Safety first

Since the mid 90s, the number of people and goods moved by rail in the UK has increased dramatically, yet at the same time, safety and performance have improved. RSSB looks at how the industry can continue this trend

Written by Anson Jack, Director of Policy, Research and Risk, RSSB

Rail in Great Britain is generally recognised as safe, indeed one of the safest forms of public transport, at a similar to air and coach travel and more than 20 times safer than travel, by car. However, although the railway has become safer and major accidents have reduced, there is never room for complacency as risk can never be completely eliminated.
Network Rail – which manages the railway infrastructure – and the respective train operating companies (TOCs) – which run the trains – can take huge credit for growth and safety improvements, as their considerable investments and day-to-day attention to detail and service is core to these achievements – ultimately. Like any other modern-day industry, individual companies are responsible for ensuring that there is the right level of safety in place.  
Whilst the industry comprises many diverse organisations, it also needs to work together to deliver service to the customer and improve business performance. Some of the ways it does this are through making collective decisions on standards and system cooperation, addressing operational issues at the interface and developing joint industry strategies. RSSB is the place where the industry comes together to do many of these things.  

Indeed, RSSB has supported and facilitated improvements across the whole range of industry performance – through research, standards, safety plans, analysis of risk and much more. RSSB’s core purpose is to work with the industry (its members and owners) to deliver continuously improving safety, reductions in costs and improvement in performance.

A source of safety intelligence
To manage and improve safety you first need to measure it. An important component of RSSB’s service is the management and provision of the industry’s Safety Management Information System (SMIS). The national web-based IT system is used by the rail industry to record all safety related events that occur on the mainline network. The industry’s own standard mandates its use so that all data is accessible across the industry to analyse risk, predict trends and focus activities on significant areas of safety concern.
RSSB publishes regular reports collating and summarising the statistics reflecting key risk areas. These are published in the detailed Annual Safety Performance Report (ASPR), which is delivered each spring for the previous calendar year, as well as monthly, quarterly and half-year reports.
The 2008 ASPR was published in April 2009 – and shows safety performance has continued to get better. Key points were:

  • There were no passenger or workforce fatalities in train accidents in 2008. This is the third year in the last four with no fatalities.
  • In 2008, 70 accidental fatalities, 422 major injuries and 12,308 minor injuries (including shock and trauma) were recorded. The total level of harm in 2008 was 132.1 Fatalities and Weighted Injuries (FWI). This is two per cent higher than 2007.
  • Five passengers died in separate incidents – all at stations. This is the lowest passenger fatality total recorded. The fatality rate per passenger journey is also at a historically low level.
  • There were 47 potentially higher-risk train accidents (PHRTAs). This is the same as the 2007 total and similar to the average for the previous three years.
  • There were small increases in both the number of signals passed at danger (SPADs) and the predicted level of risk from SPADs during 2008. However, the underlying level of risk remains historically low at around 15 per cent of its March 2001 level, compared to 13 per cent at the end of 2007.
  • Three members of the workforce died in accidents during 2008: two track workers and one other member of staff. This compares with two workforce fatalities in both 2007 and 2006.
  • Twelve pedestrians died at level crossings in 2008, compared with nine in 2007. This is the highest number of pedestrian fatalities since 1997 (when there were also twelve).
  • There were two accidental fatalities involving road vehicle occupants at level crossings. This is comparable with levels seen over the previous three years.
  • Fatalities from suicide (209) and trespass (47) totalled 256. This is similar to the average for the previous three years.

Managing risk
A distinct message the statistics provide is that where areas of risk are in the industry’s direct control, those risks can be managed and minimised with industry initiative, using the support of technology and an appreciation for the human factors involved. However, at level crossings, higher numbers of pedestrian fatalities and collisions between trains and road vehicles show that where the primary risk source is outside the direct control of the industry the results are much more difficult to influence and in many cases are exposed to societal trends. Research has shown that the best indicator of level crossing risk across the EU member states is the underlying level of road traffic accidents. In support of the industry effort to mitigate and manage the risk from public behaviour, the recently re-launched cross-industry Road-Rail Interface Safety Group (which RSSB facilitates) sponsors many research projects looking at level crossings from the public behaviour perspective and the All Level Crossing Risk Model (which was jointly developed with Network Rail) enables more risk based effort and investment to focus on the highest risk crossings.  
Many of the recent improvements in safety have been the product of significant investment in modern equipment or processes. Indeed this trend shows more than any other, that good business practices, and investment in the future, also improves safety. This is a really positive position because it means that by concentrating on investment, improving business efficiency and driving out unnecessary costs the industry can achieve still higher levels of safety performance.

Taking safe decisions
Almost every policy, investment or operational decision taken by the GB railway industry has an impact on safety. It is therefore vital that the consideration of safety is embedded effectively into the decision-taking process. To support this, the rail industry agreed on a consistent approach to collective safety policy decision-making – called ‘Taking safe decisions’.  
’Taking safe decisions’ is the product of an extensive programme of research, analysis and consultation. It describes the industry consensus view of how decisions should be taken that properly protect the safety of rail industry staff, passengers and others, satisfy the law and respect the interests of stakeholders, whilst remaining commercially sound.
The consensus was developed by a think tank of industry experts, and was approved by the industry through the Safety Policy Group and RSSB board. It was developed in parallel with guidance on cost-benefit analysis (CBA) in support of safety-related investment decisions, which was produced by the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) for its own inspectors and published on the ORR website.
‘Taking safe decisions’ identifies that in the GB railway industry, duty holder decisions which impact on safety are taken:

  • In order to meet legal requirements, or
  • Because they are sensible from a commercial perspective

These different types of decision have different implications and involve different considerations which the document clarifies. The consensus that the document brings may result in changes to what has previously been done in some parts of industry. Key clarifications are:

  • Societal concern about risk impacts on government decision making. The document states that societal concern should not be taken into account by duty holders when deciding whether a measure is necessary to ensure safety so far as is reasonably practicable (SFAIRP). However, the impact of societal concern on a company’s reputation might mean that the company takes account of it for business reasons.
  • A judgement about whether a measure is required to ensure safety so far as is reasonably practicable might be supported in some circumstances by a CBA. New guidance about how to construct a CBA for this purpose is included. 
  • This document clarifies that application of the Tolerability of Risk (TOR) framework (published by the HSE in Reducing Risks, Protecting People) is not a requirement of the Heath and Safety at Work Act etc 1974. The TOR framework is a conceptual guide for regulators that may help duty holders manage and prioritise safety activity by providing an alternative perspective on risk.

‘Taking safe decisions’ describes these key principles in full, provides guidance on what they mean in practice, and includes some worked examples for those taking decisions that impact upon safety. It can be downloaded from the RSSB website at
Seeking industry solutions
Armed with safety intelligence data and common approach to decision-making philosophy, the industry can then readily cooperate to seek appropriate solutions to the range of safety and business interface issues it faces. As a natural place for the industry to build consensus, RSSB has become a hub for many groups containing representatives from across the industry.  
RSSB provides technical expertise and organisational skills to support the industry with its standards, cross-industry groups, and system cooperation. This also extends to areas of knowledge which are valuable to the industry and cost-effective to retain in RSSB as it can further inform through networks for cooperation and traditional information products. RSSB’s skills knowledge and experience include operations, engineering, human factors, statistics, risk analysis, communications and project management.        

RSSB also manages two programmes of R&D on behalf of the railway industry, funded primarily by the Department for Transport – a core programme and a strategic one. The programmes provide a wealth of knowledge to support industry action and decision making across a range of issues. Through industry membership, RSSB is well placed to manage research that no individual company or sector could otherwise address on its own. It therefore includes research covering ‘systems’ issues across the whole railway, and the engineering interfaces within the railway, as well as the interfaces with other parts of the community. The programme is also instrumental in supporting the development of a future vision for the railways and assessing how that vision can best be delivered.
For more information
If you would like more information about RSSB or its services to members, you can find it on the web site at

Membership of RSSB is available to all companies that play a direct role in the GB mainline railway, and information about membership is available online.

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