Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) (RI 06)

  The Health and Safety Executive submits the following evidence to the Sub-committee in response to its invitation. The Sub-committee wishes to consider three matters in particular:

    —  Railtrack's past performance in renewing, maintaining and developing the national network, and the likely impact of its plans for the future;

    —  the adequacy of the oversight exercised in the past by the Office of the Rail Regulator over Railtrack's performance, its contribution to the development of Railtrack's future plans etc; and

    —  what role should be played by the Strategic Rail Authority.


  1.  Ensuring the safety of those who use or work on the railways is an overriding concern for all those involved in providing and regulating rail services, and the efficient and effective renewal, maintenance and development of the national network is fundamental to delivering a safe railway system.

  2.  The Health and Safety Commission (HSC) and its operational arm, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) are responsible for the statutory regulation of health and safety on the railway and for securing compliance with legal obligations. Railtrack is responsible for the safety of its own operations, and for overseeing the operations of others who work on the railway, such as contractors and train operators, to ensure that they do not import undue risks onto the network.

  3.  Railtrack's management of infrastructure maintenance has been of continuing concern to HSE. The issue was raised in HM Railway Inspectorate's (HMRI) Annual Report on Railway Safety in 1995-96 and again by the Chief Inspector of Railways, Vic Coleman, at the launch of the 1998-99 Annual Report. Of particular concern is Railtrack's management of an increasing number of contractors involved in infrastructure maintenance; underlying infrastructure, particularly track, quality and the way this is being maintained and improved; and the prevalence of broken and defective rails.

Management of Contractors

  4.  The use of contractors to carry out maintenance, renewal and development of the infrastructure is a feature of the privatised railway and, if this work is to be carried out without compromising the safety of the network and those involved, quality management systems are essential.

  5.  In 1995-96, HMRI carried out a review of Railtrack's management of its contractors. In its report (Maintaining a Safe Railway Infrastructure), the Inspectorate concluded that the formal systems in place needed to be improved and that greater effort was needed to secure effective operation of systems in practice. Ten key actions were identified. Railtrack has made significant progress in responding to these actions but there is still work outstanding. In particular, after false starts, Railtrack do not yet have adequate robust data on asset conditions—an essential baseline for managing safety properly. One of HMRI's key inspection and enforcement projects for the current year will look at whether Railtrack has adequate systems in place to manage the process for identifying track defects and ensuring that they are remedied.

Track Quality

  6.  In 1998-99, HM Railway Inspectorate carried out an assessment of the quality of the track on the national rail infrastructure. This work was initiated because of track condition was identified as a significant factor in a number of derailments including the derailment at Bexley in 1997. The assessment was based on data supplied by Railtrack but also took account of work on track quality by Booz-Allen and Hamilton, commissioned by the Office of the Rail Regulator. HMRI's analysis was based on a review of about three quarters of the national network (based on route miles), with the latest data from 1998.

  7.  The review concluded that track quality on the national rail infrastructure was getting worse. Quality of the bulk of the network was judged to be static (45 per cent), with 33 per cent in decline and only 22 per cent getting better. Although the extent to which the deterioration was affecting safety was uncertain, it was clearly bound to have some effect if it was not reversed.

  8.  In the past year, the Inspectorate has concentrated on ensuring industry compliance with Railway Group Standards. Under TQIP (the track quality improvement programme) the ORR has set Railtrack targets on track geometry to improve ride quality, with penalties if they are not met. HSE is concerned that these targets should not result in any adverse effect on preventive track maintenance, and is working with the ORR and Railtrack to ensure a proper balance. HSE is similarly concerned at the balance between keeping the network operational and restricting operation to maintain the infrastructure in general. Maintaining operational capacity can limit opportunities for carrying out maintenance, and can result in more maintenance being carried out between train movements (in order to avoid line closure) which places maintenance staff at greater risk.

Broken and Defective Rails

  9.  The number of broken rails on the network has also been an increasing cause of concern to HSE, with a rise from 656 reported incidents in 1994-95 to a provisional figure for 1999-2000 of 945. A broken rail is one of the three main causes of derailments which are, in their turn, one of the key areas of catastrophic risk.

  10.  The reasons for the increase in reported incidents are not clear-cut. A combination of increased rail age, changes in traffic flow and a reduction in track quality all appear to be contributory factors, which should be addressed through a proper renewal, maintenance and development programme.

  11.  In the last year, in response to HSE's concerns, Railtrack has put in place a project team to identify ways significantly to reduce the number of broken rails. HMRI has held regular meetings with this team to satisfy itself that the initiatives that had been identified are moving forward. These initiatives include rerailing at locations with clusters of defects and breaks and increased testing of rails with improved equipment.

  12.  There was a small reduction in the number of reported broken rails in 1999-2000 (945) as compared with the previous year (973), but it is too early to draw any conclusions about trends. The figure is still unacceptably high, and the issue remains a significant cause for concern.


  13.  The Sub-committee will be aware of the contents of, and recommendations contained in, the recent report of the National Audit Office (NAO), "Office of the Rail Regulator: Ensuring that Railtrack Maintain and Renew the Railway Network", published in April this year. The HSE was consulted by the NAO in the course of its study.

  14.  The ORR is under a legal duty, when exercising its functions, to take account of safety and the advice of HSC/E. There is a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the ORR and the HSE which sets out the respective duties and functions of the two organisations and arrangements for liaison, consultation and the exchange of information, including information relevant to Railtrack's stewardship of the network and its compliance with, inter alia, Railway Group Standards and its safety case. In general, these arrangements are working well but they are subject to review and updating as appropriate from time to time.

  15.  HSE and ORR maintain close liaison on network maintenance matters. Our respective concerns (safety, and network stewardship and performance) are complementary. Both the economic and the safety regulator are keen to ensure that their proper concerns are addressed, and to act so as to prevent one regulator being played off against another.


  16.  Under the Transport Bill the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) will have no safety responsibilities. However, the SRA will be obliged (as the ORR is already) to take account of safety, and of HSC/E's advice, when exercising its functions. HSE will seek to agree suitable working and liaison arrangements with the SRA when it comes into being. Arrangements are already in place between HSE and the Franchising Director, whose office will form part of the SRA, and will be reviewed in due course.

June 2000

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