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March 4, 2010

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Rail regulator concerned about Network Rail maintenance plans

Network Rail has been criticised by the industry watchdog over safety aspects of its maintenance restructuring plans.

As part of its detailed scrutiny of Network Rail’s plans the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) has identified a number of safety concerns, including the lack of staff guidance in place and inadequate employee engagement, and has told the company to take urgent action to address these and other issues.

ORR chief executive Bill Emery said: “We fully support the changes proposed in Network Rail’s maintenance restructuring plans, which aim to improve efficiency as well as sustain improvements in its safety record. However, our extensive review of the company’s proposals led to a number of concerns about the way it plans to implement the changes.”

In a letter to the company, Mr Emery highlights the ORR’s main areas of concern:

  • There has not yet been effective employee engagement, and critical guidance is not yet available;
  • How will safety-critical working hours for section managers be controlled when support is proposed to be reduced;
  • Classifying vital safety roles and tasks as ‘non-productive’ risks local managers cutting back on site lookouts and safety briefings; and
  • Differing employment practices between sub-contracted labourers and direct employees could mean failure by the former to meet health and safety requirements.

The regulator warned Network Rail that it will have “no hesitation in taking immediate action if safety to passengers or employees is put at risk” and urged the company to “resolve all identified issues before it commits to implementing this maintenance restructuring”.

In a press response issued by Network Rail, the company highlighted the ORR’s support of its proposed changes, emphasising that the regulator’s audit had found the principles of those changes to be “sound and appropriate”. In a letter to Bill Emery, Network Rail chief executive Ian Coucher explained how the company is addressing the issues raised by the ORR, assuring him that “we would not ask our people to do anything that they were not trained and competent to do”.

Acknowledging the worries over the hours worked by section managers, Coucher said additional monitoring and controls have been introduced on the working hours of section managers and supervisors, as well as other improvements designed to provide greater clarity on their core roles.

On the issue of non-productive time, Coucher said this would require a “behavioural shift”, which is something “we want, and which also improves safety”. Regarding sub-contracted labour, Network Rail said it has already set up a safety group comprising the safety directors of all its contingent labour suppliers and which is chaired by the company’s maintenance head of safety and compliance.

Said Coucher: “We recognise that there is still work to do but we believe that we have the foundations in place to develop the solutions we need.”

IOSH said that while the changes planned by Network Rail were hugely important to improve performance and sustain Network Rail’s safety record, those changes need to be managed very carefully.

Added president John Holden: “It’s absolutely vital that any possible weaknesses in the implementation of the new programme should be highlighted and challenged, so we wholeheartedly support the ORR in raising its concerns over the health and safety implications of the changes.

“Thorough testing of the proposed changes, providing proper staff guidance, getting the right technology in place, making sure staff are given the opportunity to perform their duties effectively in a safe environment – these are all essential ingredients for a rail service that takes the safety of its workers and the travelling public absolutely seriously.”

In the wake of the ORR’s safety concerns, the RMT union called for an immediate halt to Network Rail’s plan to cut 1500 safety-critical rail-maintenance jobs, on which it is currently balloting 12,000 track staff for strike action.

Said general secretary, Bob Crow: “Coming from the ORR this is nothing short of condemnation of Network Rail’s dangerous cost-cutting plans. RMT has said from the start that Network Rail’s plans, which include the sacking of 1500 front-line maintenance workers, can only undermine rail safety, with lethal consequences, and this news completely justifies the union’s decision to ballot members for strike action to defend rail safety and their jobs.”

Network Rail condemned the ballot, saying: “Union leaders who defend out-dated work practices from the 1950s are standing in the way of progress. This is the digital age, not the steam age, and we need to change so we can deliver the railway Britain needs in the 21st century.”


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