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January 22, 2008

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Back on track – but the journey is not yet complete

Safety on Britain’s railways has improved, but there’s still some way to go to produce a network fit for the 21st century.

Speakers at the 2007 Rail Industry Conference held at the end of November emphasised the network’s improving safety record, but pointed out that it was no good sitting back and saying “haven’t we done well” when a whole host of challenges remains to get the railways ready for the future.

Boosting capacity

Gwyneth Dunwoody MP, the chair of the Transport Select Committee, said that the investment of the last decade had only “repaired” a system that had been left to decline, and that the key challenge now facing the industry is increasing capacity to cope with demand.

“Railways are fundamental to our development and they are capable of producing the high-class system of transport we desperately need. People are happy to use the railways, but the companies have to get the basics right and they have to ensure they have a high standard of health and safety.

“They must not assume that customers will continue to accept being pushed into overcrowded carriages. Even if we boost capacity, we still have to work out how to make passengers comfortable. They’ll want to pay for tickets using their mobile phones and to move at greater speed. That will provide us with new challenges.”

John Abbott, from the Rail Safety Standards Board (RSSB), said increasing the network’s capacity brought with it another challenge: ensuring the safety of the construction work needed to build a 21st-century railway.

He pointed out: “Rail safety has improved. We’ve invested in new technology and in the competence of the workforce. But workforce safety still remains a significant challenge for us. The railways will be used more intensively and that will expose workers to more risks, and that’s something we need to tackle.”

Willing workers

To be able to boost the capacity of the railways, however, you need more workers. Sometimes, as Naveed Qamar from First Group highlighted, you have to look beyond the UK for these additional workers.

Naveed took delegates through the recruitment process his company follows when recruiting new bus drivers from Eastern Europe, in particular Poland. He said the scheme had been so successful that they were now looking to roll it out to First’s rail operations.

Naveed said all workers were assessed on their language skills and driving abilities, and also received customer focus training. Of those assessed, 30-35 per cent failed the language test, with another 20 per cent failing the driving test. Workers then have to go through two interview stages and a further driving practical and theory test. They are next assigned to a local depot, where they receive further training on local ‘dialects’, and the company finds them accommodation in the area for a six-month period.

“We’ve brought 1428 workers from Poland to the UK as bus drivers so far, and the turnover is very low. There are a good set of skills among EU workers that need to be harnessed. And they are hard-working and loyal. They need a lot support and you have to be prepared to give that but they have good ethics, work safely, and follow instructions and training they’ve been given.”

Olympic challenge

With the Olympic and Paralympic Games in London now only four years away, it’s also clear that the UK’s transport system will need to be improved by the time the events get underway.

Mike Sinclair-Williams, an advisor on transport issues for London 2012, said as 18 million people are expected to visit the UK during the Games the pressure on the transport system will be immense. Having a robust rail network is therefore critical to ensuring the capital doesn’t grind to a halt.

He pointed out that work wasn’t just restricted to the Olympic Park site in east London. Major work is taking place to upgrade West Ham station, to improve the Docklands Light Railway, to provide a North London Line and Javelin service, and also to build an Olympic transport centre from which London’s transport issues will be controlled.

Mike added: “The Games give us a chance to make real change. We don’t want the Games to just be seen as a three or four-week event — we have to use the monies provided in the most sustainable way.”

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