Is the UK 'overdue' a serious rail accident?

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najaB

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During the BR era and into privatisation the UK had rail major accidents pretty frequently - a quick look on Wikipedia shows that accidents with multiple fatalities occurred almost one per year through the 1950s and then decreased to every few years through the 60s and 70s, with just 6 in the 20 years between 1984 and 2004 (including Ufton Nervet, the cause of which was outside the control of the railway). Most of those accidents, and most transport-related accidents for that matter, have either engineering or human factors at the root: e.g. an undetected failure in a part, or a human makes a mistake like misreading signals.

In the near 13 years since Greyrigg the deaths which have occurred on the railway have been of the 'death by misadventure' type rather than accidents/crashes, so my questions are:
  • Is the decade-plus since the Greyrigg accident just the continuation of the trend of increasing safety and longer period between accidents due to the industry designing risk out of the system, or have we just been lucky?
  • Normally, after an accident, there's a heightened consciousness of risk, but over time people become complacent. For those in the industry, have you seen examples of complacency slipping in? It seems that there have been a few 'near misses' of late, but is that just increased reporting?
  • How do you avoid the normalisation of risk and remain sharp?
 
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SargeNpton

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Is the decade-plus since the Greyrigg accident just the continuation of the trend of increasing safety and longer period between accidents due to the industry designing risk out of the system, or have we just been lucky?

The rail industry has a long history of learning from its mistakes and should get progressively safer as time progresses. "Red For Danger" is the classic tome on how major improvements were instituted after certain incidents.

Normally, after an accident, there's a heightened consciousness of risk, but over time people become complacent. For those in the industry, have you seen examples of complacency slipping in? It seems that there have been a few 'near misses' of late, but is that just increased reporting?

The Clapham Junction accident led to significant changes in working practices during signalling upgrades. Unfortunately some of those practices were ignored a year or two back when work was going on at Waterloo and an early morning movement out of the working platforms (was it ECS?) came into contact with some wagons protecting the platforms being worked on. Someone testing a new signalling set-up took some shortcuts, which allowed to move to take place that should have been barred.

How do you avoid the normalisation of risk and remain sharp?

Retaining your workforce helps, so that the old hands can pass on their experience. If the staff are constantly moving on the importance all the learned lessons fades into the background over time. Knowing how to do a job can be taught easily; knowing why and when to do it (or NOT to do it) comes from experience.
 

Horizon22

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The vast majority of these accidents particularly ones in the 90s where either a) signals passed at danger (SPADs) or b) problems with track maintenance.

Regarding a), the introduction of TPWS has reduced a significant majority of these and b) bringing track maintenance back into 'public' ownership via NR and much stricter safety protocols has reduced problems.

I am concerned that if there was to be one though it would involve workers on track as there have been several incidences of these if you look at RAIB reports, some of which has been fatal. The industry is aware complacency could become an issue as the the big accidents of Southall / Ladbroke Grove / Hatfield / Potters Bar are 20+ years ago now. Hence the requirement for more scenario-based training about particular risk factors and full and frank investigations of near misses.

Safety is #1 bar nothing in the railway now, to the detriment sometimes (and rightfully so) to performance or customer service.
 

e30ftw

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There has been great strides in the industry after unaceptable "acidents" or incidents. Alot of risk has been designed out so to speak, TPWS and TPWS+. Higher standerds of comunication and planing have been introduced with varying levels of success. Like you say after accidents there is a high consciousness like after grayrigg there was a over haul of practices and of point equipment.

I have noticed complacency slipping in, and have been guilty of it myself.

will you design out human nature? I dont know, there are still planes that crash, even with the very high safety and training standards. Is the answer more automation?
 

30907

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My impression from reports in the railway press (and here, but they overlap) is that the on going issue (related to Horizon22's second point) relates to voice communication misunderstandings, and that typically applies to non-routine - eg engineering work - but non-emergency situations.
That area of risk is still there, though my feeling is that a catastrophic accident is unlikely (I'm thinking two trains colliding at speed, or a high speed derailment, rather than staff fatalities - not that we want to be blase about those.)
The other major area is still level crossings.
 

GB

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Luck has played its part. Waterloo and Cardiff’s wrong side failures, the Watford landslip derailment and subsequent collision and the more recent Edinburgh sleeper and Doncaster freight runaways to name a few.
 
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What a thing to say. You would hope that the lack of accidents is to do with improvements on the railway and the reporting of ‘near misses’ rather than it meaning we’re due one!
 

najaB

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You would hope that the lack of accidents is to do with improvements on the railway and the reporting of ‘near misses’ rather than it meaning we’re due one!
Hence why 'overdue' was in quotes - the question was if we're 'beating the odds' through improved practices, or have we just been lucky.
 
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Evolution

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As mentioned above, I think it's a combination of improved safety standards (TPWS) and better maintained infrastructure under NR as well as some luck involved.

What about things like more thorough driver training and NTS, surely these have had a positive impact too?

Sadly though, I do think one will happen again in the not too distant future and I can see this happening through miscommunication.
 

Eccles1983

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The "good ol' days" are gone. Along with many of the slack practices and lack of professionalism.

It's a much more professional group of signallers, drivers, and maintence staff nowadays. Turning the other cheek has largely gone, as has "squaring a spad with the signaller"

That's not to say the more senior staff are less professional, but the emphasis placed today is far greater than that of yesteryear.

That aligned with technology, and a greater understanding of non technical skills.
 

cin88

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We're well overdue, which seems to be a consensus amongst my colleagues. On day one of my first ever railway course, the instructors even quite bluntly said "we're well overdue another Clapham Junction or Ladbroke Grove, it only takes one mistake" during a detailed explaination about the importance of safety.
 

bramling

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During the BR era and into privatisation the UK had rail major accidents pretty frequently - a quick look on Wikipedia shows that accidents with multiple fatalities occurred almost one per year through the 1950s and then decreased to every few years through the 60s and 70s, with just 6 in the 20 years between 1984 and 2004 (including Ufton Nervet, the cause of which was outside the control of the railway). Most of those accidents, and most transport-related accidents for that matter, have either engineering or human factors at the root: e.g. an undetected failure in a part, or a human makes a mistake like misreading signals.

In the near 13 years since Greyrigg the deaths which have occurred on the railway have been of the 'death by misadventure' type rather than accidents/crashes, so my questions are:
  • Is the decade-plus since the Greyrigg accident just the continuation of the trend of increasing safety and longer period between accidents due to the industry designing risk out of the system, or have we just been lucky?
  • Normally, after an accident, there's a heightened consciousness of risk, but over time people become complacent. For those in the industry, have you seen examples of complacency slipping in? It seems that there have been a few 'near misses' of late, but is that just increased reporting?
  • How do you avoid the normalisation of risk and remain sharp?
I think it's a combination of a massive focus on safety since the 1990s, but mixed in with an element of luck.

If we look back at the "headline" accidents during most of our lifetimes, most of these were caused by factors which have now between substantially designed out either through Rule Book tightening (e.g. Southall) or TPWS (e.g. Cowden, Ladbroke Grove). It does seem like track maintenance has also received considerable focus so hopefully the likes of Potters Bar and Lambrigg are now far less likely.

Some of the 1990s / early 2000s accidents could perhaps be indirectly put down to privatisation and the early learning curve, certainly Hatfield and Potters Bar were at least partly down to this, and arguably Southall and Ladbroke Grove in some ways due to a generally lax safety culture in a newly fragmented industry.

However there's doubtlessly an element of luck. Fortune went the wrong way at Great Heck, and it's come close a few times since. I think it's fair to say the biggest chance of a serious rail accident is now from factors like level crossings, landslides, or external factors, rather than a SPAD or track defect. However it's quite possible that at some stage we'll see an accident as a result of a SPAD too.

If one ignores those risks which are outside the immediate control of the industry (e.g. level crossing misuse) complacency is perhaps the biggest danger now, either at an individual or corporate level.
 
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JohnMcL7

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Luck has played its part. Waterloo and Cardiff’s wrong side failures, the Watford landslip derailment and subsequent collision and the more recent Edinburgh sleeper and Doncaster freight runaways to name a few.
I was thinking of the Edinburgh sleeper incident as well which after reading the report on it could have been a horrific crash if the train hadn't been able to run through the station on an empty line.
 

Mcr Warrior

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I would suggest that every rail incident resulting in one (or more) fatalities or life changing injuries could be considered 'serious'; and it does seem that there have been a number of avoidable incidents in recent years involving track maintenance, for example, what sadly happened near Tebay in February 2004 and/or near Port Talbot in July 2019.
 

37057

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We're not due one, they can happen anytime. The trick is to make sure you don't cause one! If everyone does their jobs right each day should be safe but unfortunately people cut corners in any role.
 

ainsworth74

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Is it possible with modern signalling for two trains to have a head-on collision in the UK anymore? How might this occur if it did?
Literally nearly happened just over a month ago:

At around 21:45 hrs on 21 June 2020, a Chiltern Railways passenger train travelling southbound on the Metropolitan line of the London Underground network, passed a signal at danger (red) without authority. The signal was protecting a junction through which a route was already set for a northbound train, waiting in Chalfont & Latimer station, to cross in front of the southbound train. Passing the signal at red resulted in an automatic brake application which stopped the southbound train around 310 metres beyond the signal. Shortly afterwards, the train driver reset the automatic brake equipment and the train continued towards Chalfont & Latimer station, around 620 metres away. As a result of the position of the points at the junction, its route towards the station took it onto the northbound line. The northbound London Underground train on this line was stationary because the signal in front of it had changed to red as a result of the southbound train passing the red signal. The two trains stopped about 23 metres apart.
Link

You can find more about it on the thread on the Forum here.
 

MarkyT

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Junction and single line collisions, and overspeed in curve derailments are both now very well mitigated against by AWS and TPWS. Level crossings are now probably the largest remaining risk to rail passengers, but that risk varies greatly between types and particular installations. I think the AHBC type is the highest risk, where rail approach speed of up to 100mph can be allowed, there's no manual or automated supervision, and the crossings are not fully closed to road by the half barriers. Ufton Nervet demonstrated that even quite a small road vehicle obstructing the track at one of these can lead to horrific consequences under certain site-specific conditions.
 

MarkyT

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Don't forget we did have the Croydon Tramlink crash in November 2016 which killed seven and injured dozens.
Where there were no technical warning or protection systems in place for a very significant reduction in permitted speed, nor any clear signs or landmarks for where to start braking.
 

PupCuff

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The key to stopping the big accidents from happening is keeping a strong check on the little ones. A conductor mucking up a dispatch is what it is, but investigate deeper and the cause could be actually something going on in their personal lives which if left unchecked, might have led to them dispatching with someone trapped in a set of doors, for instance. Or a Driver who is caught not following the rules and procedures and doing things in a different way, they'll probably be fine 99 times out of a hundred until they encounter a set of circumstances which their unofficial shortcuts don't control the safety risks for and you end up with a serious incident like a derailment or a collision.

A few key challenges are:

Promoting a fair culture of safety awareness, discussion and reporting
Still too many rail staff across the industry don't report things because of perceived concerns such as their manager never giving them any feedback, it takes too much time to do it, perhaps they don't know how to do it, or worse still perhaps they think that their manager will look to try and find a reason to punish them because of their failings. The reality is that management don't find out about safety issues through reading the tea leaves, they do need buy in from the frontline teams to work together to box off any areas where safety issues are creeping in. Not everything that gets reported by frontline staff as a safety issue may actually be a safety issue but so long as it is reported then that can be decided by the staff the company pay to make that decision and at least if that is happening it shows there is that willingness for staff to report 'just in case'.

Ensuring the next generation of rail managers have sufficient knowledge and experience to manage safety effectively
Traditionally railway management would work their way up from the grades but the reality is now a lot are coming from other industries, and in some cases the grades they were coming from (conductors etc) are being done away with. This means that they need additional training to understand the operational concepts and legal framework the railway industry operates in. The risk is that training is seen as a nice to have rather than a must have in some parts of the industry, which is fine if you have managers with the right knowledge to begin with, less so if they have just joined you from a fast food restaurant.

Ensuring that where restructuring and cuts are to be made that the change is properly managed
Costs do need to be cut from time to time and this is often done by chopping and changing jobs. There's a risk introduced when someone's role is cut or changed, because their responsibilities have to go elsewhere and it may well be the case that the person receiving said responsibilities doesn't fully understand their significance or how to manage that process properly. Good validation of change is essential.
 
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