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ORR warning over rail safety slowdown

Baildon landslip Network Rail track

Network Rail’s asset safety record has plateaued with ageing infrastructure leading to an increased failure risk, according to a report by the Office of Rail and Road (ORR).

In its annual report on Britain’s rail safety, the ORR found that improvement in health and safety on the railways has levelled off after several severe incidents in the past year, including the Croydon tram crash.

In addition some ageing Network Rail assets, particularly earthworks and structures, are at risk of failing in bad weather, leading to several landslip incidents during the year including a train derailment near Watford Junction.

Funding constraints have meant some upgrade works planned by Network Rail have been pushed back, leading to more human-led intervention and maintenance, which the ORR said should be “a last line of defence”.

“ORR will continue to push, and if necessary, enforce to secure improvements, particularly around assurance and competence in order to promote more reliable and sustainable risk control. The issue of deferred renewals will also need to be addressed in the years ahead to ensure the situation is not allowed to worsen,” said the report.

However, passenger safety on trains and at rail stations was at its best level for 10 years.

On top of challenges around maintaining asset safety, the ORR said it is updating its strategic risk advice in response to finding that some new assets did not have critical safety by design principles embedded. Safety by design is the process of controlling health and safety risks involved with infrastructure by designing them out early on.

The ORR also found that while track fault numbers had improved compared to Control Period 4, the rate of improvement has slowed. In an update to its rail improvement plan Network Rail said the UK has the best safety record of the 10 largest railways in Europe.

“Safety is at the heart of everything we do. As part of our Railway Upgrade Plan, we have a number of projects across the country renewing and enhancing the railway to improve its resilience, particularly against weather. Day to day, we have in-depth reporting systems for unsafe conditions or acts which could have resulted in an incident or accident. Through careful analysis guiding early intervention, we are able to prevent accidents before they occur,” said a spokesperson for Network Rail.

“Britain has the safest railway in Europe but there is still room for improvement. We are working closely with our industry partners to continually improve – we welcome today’s recommendations from our regulator which are all part of that process.”

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