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Improving safety inspections in multi-stakeholder scenarios

Monday 9 March 2020 Data Insight & Analytics


By Ollie Watson

Operating safety inspections is a vital component of running any public service or infrastructure. Be it checks on personnel, suppliers or rolling stock, understanding the stakeholders involved and the risks associated with them is something that not only keeps the service operating, but instils public faith in it, too. Yet gaining a complete picture is not always as easy as ticking a few boxes - it requires coherence and input from each stakeholder.

A recent case on the UK rail network highlights the confusion that can occur in conducting and completing thorough safety inspections. On 17 October 2019 a passenger train collided with a fallen oak tree at 55mph in Pembrokeshire. The train did not derail, although the driver’s carriage sustained visible damage and the driver was left with a minor injury and a state of shock. Suffice it to say, the incident could have been a lot worse.

You can read the Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB) report into the incident here. The accident, in short, had been caused by a diseased ash tree falling onto the oak tree, which sent it across the train tracks. As the report notes, all expected safety inspections had been carried out:

  • On foot tree inspections are required every 36-44 months
  • From train cab inspections every 12-16 months

The area had been inspected on foot on 28 June 2017 and from a train cab the day before the accident, on 16 October 2019. Neither inspection flagged any risk to the railway.

Shortcomings in the inspection system

This is where the shortcomings of the available information begin to be exposed. Since the trees involved in the incident lay on private land, Network Rail, the owner of the railway infrastructure on this stretch, does not have a legal right to access trees which lie beyond the railway boundary. The oak tree which the train hit was not in a defective state and had been passed as safe by both inspections.

The oak tree itself had been growing 0.8 metres beyond the railway boundary but had been caused to fall by the falling of the diseased ash tree which had been growing 4.4 metres from the railway boundary. Gaining a clear understanding of the risks prior to the accident was incredibly difficult, and Network Rail is hamstrung in some of its inspection endeavours by the law of the land.

To further complicate matters, Network Rail contacted the adjacent landowners, both of whom stated that the land concerned does not belong to them.

This incident falls into a void of unaccountability. The tree which caused the accident had been, quite reasonably, passed as safe. The requisite inspections had been conducted and the tree appears to have been residing in a legal no man’s land. But does this make the incident unavoidable?

Prevention is better than the cure

Had the train’s collision with the tree resulted in far graver consequences than those which occurred, the legal wrangling over the incident would have been far greater and blame would have been attributed somewhere along the line. It’s in no one’s best interests for such incidents to be at risk of being repeated; not for the train operator, Network Rail or the private landowner.

Establishing responsibility before an incident is possible. As part of the fallout from this incident, Network Rail is to publish guidance to landowners on its website. Landowners themselves have a responsibility to inspect any trees which may affect the railway and to take appropriate action to ensure that they do not pose a risk. The railway owner, where reasonable, should know who occupies neighbouring land to the railway and provide information about the potential risks.

By holding such information centrally, railway owners can keep a track of inspections to ensure that they are being conducted with the requisite regularity. Furthermore, they can open their websites up so that neighbouring landowners can report back with their own findings, essentially filing their own inspection reports.

Sharing information

This information can then be fed into the railway safety inspection routes, whereby if a landowner has raised a concern, the railway owner can involve itself in the process of remedial action to ensure that any work has been undertaken satisfactorily. An automated system could be implemented using workflows to prompt landowners to inspect their adjacent land at the required intervals.

Such as system can also be used to capture the relevant information from the inspection and automatically schedule any remedial action if required. This could make the process far more efficient while improving rail safety.

While such incidents as the one in Pembrokeshire are complicated, by achieving a coherence of effort and understanding, the risk of repeat incidents in future can be greatly reduced.


Accidents happen, but how can transport operators join together disparate dots in assessing the risks posed to their infrastructure?

Improving safety inspections in multi-stakeholder scenarios