On 3 July 2019, rail workers Michael Lewis and Gareth Delbridge were conducting maintenance on tracks near Port Talbot, Wales, when they were struck and killed by a train. An investigation by the Rail Accidents Investigation Branch (RAIB) said the driver sounded his horn but the workers didn’t hear it until the train came very close, costing them their lives.

Given that between 2017 and 2018, more than 6,500 casualties – caused either by fatal injuries or trauma – were recorded on just mainline rail services according to a report by the Office of Rail and Road, it’s unsurprising that safety for workers is now a priority for railway companies.

As Network Rail’s safety, technical and engineering director, Martin Frobisher puts it, the tragic deaths were “a stark reminder to us all that more needs to be done.”

In the wake of the escalating number of accidents, Network Rail announced the launch of a safety task force in July 2019 with an investment of £70m to ensure safety for rail employees is prioritised.

Network Rail under pressure to change work conditions

“We are recommending that the railway industry reviews the way it manages the use of staff on zero-hours contracts.”

The Port Talbot deaths were a major wake-up call for Network Rail. Campaigners criticised the firm for its working conditions and said repeated warnings have gone unheeded.

RAIB issued a warning in April 2019 which said there were “too many near misses in which railway workers have had to jump for their lives” and every near miss should be regarded as a “failure to deliver safety.”

One of the main reasons rail workers are increasingly susceptible to be in the midst of a rail accident are zero-hour contracts. The chief inspector of rail accidents Simon French called out the rail industry for employing workers on zero-hour contracts which “can be great pressure for the [workers] to try and juggle multiple jobs to make ends meet.”

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“We are recommending that the railway industry reviews the way it manages the use of staff on zero-hours contracts,” French said, adding that Network Rail must manage the risks associated with it which can be fatigue and lack of a proper lifestyle.

In September 2018, overworking even caused an underground train driver on the Jubilee line to drive for 56 seconds in full-speed with the doors open. An investigation by RAIB revealed in July 2019 said the driver was most likely influenced by a sudden increase in workload.

Safety first: protecting railway workers must be prioritised

“Alongside planning, better monitoring and management of shift workers is vital.”

Industry insiders say rail companies must implement better working hours for employees as “fatigue linked to poorly planned shift work patterns or long working hours can lead to human error, ill health, injury and reduced productivity,” says director of Working Time Solutions, Martin Gee who has worked in the transport and logistics sector to increase worker safety.

“Alongside planning, better monitoring and management of shift workers is vital. To identify and mitigate risk around fatigue, you must have accurate, real-time visibility over an individual’s worked hours, rest, holiday and absence,” Gee declares. “Only then can you spot potential issues that may lead to fatigue and make informed management decisions about how to deploy working time.”

While fatigue in workers must be addressed, in many instances challenges can be unpredictable. Business development manager at wireless monitoring solutions provider for the geospatial, construction and rail industry, Senceive, Darran Streeton says: “Whether problems arise from fallen trees, landslips or extreme temperature changes, there is potential for something to go wrong.”

Rigorous health and safety procedures to protect workers comes at a high cost – £70m in Network Rail’s case. However, it’s in the interest of the rail companies to ensure they don’t fail to keep workers safe, or they could face even more costly consequences.

“Companies can be faced with huge time consuming investigations that could result in costly court proceedings, financial payouts or fines and negative publicity,” Streeton notes. “It can take years to build up trust and a good reputation, and companies want to maintain that as much as they can – not only for public perception but for tender consideration and winning business.”

Network Rail urged to eliminate “Victorian methods of protection”

“Using intelligent monitoring solutions such as the internet of things (IOT) should be prioritised.”

While launching a task force by Network Rail would be effective, campaigners have urged rail companies to get rid of conventional systems and upgrade their technology which can warn workers if they happen to be at risk.

“The continuing requirement for people to go on to the track to place and remove red lamps and explosive detonators, as part of the arrangements for protecting engineering work on the railway, is something RAIB has queried before,” French said in a statement to Network Rail.

“The industry should continue to explore ways of eliminating the need for Victorian methods of protection on the 21st-century railway,” he added. “It is deeply saddening that another person has died while putting down protection for his fellow railway workers. There must be a better way.”

To ensure workers are not in high-risk areas, Streeton says using intelligent monitoring solutions such as the internet of things (IOT) should be prioritised.

He adds that wirelessly monitoring movement on rail lines which can predict landslip failure before it causes any fatalities is a potential solution to improve safety. The technology would measure frequencies which breach trigger levels, and would then alert workers in real-time. He says Senceive was responsible for detecting the landslip on the Bexleyheath line at Barnehurst as it happened in February 2019, and was able to inform Network Rail, which then closed the line before it could potentially harm anybody.

This was possible by placing wireless sensors around the rail infrastructure which allowed the company “to create near real-time monitoring with immense precision,” Streeton says.

Operating 24/7 in the harsh rail environment and in remote locations, the sensors offer the ability to report data every few seconds. It allows workers to predict potential problems along rail lines, meaning they can close lines before anyone is at risk of danger.”

While companies may worry that upgrading their technology and installing wireless sensors can be expensive, Streeton says it’s an “essential investment.”

“With regards to automation, there is always a cost implication involved and to be considered. However, if the rail companies are truly dedicated to reduction in accidents and fatalities, can we really put a price on automation?” he concludes.