The Office for Road and Rail’s reflection on the past and crystal ball gazing into the future

The Office for Road and Rail (ORR), responsible for monitoring and enforcing the efficiency and safety of Britain’s railways, recently published its annual health and safety report (the Report) covering the period April 2021 to 31 March 2022.

The Report reflects on many of the health and safety improvements that were delivered over the past year as well as predicting what lies ahead in terms of challenges for industry in the upcoming year.

Working to deliver health and safety improvements

Following the ORR’s concentration on assessing Network Rail’s work in improving track-worker safety, the Report praises the advances made and cites an impressive 98% reduction in red zone unassisted lookout working since July 2019. In the Report’s period, track-work related near misses fell by 70% and track worker fatalities were completely avoided. 

The Report also comments on the ongoing drive to improve the management of earthworks and drainage and, albeit with caution, indicates that the national strategies for tackling these risks appear to be working. 

It is clear from the Report that focus remains on level crossing safety as this continues to be a major source of risk on the railway, with a total of seven level crossing deaths over the year. Launched in June 2021, the ORR’s Principles for Managing Level Crossing Safety publication is featured in the report which is intended to enable a better understanding of level crossing users and to drive better industry collaboration. 

As the railway prepares for substantial reform, in the transition to Great British Railway (GBR), the ORR’s overarching message is that the rail industry must remain focused on health and safety management basics. Perhaps as a warning to others in the industry, it cites that enforcement and prosecution continues to be a tool in driving improvement, referencing its prosecution of WH Malcolm Limited and the resultant £6.5 million fine, upheld by the Court of Appeal and one of the largest fines levied to date in a health and safety prosecution.

Challenges ahead

Turning to the future, the themes and areas of challenge ahead for the industry are considered to be:

Managing the legacy impacts of the pandemic

Although it is recognised in the Report that there are organisational changes and financial constraints associated with the nation’s recovery from COVID-19, the ORR makes clear that safety management activity that has been constrained due to COVID-19 related government restrictions and staff absence, should now step up, in an attempt to address the risk that is increasing in line with passenger and service levels.

The ORR indicates that the few positive changes as a result of the pandemic, such as less crowding and litter, should remain.

Managing change: safety by design and successful, safe transition

Despite the enormous changes ahead for the industry, the ORR is clear that the transition must not deter focus from the health and safety of passengers, the public and the workforce.

It warns that its part in the planning and delivery of change will not be a distraction and that the inspection, enforcement, authorisation and approvals processes will continue to hold the railway to account.

Supporting people

The ORR recognises that the pandemic, industry change, financial constraint and ongoing industrial action has created unsettling times, especially so for the railway workforce, and outlines its expectation for the railway to effectively manage the changes involved in the GBR transition.

As part of this it outlines the need to gather better health risk data, which it deems to be the foundation of better health management. 

Implementing technologies effectively

Whilst technology has potential to improve many areas of the railway, including worker and level crossing protection, the ORR makes clear that safety change validation of both users and of business processes, is imperative.

Overarching these predictions is the ORR’s indication of its intention to ramp up its work to assess safety improvement plans and determine the regulatory framework and funding for the reform of the industry, whilst maintaining the UK railway’s position among the safest in Europe and keeping risk on the line at an all-time low.

It will be interesting to see whether the ORR’s predictions of the challenges ahead prove to be true.

Related item: Crime and Regulatory roundup – December 2022

Read other items in Crime and Regulatory Brief - December 2022

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