Wednesday 20 July 2016

The forgotten issue of safety on Southern railways

I'm posting here a message I received on safety on the trains. The author wants to stay anonymous but he lives on the south coast and is in a position to know what he's talking about - so I think he deserves a wider hearing. Especially for those of us who are honestly trying to understand why a series of rail franchises are grinding to a halt.

This is what he writes:

"I have been most interested to read your blog and book regarding the problems currently affecting train services in Sussex and understand and agree with the points you raise.

The local railways are in crisis and it appears that the dispute could result in long term harm to the rail network as regular and leisure travellers are choosing to find alternative means to travel already – and will be hard to win back. It is worth remembering that the effects of the 1955 rail strike had a significant effect on the cuts introduced by Beeching in the 1960s.

There is one aspect of the dispute, however, which appears not to be given prominence in your book but is also an issue at the heart of the dispute.

That is Safety.

There is no clear right solution to this, but I understand is fundamental before any of the mis-management of the introduction of the proposed changes Southern (or the DfT) wish to impose.

Who closes the doors on departure is the main issue. In the days of slam door trains, the guard was responsible for starting the train. He had an inward opening door. After ascertaining that it was safe to start, the guard would give the signal to the driver, the train would start and the guard would remain looking out up and down the train to ensure its safe departure. If there was a problem, he could immediately give an emergency signal to the driver to stop.

With the introduction of sliding door trains, and with the guard giving the start signal from a passenger door, that door would be the last to close, but by the time the train starts, that door is closed. The guard is unable to see what is happening along the length of the train as it left the station.

I believe there is currently a court case concerning an incident in Merseyside, where a guard has been charged with acting negligently after a late intending passenger slipped between the train and the platform and suffered injury – but I believe survived. In this case it would appear that the starting procedure was such that the guard could not see the length of the train to see the incident occurring.

It could be that the DfT sees this case as supporting their reasons for changing the responsibility for door closing, but I believe this court case is still on going so they are unable to use this.

Their solution is to switch responsibility to the driver with the benefit of cctv. My understanding is that on Southern, the most modern trains (the class 377, 387 and 700) have external cameras on each coach. The driver has 2 screens in the cab (each about the size of a tablet computer) and these can each display up to six camera views – a 12 coach train will therefore have 12 small photos over the two screens to see if the train is all clear. At the same time, he needs to be looking ahead to ensure that the signal aspect is safe to proceed and ensure that there is no obstruction, or person about to step of the platform (or leap level crossing gates in some locations). Is this asking too much?

A further concern expressed to me by a driver, is the clarity of these images – particularly after dark where the station lighting is sometimes inadequate to provide a clarity of picture, or in rain (and probably snow) where the relatively small camera lens can easily become distorted by rain drops – (those who were spectacles in bad weather will understand this problem). Is the driver therefore expected to undertake a safe departure in these conditions?

There was also a recently publicised occasion, I believe with a SouthEastern Train, where the drivers were complaining they could not see properly because of the effect of a low sun. Glare could also be a problem from the low sun with the cctv cameras – but the driver is on his own to start the train safely.

Modern Railways
magazine (June 2016 editorial) refers to the RAI (Rail Accident Investigation Branch) identifying some key areas of concern following platform accidents involving sliding doors. Some trains do have different designs, but in principle it appears the sensitivity of the door control systems to detect trapped objects will not cause the doors to reopen automatically, potentially leaving someone with clothing or limb trapped whilst the train is able to move. See this editorial for more details – but this does underline the importance of railway staff (driver, or guard) being able to see the length of the train during departure. Is it right this should be the driver watching up to 12 cctv images at the same time as the track ahead?

There are conflicting views in this – but I think it means that the safety debate is not as clear cut as the DfT would like as to believe.

It is of regret that this has not been highlighted in the debate to date as I think it is of fundamental importance to the whole issue and was not even raised by the Evening Argus reporter when he eventually got to meet Claire Perry. Safety also did not get a mention on the Sunday Politics on BBC1 this morning.

There are other concerns regarding safety. If a driver is taken ill or injured in a level crossing accident for example (there was a case of a driver heart attack in April 2016), who is going to stop passengers putting themselves in danger by alighting onto the track in the presence of the electrified third rail – or potentially oncoming trains on adjoining tracks? Can it be relied upon that there will be a passenger on board who knows the urgency of contacting the local control in addition to the emergency services?

It is I believe these concerns that lie at the heart of the RMTs concern over Driver Only Operation, despite its introduction elsewhere. Safety concerns don’t appear to have been fully addressed. Whilst Southern may say that they will be a second member of crew on board, trains can, under their proposals, run with only a driver, and with the numbers of experienced long serving staff deciding that in the light of this dispute they have had enough and leaving, there is likely to be a shortage of the staff available to fulfil these roles, increasing the likelihood of there only being a driver on board.

I have not even mentioned the effects on the disabled and the discrimination that this means of operation will introduce. You have already highlighted this in your book during the current dispute, but this type of situation is likely to become a permanent feature when there is no second crew member. Is the disabled passenger themselves or driver expected to deploy the ramp where there is no second crew member and at many stations no platform staff either (in your book regarding Portslade is a case in point)?

Finally, it will be interesting to see if during the temporary timetable the rolling stock displaced by the cancellations is used to bolster services that are still running. Will the three coach Class 313 units (three units freed between peaks) from the Seaford services be used to bolster other 313 services to six-cars? Will the Ashford to Brighton services be increased to 4 coaches to cater for the additional passengers to be carried between Lewes and Brighton (reduced by the lack of Seaford trains) and additional stops made at Falmer? Elsewhere eight coach trains on the London line could benefit from an additional four coaches freed up from the cancellation of Brighton – Southampton services ( 4 x 377 units off peak)

I did not put this on your blog as it was so long, but I hope this is helpful to you in trying to get to the heart of the problem and get some resolution. Thank you for your efforts and keep up the good work."

See my book Cancelled! on the Southern Railways disaster, now on sale for £1.99 (10p goes to Railway Benefit Fund). One of my correspondents suggests that we all buy the paperback version (£4.75) and leave copies on the trains...

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Dennis said...

Railways are a very safe mode of transport (no passenger has been killed for several years) but this comes at a very high financial cost which has to be paid by the users or possibly the taxpayers. The type of incidents you refer to are rare but could be mitigated by requiring conductors to be provided on all trains which currently have them - mainly longer distance services.

If costs continue to escalate - and they will - many people will be unable to afford train travel and be forced, as most are now,to use much less safe modes of transport such as cars or the even more dangerous bicycles.

When motorways were first opened express coaches could travel at 100 mph but were stopped from doing so for alleged safety reasons so instead of passengers travelling quickly and cheaply in coaches driven by trained professional drivers they travel in somewhat less safe cars often driven by inexperienced people who have never used the route before. Is that good ?

Neil Spellings said...

What's not discussed here is how a driver with CCTV view of every door is less safe than a guard stood in the vestibule with no view of what's happening outside the train whatsoever?

Anonymous said...

I estimate that the saving from removing the 'safety critical' trained guard from a crowded commuter train is less than the cost of one ticket - out of many hundreds on a typical 12 car 377 train - or if you like a fraction of one per cent. At the select committee hearing Charles Horton said that the guard replacement OBS staff would have safety training. I asked the Southern representative, area station manager from Eastbourne, who was at the Seaford station protestival whether OBS staff would have the full safety training currently given to guards. He was reluctant to answer so I said that 'I take that as a probably not.' He agreed.

Anonymous said...

In response to Neil Spellings. Guards ALWAYS watch the side of the train before closing the doors - on crowded or curved platforms they will often step well away from the train before signalling all clear to the driver who acknowledges receipt of the signal before taking power. With DOO the driver is expected to watch 24 doors on a 12 car train and his incab screens go blank as soon as he takes power in order not to distract him from the quite important task of driving. Mr Spellings please read the RAIB reports on the Kentish Town, Hayes and Harlington, and West Wickham incidents.

Neil Spellings said...

@anonymous I'd love to but don't have ten spare hours unfortunately. That's what comments sections are for: someone has already done the hard work for you 😉

Anonymous said...

It's about safety!!!!

I've been a guard on the coast for almost 20 years. During this time I have had to walk back along the line from a failed train three times to an assisting unit, carrying out safety procedures along the way. This procedure is now carried out by the driver but we still have to know this procedure alongside others as part of our on going safety role. The trains I have been on have hit a car and a cow. Thankfully, on both occasions, no one including the driver was hurt. Another time a person deliberately went under the train. This time, although the driver said he was alright, I found a driver passing on the train to relieve him until assistance had arrived. I have assisted drivers with failed doors and other faults many times and I have helped passengers or de-escalated situations on an enumerable amount of times. As for financial cost, last year I took £47k in on train ticket sales, which pays for my salary above and beyond.

Anonymous said...

Neil - "What's not discussed here is how a driver with CCTV view of every door is less safe than a guard stood in the vestibule with no view of what's happening outside the train whatsoever?"

I maybe mistaken but I was under the impression CCTV images are off when the train start to move. A drivers eyes cannot monitor n number of CCTV images and the line ahead all at the same time..

Perhaps some Southern drivers or others on Driver Only services could confirm ?

..who looks out for that running, slightly intoxicated passenger who thinks pressing a door button on a moving train will cause it to open ?

Neil Spellings said...

So from what I've read so far it seems there are instances where a guard doesn't have 100% visibility of all of the train (long curves, platform furniture etc) and there are instances when the driver doesn't have visibility of all of the train (low sunlight, rain on cameras etc) - is that a fair statement?

@anonymous (btw, perhaps people could at least create pseudonyms if wishing to protect your real identity so it's easier to reply to individual comments when everyone is posting as anonymous! ) yes, I see your point on the guard remaining on the platform until all the other doors are closed, then boarding the train.

Is it a fair statement that a drivers "view of the world" through CCTV is much reduced from that of a guard stood on the platform?

Barney said...

David - I'd like to read your book, but don't have - or want - a Kindle. I'd order a physical copy, but have problems getting things delivered. Any chance of making it available as a .pdf?

Neil Spellings said...

@David - a PDF version is available from the purchase link