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Tuesday 21 November 2017

Report warns of Irish Rail trains running red lights

Regulator says his relationship with senior bosses was ‘strained’ as he compiled report

DANGER: The report will worry rail passengers. Photo:
DANGER: The report will worry rail passengers. Photo:
Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

A damning report into the safety of Irish Rail, warning of an alarming number of trains running red lights and failing to heed stop signs, has been sent to the Minister for Transport as a matter of urgency, the Sunday Independent can exclusively reveal.

The 32-page document will cause serious concern to passengers who made 40 million journeys with Irish Rail in the past year.

In the report, Regulator Gerald Beesley heavily criticises senior management at the public transport service and draws on incidents including the 1987 King’s Cross tragedy in London, in which 36 people lost their lives, to warn of the dangers for rail passengers if safety measures are not adhered to.

Under the title of ‘Safety Management’, the report warns that the rail network is a “high hazard” industry where chance events can result in multiple fatalities and life-changing injuries.

It points out that the fact that fatalities have not occurred to date is not due to a safe environment, but rather a matter of luck. However, rather than accept concerns over safety issues, the Commission has told the Government that the findings were “continuously challenged” to the point of being a distraction to the Regulator when completing his work.

The Sunday Independent has learned that several attempts were made by senior management at Irish Rail to block a separate report by the Commission of Railway Regulation into an incident at Midleton railway station. The multiple attempts included “a demand that the report be withdrawn, and correspondence with the CIE group solicitor,” according to sources close to the Regulator.

In 2015, the Regulator stated that “it was evident that Iarnrod Eireann was taking a noticeably different approach toward safety regulation.” He continued: “It is of concern that the type of sentiment expressed in correspondence with the regulator may be a reflection of a leadership attitude to safety that would be less than the Commission expects.”

The report notes that an audit into safety management was issued in December 2014 but “was met with an immediate negative reaction” from Irish Rail.

It raised fundamental issues of “policy, culture, governance and management” and serious concerns about the safety of rail passengers who use the network each day.

Most concerning, however, is the fact that there has been a significant increase in ‘Signals Passed at Danger (SPAD)’ events on Irish rail networks.

In 2013, a total of 18 such incidents were reported, and although the figure dropped to 10 in 2014, by 2015, the numbers of SPAD events had jumped once again to 15 by August of that year.

Railway signalling relies heavily on track-side warning lights; however, due to speed, distractions and fatigue, these primary signals can be missed. The result can not only result in damage to track and rail infrastructure with costly disruptions to rail services, but it can also lead to loss of life.

In 2015, apart from the growing number of SPADs, a total of 12 other ‘Operational Incidents’ occurred on rail networks around the country.

In one particular incident, the number of carriages used on a train operating on

the Midleton line was too long for both the platform and the signalling constraints at Midleton station,

putting passenger safety in danger.

The Commission noted that “it is important not to define safety as an absence of accidents. In this context it is worth noting that in his inquiry into the fire at King’s Cross underground station (November 18, 1987), Desmond Fennell QC reported that a safety manager had warned management about complacency.”

It quotes Mr Fennell as saying: “A safe environment is not one in which there is an absence of or a low number of serious injuries or accidents, but is the result of active participation by management and staff in identifying hazards and then doing something about them. In other words, the absence of accidents is a negative measure largely dependent on luck.”

In his summary, the Regulator described the working relationship between Irish Rail and the Commission as “strained” throughout 2015, while it was carrying out the safety report. He said: “It is of concern to the Commission that at the most senior level of management, there appears to be a misapprehension in regard to the need for Safety Management Systems to conform to the Deming cycle [a management system that leads to improvement], and that responses from that same quarter indicate a lack in appreciation of the importance of ‘just culture’ and ‘organisational learning’ in safety management.”

He continued by saying it is “the Commission’s determination” that “safety issues are matters that should be accepted rather than continuously challenged.”

The Commission for Railway Regulation was established in 2006. 

The report comes in light of three major rail disasters on Irish tracks. The most infamous occurred in 1980, when 18 people lost their lives and 70 more were injured in a train crash at Buttevant, Co Cork, when the Dublin to Cork train was derailed.

A spokesman for Iarnród Éireann stated yesterday that the Railway Accident Investigation Unit’s “Investigation into Signals Passed at Danger (SPADs) on the Iarnród Éireann Network 2012-2015” confirms the importance of investment in train protection systems to further reduce the number of SPADs on Ireland’s rail network.

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