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Technology can improve inspections and safety in the rail industry

Tuesday 17 December 2019 Data Insight & Analytics

By Ollie Watson

On 1 December 2018 a passenger was hit by the branch of a tree whilst leaning out of the window of a train travelling at 75mph. The accident was fatal and was later investigated by the RAIB (Rail Accident Investigation Branch) which identified a string of errors across two operating companies which contributed in their own small ways to the incident occurring, from inadequate signage and inspections, to systems failing to pick up on outstanding work. So, how can these be avoided going forward?

The train was operated by GWR (Great Western Railway) and the infrastructure by Network Rail.  Both companies must carry out regular inspections in order to comply with health and safety regulations. Compliance is an issue raised by this case and the consideration of how transport operators can effectively manage and meet their compliance requirements.

Failed inspections

The RAIB report noted failings on both sides, with inadequate signage on board the train and inadequate trackside inspections of vegetation.

GWR had been due to install enhanced warning signs on the train in May 2018 to better reflect the danger posed by leaning out of the window whilst the train is moving. The enhancement was never made because two staff members had left the company and GWR’s system for tracking such inspections and alterations had failed.

Network Rail had not conducted a tree inspection in the area of the accident since 2009. An arboricultural report, commissioned by Network Rail after the accident, reported that a competent inspection post-2014 would have identified the decay in the tree, rendering it hazardous to the railway line. The tree had been in its hazardous position for at least 22 months prior to the accident.

Regular vegetation checks are required to reduce the risk of accidents and train derailment. Any tree encroaching on to a railway line that is 150mm in diameter or more is a derailment risk. Network Rail has two methods of conducting inspections: vegetation on foot and cab ride. Both inspections are completed by filling out paperwork and submitting a Track Engineering Form. Work, where necessary, is assigned on the back of this. It is a very manual process.

Staff training

Furthermore, Network Rail’s staff were undertrained to carry out these inspections and their supervisor didn’t realise that the paper forms were being incorrectly submitted. It is also noted by RAIB that he was unaware of the standards which needed to be conformed to.

So, this incident has highlighted a few shortcomings in the way in which Network Rail and train operators remain compliant with standards and regulations. Inadequate signage, a failure in the system to implement agreed enhancements because staff had left and the work went unchecked, led to GWR’s failings. Inadequate rail side vegetation inspections, underqualified inspectors and supervisors unaware that paperwork was being submitted incorrectly caused the Network Rail failings.

Such manual processes for such important work and inspections are outdated and have been exposed in this case. Whilst none of the failures may be directly responsible for the tragic events which occurred, the event does highlight the need for improvements in the processes.

Using technology is the most efficient way of running such processes – by being able to schedule and track work in a single database. This would allow schedulers and supervisors to easily identify where work has not been completed, where it has been completed by underqualified staff and where remedial work has been suggested as part of an inspection.

Automating workforce management

The example here, of enhanced signage alerting passengers of the danger of leaning out of the window of a moving train not being implemented, highlights the importance of effectively monitoring agreed work. This would not have happened in an automated system which can alert management to unfulfilled work.

Similarly, with an automated system, rail side inspections can be scheduled to ensure that they are conducted by qualified staff and submitted correctly. The system would flag any incorrect submissions.

Beyond the safety narrative and the events surrounding this incident, technology can deliver a far more efficient and accurate way of complying with regulations. This would not only help to reduce the likelihood of repeat incidents, but also help train operators to have far greater oversight of their operations via a single source of truth. Technology can ensure that inspectors are only allocated jobs if they have relevant experience or qualifications. Automated workflows can also then ensure where issues are identified, rectification work can be allocated to the right teams and monitored to completion. 

The technology to make these changes exists today. Transport operators don’t need to operate using analogue methods in a digital age.

Technology can make the inspection process far more efficient in the Rail Sector

Technology can improve inspections and safety in the rail industry