What can railways teach shipping about safety culture?

Rail companies openly share data on accidents and near-misses, but it took several tragic incidents to prompt the scheme to be created

rail safety culture sign
The UK’s railways are statistically 12 times safer than those in France and Germany, and data shows that when you take a mainline train in Great Britain, you are around 1,400 times safer than were you travelling by motorcycle. 

What is remarkable is the UK rail network is the safest it has ever been in its history, while also being at its busiest. Around 110 million tonnes of cargo is moved on UK railways every year, plus millions of passengers, but the last fatal rail incident in the UK was in 2007, when a Virgin Pendolino train derailed at Grayrigg, Cumbria.

But we couldn’t know all this were it not for the rigorous open-access incident reporting regime the rail industry has implemented ever since several deadly train crashes forced the industry to take action. 

So said John Abbott, senior leader at the Rail Standards and Safety Board (RSSB), in a presentation to the UK Chamber’s Safety Culture at Sea event, which was held onboard the 'Saga Pearl II' on September 22nd-24th. 

Although there had been tragic rail accidents throughout the 1980s and 1990s, it was finally the 1999 Ladbroke Grove disaster that prompted rail companies to collaborate on safety, Abbott said. 

Thirty-one people were killed and over 400 were injured when a Thames Train Service engine collided nearly head-on with a First Great Western train at a combined speed of about 130 miles per hour, after running past a red signal at Ladbroke Grove. 

An inquiry into the crash by the then Health & Safety Commission resulted in the creation in 2003 of the RSSB and in 2005 of the Rail Accident Investigation Branch, in addition to the Railway Inspectorate. This allowed the rail industry to separate its standards-setting, accident investigation and regulation functions, just as the aviation industry does. 

Today, modern rail safety management revolves around these five principles, Abbott said:

  1. Quantifying risk,
  2. Using management systems (like ALARP) to control and monitor risk,
  3. Collaborating on the collection and collation of open data,
  4. Developing common standards for interfaces,
  5. Recognition of each company's duty to cooperate.

As a consequence, all UK rail companies now share data on incidents and near-misses, which is freely accessible to other companies and is used to inform the focus of safety management. 

The regime revolves around the concept of cooperation – every company has a duty to cooperate with every other in order to maintain and improve safety, Abbott explained.

“We believe in the transparent exchange of report data,” he continued. “There should be no competitive advantage in terms of safety reporting.” 

Having access to such a rich set of data has allowed rail companies to spot trends and recurrent incidents, which can then be targeted with specific campaigns, safety measures and by developing common standards.

In terms of passenger safety, data has revealed that the interface between the train and the station platform is where most incidents occur – for example, passengers falling into the gap between the carriage and the platform, or getting clothing stuck in the doors of a moving train. 

Rail companies have responded to this by analysing how accidents occur in the platform/train interface area and where the risk lies, followed by setting objectives and timescales for meeting these objectives. 

This response has taken the form of a risk assessment smart-phone app, which was developed with safety guidance for the platform/train interface and released in 2015. Around 12 months later, rail companies began a public-facing campaign, focusing on specific kinds of common incidents and how passengers can help prevent them.

Data has also allowed rail companies to identify incident trends that might not be immediately obvious, which has helped keep the rail workforce safer. 

Traditionally, the biggest danger to railway engineers (the so-called “Orange Army”) was being struck by trains while working on lines. Over time, however, the risk has shifted and now driving on the roads poses the biggest threat to rail workers. 

“The first thing was to get people to recognise there was a problem – people working on a highway is a problem for rail industry,” John Abbott told the Safety Culture at Sea event.

The RSSB has consequently done a lot of work with drivers to help improve safety culture on the roads, which has comprised talking about fatigue, building awareness and issuing reporting guidance.

Public safety is probably the area in which rail’s shifting attitudes towards safety culture has been most apparent, which has been exemplified by the industry’s evolved approach to suicide prevention. 

Today, rail companies recognise that suicide is a public health problem, Abbott said. In 2016, there were some 237 deaths from suicide on UK railways, plus 93 serious injuries from attempts. This is a slight reduction on the record-high figure of 275 deaths in 2013/14. Most victims are males aged 30 to 45.

The rail industry today recognises it has a duty of care to help vulnerable people contemplating ending their lives on railways, Abbott said. More importantly, rail companies know they can play a part in helping prevent these deaths. 

To do so, the RSSB signed a partnership with The Samaritans charity in 2010 and have trained 15,000 members of rail staff in intervention training. The intervention training has consisted of first-stage counselling, designed to get vulnerable people to take a step back, perhaps have a cup of tea and feel valued, Abbott explained. 

The training initiative has required strong leadership as well as worker involvement, but has mainly been dependent on a massive cultural shift. Around 1,500 interventions were made in 2016, saving hundreds of lives, he said.

Rail companies, in short, have come together through their transparent incident reporting scheme, which has improved safety significantly, even in ways that were unanticipated. The data scheme has allowed the industry to get a bird’s eye view of what influences accidents, which has helped it think more proactively and creatively about mitigation. As the industry’s response to rail suicide shows, incident prevention can be carried out by employees at every level. That’s what safety culture is all about.

More information

  • For more safety inspiration from the rail industry, visit the RSSB website or check out SPARK, rail's open-access database of rail safety research. 
  • Those who work for a UK Chamber member company can view videos from the Safety Culture at Sea event here. If you have not already received the presentations by email, please let us know.

safety culture forum banner

Related pages
For more information contact:

Holly Birkett

Communications Manager (content & digital)

020 7417 2868 / 07807 790058