Rail Safety Week 2019

This week is Rail Safety Week 2019, an industry-led initiative working to improve safety for everyone in rail, whether passenger, worker or more. Everything we can do day-to-day to make a difference is helpful, but it’s great to see a dedicated period to really focus minds.

There’s all sorts going on during Rail Safety Week, across the network, starting with the conference taking place today and featuring contributions from the British Transport Police, the Office of Rail and Road, Railway Benefit Fund, Rail Safety & Standards Board and more. You can keep up to date with the latest on Twitter, via the #RSW19 and by following @RailSafetyWeek.

By its nature, a lot of this is – whether or not it’s explicitly stated – thinking about the past: either events that have already happened, or by comparing where we are now and where we want to be in the future with where we’ve come from. We’re trying to contribute a bit to what’s going on this week via our Twitter account (@RWLDproject), where we’ll be highlighting some past efforts to prevent staff accidents, and some of the cases where workers unfortunately still came to harm.

This is a small way in which we’re trying to engage with the current industry, to bring insights from the past to bear on the present. We’ve been in to talk with colleagues at Network Rail in the past, and tomorrow we’re going in to the Rail Accident Investigation Branch, as well as having been helped out by the ORR, a relationship we’re hoping to build upon and feed back into their work. All of this is encouraging, as it shows that the current industry is alive to the possibilities of making use of the past.

We’d hope that the resources our project is producing can be a part of this. Clearly the industry has changed greatly since the Second World War, when our project ends its coverage. Yet the potential is still there – our database gives a detailed look at operations in practice, including the ways in which people respond to the conditions of work in real-life situations. Whilst the conclusions about responsibility and causes that were drawn at the time wouldn’t stand up to current understandings and practice, it’s possible to work around that. We get a good picture of the constraining factors under which staff did the best they could, even when that involved exposing themselves to risk.

Some of the types of accidents found in the database – particularly the slips, trips and falls – still exist today as a significant proportion of the casualties that occur in the system; and some of the grades/ locations of work remain hazardous – notably permanent way work. We might be able to learn from the cases in our database by using them a ‘safe’ examples around which to base conversations about what happened and why, in which no current companies or staff are implicated.

As we discussed recently at the University of Portsmouth’s event to launch their ‘Intelligent Transport Research Cluster’, the past provides crucial context through which we can understand the present. However, it can do more than this. It can help expose what is specific to a particular place and time, as well as elements that might be common over time. Armed with that insight, we can use it to help develop approaches that account for long-standing and short-term constraints on action, to avoid past dead-ends, and to suggest options for the future that might help improve safety. It’s certainly not a perfect art, and it won’t ever predict the future, but the past does have an important role to play in informing current and future actions and ideas.

We’re keen to do our bit for this, and relish the chance to engage with the current industry: it would be wonderful if we could contribute to improving safety today by looking back at the past. Do get in touch with us if you have any thoughts or ideas about how we can help!

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