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LONDON -- Although British railway companies recently posted an improved record for fatal accidents, the companies cannot become complacent about safety, a government official warns.
"I expect operators to go that extra step in the pursuit of safety rather than stop as soon as the figures indicate that they appear to be justified in doing so," said Stan Robertson, chief inspector of railways, who last week unveiled the U.K. Health and Safety Executive's annual safety report on railways.
For the year ending March 1997, the HSE's railway figures are the lowest for several fatal accident categories.
"I am delighted to report that fatalities are the lowest on record at 25, three lower than last year," said Mr. Robertson.
No one was killed in an accident between a train and a vehicle at a level crossing -- the first time this has happened in half a century, according to the HSE.
While those figures were improved, the number of train accidents that resulted in injuries have jumped to 1,753 for the period ending March 31, from 989 in the year-earlier period. That increase is partly due, however, to changes in reporting procedures between the two years. For example, some injuries previously categorized as causing minor injuries and not reported have been recategorized as major injuries. These include hand and foot fractures; dislocation of the shoulder, hip, knee or spine; and amputation of fingertips, toes, etc. It will be another two to three years before the figures will be fully comparable on an annual basis, according to the HSE.
Mr. Robertson said he was concerned about the "real underlying increase" in accidents reflected in the figures issued by the government-sponsored body. He identified vandalism as the main cause of U.K. train accidents and noted that over the year, incidents of trains running into obstructions that vandals have placed on tracks have risen by 53%.
"This is a massive and very disturbing increase," he said.
Although vandalism is not a train company's fault, in certain circumstances a rail operator is in a position to minimize the problem, according to Mr. Robertson. For example, during the period the report covers, the HSE discovered a high incidence of vandalism at one particular viaduct. Vandals on the train were throwing items out of the windows as the cars crossed the viaduct, endangering both people and property underneath.
In response, the HSE issued Railtrack P.L.C., the company responsible for British rail infrastructure, with an "improvement notice," essentially requiring it to fence in the viaduct to protect the area from objects thrown from a train.
Railtrack appealed the order, but the HSE proved to a tribunal that Railtrack's risk assessment had been faulty and contributed to the problem. An HSE spokesman said the work now has been done to fence in the structure.
Self-regulation of safety and risk assessment plays a large part in the HSE's monitoring of British rail safety. As the British railway network has been privatized, a process that began in February 1996, rail operators have been required to put together plans, called "safety cases," for approval by Railtrack under the Railways (Safety Case) Regulations 1994.
In turn, Railtrack's safety case is approved by the HSE. These plans outline how the organizations intend to tackle and control safety risks and are the yardsticks against which HSE inspectors measure a rail operator's safety performance.
Originally developed in 1991 for the offshore energy industry, safety cases are reviewed every three years by the relevant regulator, and cover many areas, including:
*Arrangements for ensuring competence and fitness of systems.
*Arrangements for ensuring that safety systems and procedures are implemented.
*Monitoring, audit and review.
*Crowd control arrangements.
If a "material change" takes place in a rail company's operations, the 1994 law requires that the safety case be amended to reflect it.
The HSE report notes that some rail operators limit their safety activities to what they outlined in their safety cases, even though better practices may be available.
"The reality is that no safety case can cover all physical features and human aspects of a particular organization," said the report. "There will always be room for improvement 'on the ground' using the procedures and principles set out in the safety case."
The HSE's report acknowledges that risk assessments are playing an increasing role in managing safety but adds that many firms are using only basic, semi-quantified assessments. Such assessments are "generally useful as a risk screening tool, but they are a fairly coarse sieve and are of little use as a day-by-day measure of change," the report says.
In contrast, the HSE said it regards quantified risk assessments as "a valuable part of the tool kit which enables the assessment and prioritization of risks from different potential hazards."
The HM Chief Inspector of Railways' 1996/1997 Annual Report on railway safety is available for L14.95 ($25.13)from HSE Books, P.O. Box 1999, Sudbury, Suffolk CO10 6FS England; 44-178-788-1165.