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Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Railways is one of those job titles where continuity gave the title a unique resonance and endowed the position with considerable power. Over the decades, legislation was occasionally necessary when safety improvements were resisted by the railway operators, but much was achieved through the authority of successive Chief Inspectors.
‘We recommend you should do such and such, but if you choose not to, on your own head be it', was a strong incentive for change when backed by the status of the HMRI. But such a quintessentially British approach was unlikely to survive the pressures of privatisation.
To ensure safety on the privatised railways, the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) came up with the cascaded safety case model. Railtrack, as infrastructure owner and operator, had its safety case endorsed by the HSE. Anyone wanting access to Railtrack controlled infrastructure, had to have their safety case endorsed by Railtrack.
This left the Her Majesty's Railways Inspectorate (HMRI) trying to fulfil its traditional role in a radically different environment and one in which the traditional techniques and processes no longer worked. By now HMRI had been transferred from the Department Transport to be a ‘unitary organisation' within the HSE.
As HSE Director General Jenny Bacon explained in her statement to the Ladbroke Grove Rail Inquiry, it was ‘culture differences between HMRI and HSE generally' that had resulted in the remodelled Paddington Station layout entering service without formal approval.
‘A light touch in enforcement' was clearly no longer enough. Quoting Bacon again, HMRI senior management had wanted ‘evolution not revolution' in making changes. But privatisation was revolution writ large and evolution was ‘no longer sustainable for rail safety'.
An HSE report described the HMRI's ‘consensus seeking approach to dealing with (safety case) duty holders, with a reluctance to use enforcement powers', as less appropriate ‘for an industry which is more driven by commercial imperatives and in which levels of cooperation and trust appear to be declining'.
Quite. To which add in current concerns regarding HMRI's role as standard setter, approvals body and accident investigator. Add in, too, the current plethora of investigations into train protection and rail safety in general as well as two high profile accidents and the conclusion has to be that rail safety regulation is going to change – and soon.
But this subject is off the agenda as I sit down in the Chief Inspector's office in the HSE headquarters building overlooking the ‘blade of light' bridge between St Pauls and Tate Modern and currently closed on public safety grounds.
Instead we start with Coleman himself. He became Chief Inspector of HMRI in mid-1998, having been Deputy Chief in charge of field operations since the end of 1995. He manages an Inspectorate with a current staff of 125 including 70 inspectors and expanding. This doesn't sound many but to put it in context, on average, accident investigation overall occupies in the region of seven to nine inspector-years.
HMRI's work includes the inspection and investigation of incidents, the investigation of railways as they run and the approval of new works and traction and rolling stock.
Then there is the behind-the-scenes stuff. Collating statistics for the annual report, publishing the ‘Railway Safety Principles and Guidance' which have been adopted by railways in other parts of the world. And at the sharp end, there is the field force - currently around 30 strong - which carries out the inspections and investigations.
A new role since privatisation is liaison with the other railway regulators. Some of the Rail Regulator's activities have safety implications, while the work of the HMRI can affect railway operation, which can affect the Shadow Strategic Rail Authority.
Under the present Railways Act the Regulator has to have regard to advice from the HMRI when considering safety matters. As an example of this joint approach, Coleman instances the ORR's recently announced study on infrastructure maintenance, track quality and broken rails.
HMRI is jointly funding the study since it will cover issues that have been exercising Coleman's Department. ‘When it comes to maintenance our roles are complementary. We are concerned with safety and Tom (Winsor) is concerned with stewardship'.
Properly maintained track by definition will be safe. ‘As I said to Tom, “if they satisfy you, they are almost certain to satisfy me”'.
When the new Railways Act takes the Strategic Rail Authority out of the shadows the Authority will also have to have regard to safety and the advice of the HMRI. This was not the case with the Office of Passenger Rail Franchising and an opportunity to make the replacement of Mk 1 rolling stock a condition of the first franchising round was missed.
With the SRA set to have a wider and more hands-on role, the formal relationship with the HMRI is clearly going to be important, and this link is now being developed. Already the HMRI has got involved in the new franchise replacement programme. ‘We have been looking at some of the first franchising proposals, considering the safety implications and have already offered advice to the SSRA' says Coleman'.
While the ‘light touch' was criticised, Coleman reminds me that the HMRI still operates on two levels. There are issues which it can insist on by law and can be enforced ‘without question'. ‘But', he adds, ‘there's an awful lot of things that would certainly improve safety; that certainly would take you forward but which, because of the way costs and benefits fall, are probably things that we could not use our existing law to enforce'.
Thus the Chief Inspector believes he has a wider role in of railway safety . ‘I should be providing encouragement, I should be in a position of saying to people, “well even though this passes existing law, there are real benefits from going a little bit further”'.
For example, in new works today's regulations may literally be set in concrete for decades. ‘While we have the law today, the public expectation of what is acceptable in 20 or 30 years time is going to be different and railway investment is locked in for long periods'.
So when big holes in the ground or new rolling stock are being bought the HMRI tries to look over the horizon. The warning sign is the installation which just meets the current minimum requirements. If so, ‘it almost certainly isn't going to meet minimum requirements before long', warns Coleman.
There has been much critical comment regarding the HSE ‘takeover' of the traditional HMRI. Most recently, there has been the perceived dilution of the organisation's railway specialists by generalists from elsewhere in the HSE.
Since earlier this year, the Inspectorate has been attached (or ‘brigaded' in HSE speak) to the Field Operations Directorate (FOD), the largest directorate within the HSE. HMRI remains a unitary organisation and Coleman still reports to an HSE Board Member
FOD employs 1,700 people operating out of eight regions (not including HMRI). It regulates health and safety in most industries and handles most of the HSE's enforcement activities.
‘Brigading' among other things was intended to free the small HMRI team from ‘admin' tasks. For example, the HMRI now charges industry for its services and Coleman had to develop a charging system. Equally, with the HMRI expanding, the recruitment workload had increased. All at a time when railway safety issues had acquired the highest profile for years.
So, the ‘big justification' for the reorganisation is that Coleman and his team no longer have to run a quasi free-standing organisation. Management functions, including planning and budgeting, recruitment, even legal support, are now handled by the existing FOD admin structure.
FOD's professional support should also help catch up on acknowledged shortcomings within the HMRI. Coleman instances systems, where there had been a tendency to get the work done at the expense of ensuring that internal systems and documentation were up to date.
When the HMRI was relatively small systems were not so important, says Coleman. ‘We employed good and experienced people who would use their skill and experience to do what was necessary, to make the decision to write the letter, to record what they felt was necessary and move on'.
Vic Coleman describes it as a ‘collegiate world' in which a relatively small number of inspecting officers would discuss problems. The downside, was that if the inspectors could not agree on a solution, a problem could remain for years because there was no mechanism to force a decision. Worse, the larger the ‘college' the weaker it is and to cope with the privatised railway the HMRI had to grow.
Which is another reason for the emphasis on improving systems. ‘Once you move beyond a small group knowing all that people see and do, you have to rely much more on systems to disseminate information and policy' says Coleman.
But what about FOD Field Inspectors from other industries supplementing the HMRI staff, something which has been particularly criticised?
Coleman says that the Railway Inspectorate has known ‘for a long time' that it needs to introduce people of different backgrounds. Indeed, he was seconded from the HSE to the HMRI in 1990.
On his first day ‘I was shown a room full of statements from the Clapham Junction accident and told by the Chief Inspector “read those statements and see if there is a prosecution in it”'. There was, and BR was prosecuted.
Coleman was one of the first to transfer from HSE, but since then a number have followed, particularly where people had railway experience. He quotes the example of a nuclear engineer in HSE who during his engineering training had worked on IC125.
Such transfers bring people ‘with a whole raft of skills which Inspectors now need' into the Railway Inspectorate. ‘They need to know about the (railway) industry, but they also need to know how to apply the law, they need to know about health and safety management and issues generally'. Coleman emphasises that not every inspector has to have all these skills, but it does mean that HMRI can set up teams ‘in which everyone brings something to the party'.
That said, the HMRI relies ‘absolutely' for its railway understanding on experienced railway engineers and operators. But the Inspectorate also needs what Coleman calls ‘terriers', people who will ‘go and ferret around to see what really is happening'. ‘You don't need to be a railway engineer to go and do that. You need to have the techniques and you need to have the thick skinned personality'.
In the next few months another 20 inspectors will join the HMRI from within the HSE. With their background and experience they can be used almost immediately after some top up railway training, particularly if they have been around the construction industry.
In parallel, a recruiting drive for railway specialists is underway. All told, HMRI's current establishment is set to double to around 200 in 2002.
21 st Century Ford has been all about letting leading figures in the railway industry have their say, prompted, but not sniped at, by the interviewer. But it is hard to stay detached when we come to the subject that occupies the rest of the session and produces the noisiest tape of the series
Coleman and I have clashed regularly at safety seminars over my thesis that since its involvement with the HSE the HMRI has gone ‘soft', joining in the political hand wringing after major accidents rather than taking the professionally detached view that characterises aviation safety. While Coleman agrees that the HMRI should try to educate the public and provide information he is adamant that Government and government agencies should acknowledge and try to understand public concerns over rail safety.
On the HMRI's educational role he cites the Annual Reports ‘which have tried to see things in context'. The monthly SPAD reports, where I have been greatly impressed by the HMRI's web site, similarly contain ‘plenty about actions taken as well as concerns'.
But, Coleman emphasises, ‘it is the role of a regulator not to be too easily satisfied'. ‘Yes there are good things to be said, there are some good statistics, but equally within these figures there are things which are of concern. It would be odd, to say the least, if people didn't expect me to be concentrating most of my time on things that cause me the most concern'.
Coleman is away and running on a subject clearly close to his heart. ‘We have to acknowledge it (improvement)' he continues, ‘and our Annual Report does tend to do that and I think that our press conference on the Report did attempt to do that, but if you asked me “are you satisfied”, the answer is almost bound to be no'.
He takes me back to the statistics published on 12 August ‘in the summer of Ladbroke Grove'. The date comes straight out of memory.
Two major negative trends emerged then: one was an increase in SPADs of about 8% and the other an increase in broken rails of 21%. ‘All the press interviews concentrated on broken rails and obviously I wasn't happy with it because that was an appalling rise in a year. I don't think that that is hand wringing, that was presenting facts and a picture and, quite rightly, people focused on the one area that was going out of focus more rapidly than most'.
But shouldn't HMRI should try to reduce public expectations of railway safety which are disproportionate to those of other modes. This gets me a verbal kicking from Vic for suggesting that the reaction to Ladbroke Grove should be ‘worse things happen at sea'.
No, what I'm saying, and I'm sorry to keep intruding, is that one day there will be another catastrophic railway accident and that while catastrophic accidents in the air and on the roads really are just one of things railway accidents are seen as original sin and the industry suffers disproportionately.
At which point, Vic Coleman disarms me totally by pointing out that my Informed Sources rant about the Daily Telegraph's minimal coverage of a fatal coach accident is pinned up on the HMRI's notice board.
And while he can put railway safety into a multi-modal context he doesn't have responsibility for other modes. That comes together in the DETR, virtually at ministerial level. ‘I am not employed to draw those threads together and if I tried I would be outside my job description. It's not something I feel I could campaign on."
Coleman believes that the agenda for railway safety needs to be established ‘very clearly' and that ‘a lot more' needs to be done. Well, yes, and the agenda is being established by the current Inquiries into train protection and Part 2 of the Ladbroke Grove Rail Inquiry. Meanwhile the media tends to follow the Bereaved & Victims Groups agendas.
That gets Vic going again. ‘A balanced message will end up as being reported as unbalanced, that's the way of world. If I emphasise the positive messages I would be seen as an apologist'.
Does he get flak from the passengers safety lobbies?
‘Oh yes', he says with feeling, ‘”look at the relatively few prosecutions you bring”, they say, “why haven't you used your enforcement powers, why is there nobody being sent to prison, if you're so worried about it what are you doing about it, you said this was a problem last year, what have you done about it”'?
Overall, Coleman thinks that, ultimately, it will help the railway industry if the public sees the safety regulator as someone they can trust. But does the ‘public' really worry about rail safety? ‘Yes there is concern. The general impression is that railways are unsafe'.
You mean that the people in the WAGN Class 317 with me on the way to London were clutching their St Christopher medals in white knuckles? ‘No, but they are concerned, and HMRI has to be seen to be acting in the way that at least addresses public concern and clearly there is public concern. If it does not do that the HMRI will not deserve the respect of the public. Without this respect the public will believe that the whole system is false'.
‘We do have to make up lost ground, we do have to regain confidence because its not just the railway companies, the infrastructure companies and the TOCs that people have lost confidence in, I think they have lost confidence in regulatory structures, I think they've lost confidence in Government to some extent'
This urgent need for everybody in the industry to regain the confidence of the public is why HMRI has ‘stood back and taken stock, decided that there are lots of areas where we can and should do better and then got programmes in place with new people coming in to deal with those areas'.
Now, HMRI wants a more visible commitment to safety from the industry as a whole. ‘Let's have the industry acknowledging that there is an agenda, that things need to be done, rather than resisting change' Coleman says.
In his view there are too many people, whose first reaction to a proposal is to say “let's study it for a couple of years”, or “that's a good idea but it's not really effective”. ‘What we need to say is “this is a good idea, it needs to be done let's get on and do it”' I suspect he has the Mk 1 cup and cone saga in mind.
Coleman wants industry to ‘go with the grain of the regulatory regime and public opinion'. ‘Lets do some work to find ways of doing things, let's get this really positive', he declares with feeling.
He thinks that the key area where the industry has ‘let itself down' is in being ‘so convoluted and slow in coming to a decision and then delivering against it'. ‘We almost can't trust dates people give us and we don't really trust that they are going to deliver. I would be able to support the industry much, much better if it consistently delivered the commitments against the time frames which I had actually spelled out'.
Sorry, I have to come out from behind the tape recorder again. ‘Come, on', I say, ‘the HMRI is just as bad with its further studies on risk to passengers in the front coach of multiple units above 125mile/h'. Coleman is unrepentant. ‘We have a responsibility to ensure ourselves that the design meets the principles of safety. If industry does not provide the assurance we need then it is right that we commission further work. If industry provides suitable safety demonstrations then the process can proceed smoothly and much quicker."
HMRI became responsible for vehicle approval in 1994, when, according to the Chief Inspector, ‘it was known that there would need to be a good case made to justify passengers in the front coach above 125mile/h'. Virgin only got its franchises in the winter of 1996/1997.
Coleman is unbending. ‘HMRI made it quite clear at an early stage to Virgin that new train needed to meet safety criteria such as 3MJ energy absorption, no passengers in the front third of the leading coach and rearward facing seats. The actions remain with Virgin to provide the final agreements that these criteria have been met."
To Coleman all this shows a real problem in that issues were allowed to emerge much later in the day, rather than being properly anticipated and dealt with. Which is why HMRI is studying scalding risk as part of the pending Class 180 safety case.
At the start of the interview Coleman had told me that he believes that when it comes to safety the industry must build on the watershed effect of Ladbroke Grove. ‘What we have to guard against is losing this momentum'. The trouble is that in the privatised railway even the best intentioned of strategies can soon bog down in the all-pervading fine silt of regulatory and contractual detail.
Safety regulation has to cope with this too, which is why Vic Coleman could be the last in the long line of Chief Inspector's of Railways.Return to 21st Century Ford Archive.