow’ was rebuilt and returned to service. Photo: Crown Copyright in Public Domain.
Another ‘City of Glasgow’ on the West Coast Main Line: Virgin Pendolino 390 033 City of Glasgow following the Grayrigg derailment of 23 February 2007. One passenger lost their life in the accident. The unit was written off. Photo: cc Lawrence Clift

The genre of “rail disasters” isn’t one with a great deal of choice and I believe this is predominantly because the gritty history of Britain’s railway is, thankfully, fading into the past. If your aim is to tell dramatic stories, and understand how big changes came about your best bet probably is to write about the past, and how we have learned to avoid repeats of some of the most awful days.

While we may not see “disasters” at regular intervals any more, it’s important to recognise that accidents still happen. Photographs of the derailed Scotrail set at Carmont, which were visually very shocking to the nation, told a story of the tragic loss of three lives. This number isn’t an ocean away from the two track workers killed at Margram in Wales last July, or the driver tragically trapped between two trains on a Birmingham depot in December, neither of which was reported as prominently in the mainstream media.

The Rail Accidents Investigation Branch (RAIB) is still a very busy organisation, investigating many of the incidents that occur every year. In 2019 they started 51 preliminary investigations, published 17 full investigations and issued 10 safety digests. If our industry is still generating accidents where people are being injured or losing their lives, we should be working to understand how we can eradicate this for good.

ATT: As you say, Daniel, in this country we have a remarkable rail safety record – best of any major system in Europe. Until Carmont, the last equivalent fatality was in 2007 at Greyrigg. The dark and difficult days of twenty years ago would not be tolerated today. So what went right?

DF: Dark and difficult would be an accurate description of the mood within the railway community after Carmont, not just the railway of twenty years ago. The first issue of Rail Magazine to come out after that accident began with an editorial by Nigel Harris. Nigel remarked that it had been 13 years, five months and 18 days since a passenger had died on a train. Carmont occurred at a point in time where there was no shortage of other news, but it still got substantial airtime. This was underpinned by an outpouring of both grief and solidarity between railway men and women up and down the country. There’s a great deal of pride in our ability to transport people safely and to lose a passenger in such tragic circumstances was hard to accept, especially considering we lost two of our own at the same time. The hashtag #RailwayFamily was prominent on social media.

‘Dark and difficult would be an accurate description of the mood within the railway community after Carmont’ Photo: DfT in public domain

But yes, going back to 20 years ago and the state of the railway. Taking just the period between 1997 and 2002 puts you almost back in a situation where you have an annual train crash. Southall in ‘97, Ladbroke Grove in ‘99, Hatfield in the year 2000 swiftly followed up by Great Heck and Potters Bar over the next two years. It would be absolutely right to say that we wouldn’t stand for that safety record now, but I think it’s also fair to say the nation didn’t stand for it then. Not only did this bout of accidents lead to a rightfully fearful travelling public demanding answers and politicians supporting their pleas, each accident also pushed the industry towards real, tangible changes to the way things were done.

Hatfield and Potters Bar both highlighted serious flaws with the way that Railtrack contracted out and managed maintenance of one of the country’s strategic assets. By the end of October Railtrack was out the door, and Network Rail had taken up the role, scrapping the practice of subcontracting routine maintenance to companies like Jarvis.

Southall led to Great Western Trains receiving a record fine of 1.5 million pounds and Lord Cullen’s inquiry into Ladbroke Grove started wholesale changes in the safety management system of the UK railway. Both of these accidents also raised the subject of Automated Warning Systems and Flank Protection to the forefront.

The difference about this block of accidents, and what went right, is that the outcomes here were some of the widest reaching. The turn of the millennium saw Train Protection & Warning System (TPWS) implemented up and down the country, which would mandate a full brake application if signals were passed at danger or speed limits exceeded on the approach to a curve. It could also be fitted in a bay platform to automatically brake a train if it was going too fast to stop safely. One system effectively limited the likelihood of three of the potential causes of accidents.

In addition the regulatory structure was changed in response to Cullen. The Rail Safety and Standards Board was brought into being and in 2005 we welcomed the RAIB onto the scene. This clearly separated different functions into different organisations, setting standards and investigating accidents etc, which allowed them to focus on these areas properly. the changes closed the loop on many of the weaknesses in the system.

ATT: So how come we are so good at safety in this country compared to equivalent systems elsewhere with good budgets and training?

I think rail on a general basis is much safer now than it ever was in the past, and if you take a look around Europe, you’ll find that standards are now very high. While I’ll always advocate that I believe we have the safest network, top of the hill is territory we have to share nowadays. I think Europe would be the best place to compare our system to a similarly funded and trained alternative.

There certainly have been some fairly significant incidents, 2013’s Santiago de Compostela derailment comes to mind, but generally, Europe’s railways are safe, and they have learned the hard way, both from us, and like us.

ATT: What do we need to be aware of as future risks?

At risk of sounding cliched it’s humans. That’s an oversimplification, but there are now well established processes and procedures which have been fine tuned and proven many times to be effective in preventing accidents. The fact that three people need to check the same signal in a dispatch process or that traincrew must read their notices before they move a single train. These are effective. Where we still fall down, for the most part, is where human failure comes into it. Sometimes this is down to an error, slips and lapses, but sometimes this is down to violations. Going back to the accident at a depot I briefly mentioned. One of the fundamental causes of this tragedy was that the driver who died didn’t follow an authorised walking route. This would come down to a violation as there was a process to follow, but it was circumvented. My deepest sympathies of course go out to their family and colleagues.

One area where I also see a particular weak point as a result of violations is level crossings. This is normally a result of actions carried out by members of the public, unfamiliar with, or uninterested in the risks they’re posing to themselves and the travelling public. I remember a school visit and some videos on railway safety, and I can honestly say I’ve never once felt inclined to “risk it” at these places. But, so many people do. Network Rail have taken to sharing a lot of near misses from CCTV on Twitter to get the message across, but you need to ask whether a completely grade separated network is the only way to completely mitigate against this risk. The final factor we can add into this is the fact that we don’t always remember the lessons that we’ve learned. In August of 2017 a passenger train collided with a barrier train during a blockade at Waterloo. This was the result of something as simple as an uncontrolled piece of wiring added to a set of points detection relays which incorrectly identified whether a set of points was sat in the correct position. The report by RAIB actually made observations that some of the lessons from the 1988 Clapham Junction accident are fading from the railway industry’s collective memory. That accident was caused by uncontrolled wiring in signalling equipment. Learning the lesson is half the battle, remembering and applying it is key.

ATT: One could say that the Carmont disaster had an environmental cause. Much infrastructure – including embankments are tunnels are well over a century old and were constructed for a somewhat different climate. Is this where we should be focussed more? With the use of technology? [RFID monitoring etc?]

I’m very wary of commenting on ongoing investigations, regardless of how clear reasons may be, however what is clear about Carmont is the immediate cause, 1T08 derailed as a result of striking a landslip across the down line.We know from the update at the end of August that the RAIB is paying significant attention to a drainage and associated earthworks from the fields at the top of the cutting, so it will be interesting the see the final report, and the significance placed on that information.We know already that the industry is placing a large amount of stock in the changing environmental landscape, and in particular around the management of safety around earthworks. on the 5th September a section was added to the rulebook which started to lay out actions that those working out on the railway should take. Building on the rules already surrounding flooding, the new rules state that the signaller must immediately be told if anyone sees either any damage to structures or earthworks above or below the line or any flowing or pooling water that might affect structures or earthworks.

Network Rail has always taken a proactive stance on monitoring things such as bridges, grading them based on their risk and susceptibility to things like bridge strikes, it would be interesting to see if more structures and earthworks start to be monitored in the same way. New technologies will be used in part of the response to this, be that RFID, motion sensors embedded in structures, potentially even monitoring equipment mounted on passenger services? The lightweight nature of most kit nowadays means that wouldn’t be far out of the realms of possibility.

ATT: The wider world with no special interest in rail, air, or sea travel, learns lessons on risk from professionals. Every railway accident has something to teach. What is it we’re learning now? What story should we be telling to save lives?

Between my work and my hobby I’ve read many stories that would fit that bill. One of which resonated more than others. I was, some years ago, on a safety critical training course, and the person who had put the training materials together made a fantastic decision. The last four pages of the booklet were the sentencing remarks of Mr Justice Holroyde, in the case of the Crown Vs Mr Christopher James Mcgee. These were the remarks in which Mr Mcgee was sentenced to 5 years for the manslaughter of Georgia Varley on the 22nd October 2011 at Liverpool’s James Street Station. Georgia was leaning on the side of a train that evening, and instead of making sure she was clear, the guard of the train, Mr Mcgee, signalled the driver to depart expecting her to move. He never set out to take somebody’s life, he just went to work that day. While the circumstances surrounding Georgia’s death were tragic, the use of the document in this context served a poignant reminder to all of us on the course. We hold responsibility for other people’s safety in our hands at many different times. Be this during the work day, in whatever industry we’re in, or outside of work. The death of Georgia Varley was as a direct result of a guard not following a process, a process designed to save lives. These types of rules are not exclusive to the railway. Assuming someone in a position of danger will move isn’t the same as ensuring they’re clear. Don’t make assumptions, make changes. Don’t take chances, take action.

ATT: Thanks very much, Daniel, all the very best in the day job!

Daniel Fox is a Group Station Manager for TransPennine Express, a UK Train Operating Company operating trains and stations across the north of England and in Scotland. He has worked within the rail sector for four years, but previously held a landside operations role within the aviation industry. He is the writer and producer of the Signals to Danger podcast.

Signals to Danger is a bi-weekly podcast exploring UK rail disasters. Each episode focuses on a single incident, telling the story of what happened, how it was investigated, and how the findings led to a safer network. The podcast can be found at Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and pretty much anywhere else you find your podcasts. The website is www.signalstodanger.com

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  • The two City of Glasgow casualties reminded me that both Great Heck and Hatfield involved 91023 City of Durham. Undamaged and then later given a new identity.

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