Stuart McOnie explains why maintenance is at the core of British railway plans

‘We are sorry to announce that due to maintenance and engineering works there will be major disruptions to your journey’. The rail update every commuter hates to hear; but this could become a more frequent phrase in the foreseeable future… for good reason.

British railways are long-established structures dating back to Victorian Britain, the oldest in the world1. Railways were central to the Industrial Revolution and through steam-engine technology transformed the face of transport and shipping of goods. British railways led the way for industrialisation and massive social and economic change.

The UK railway network currently has over 20,000 miles of track, 40,000 bridges and tunnels and near to 6000 level crossings. Much to passengers’ dismay, the reality is maintenance and engineering works are required in order to ensure safe and reliable journeys.

Maintenance procedures and the shortcomings of privatised railway infrastructure companies has been hotly debated since the Hatfield disaster in October 2000, where underinvestment and lack of communication and awareness of maintenance procedures resulted in four fatalities and 70 injured. Following the incident, Network Rail announced its plans to take over track maintenance from private contractors. In 2016, however, Network Rail lost exclusive control of track maintenance, sharing the responsibility with operators such as Virgin and Southern2. Since then, the blame game for rail maintenance failings has been strong: commuters blaming train operators, train operators blaming Network Rail, Network Rail blaming train companies, and everyone pointing fingers and shaking their fists at the government.

Network Rail – a better railway for Britain
This year, Network Rail has promised ‘a better railway for Britain’ with the reveal of its £47.9 billion five-year plan, which includes the target of a 15 per cent reduction in train delays and 6400 new train services a week running across the country by 20243. We can expect the bulk of the Network Rail 2019-2021 budget to go towards maintenance, operations and renewals of the existing railway4.

Outlined in its strategic business plan, Network Rail confronts the difficulty of recent past events following problems relating to ‘cost cutting’ and ‘poor maintenance’. The report avoids diving in to the specifics, though we can safely assume this refers to recent incidents whereby defective tracks and inadequate maintenance were deemed the primary causes, such as the aforementioned Hatfield accident in 2000, and the Potters Bar accident in 2002, where seven lives were lost and 76 were injured5.

Workforce safety is central to the Network Rail plan: “We run the safest major railway in Europe and improving safety will continue to be at the heart of our plans for 2019 – 2024… We will continue our relentless pursuit towards an injury-free and healthy business, adopting world class innovations”6. Network Rail has set the goal of improving its Lost Time Injury Frequency Rate, the phrase used for the number of lost time injuries occurring in a workplace per one million hours worked, by 54 per cent between 2019 and 2024. It has also committed to increasing its focus for worker mental health, with an aim to reduce the numbers of absences due to mental ill-health by 30 per cent7.

A focus on workforce health and safety
More and more we are seeing rail staff strikes hitting the headlines in the battle against driver-only trains8 and over cuts in pay and staffing9. Though, there is little focus on the work-related pressures of railway maintenance engineers whose efforts often go unappreciated. It’s evidenced in the Network Rail 2019 – 2024 plan that previously there has been restricted funds for rail maintenance. This could result in increased pressures on engineers to maintain track performance with limited resources. For this reason, workers can deprioritise their health and safety in a bid to get the job done as quickly as possible.

Network Rail reports that more that 40 per cent of all serious accidents involve a slip, trip or fall10. As workers continue to operate on uneven surfaces in hazardous conditions, what can be done to reduce the number of incidents?

  1. Stay alert. More often than not, accidents occur within the first 60 minutes of a shift due to drowsiness and a lack of focus11.
  2. Take extra care when weather takes a turn for the worse and conditions become wet or icy.
  3. Always step ballast to ballast to avoid losing footing and slipping on the track.
  4. Always use the handrail. Hold on, don’t misjudge the distance.
  5. Be equipped with the right access equipment for the job. Engineers must be confident that they have the appropriate access platform for inspecting or maintaining trains in order to reduce the risk of falls.
  6. Don’t walk and talk. Fifty-three per cent of slips, trips and falls in 2016 happened because workers were distracted by something or someone whilst walking and talking12.

Maintenance is a crucial process required to provide passenger and personnel safety and it is significant that the new plans from Network Rail represent an increased focus for this between 2019 – 2024. More research and attention is necessary, however, to address ongoing maintenance engineer health concerns. Safety culture and safety processes must be examined, as research shows there is a lack of information on the ill-health of engineers, and “insufficient emphasis on the impact of careless behaviour and unsafe acts”13.

All things considered, the future of British railways looks bright and there’s hope for our Victorian tracks yet.

Stuart McOnie is managing director at Semmco, an engineering company that designs and manufactures rail access equipment for maintenance of trains at trackside or depot. With offices in the UK, USA and Dubai, Semmco work closely with customers to provide project consultancy, offering complete rail maintenance solutions, focused on quality, reliability and user safety.

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