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Conflict culture compromises rail safety, says Higgins

Reforming the fragmented and commercially driven structure of the UK rail industry is key to boosting safety on the network, said Network Rail chief executive Sir David Higgins last week.

Delivering the 2013 annual Capita Safety Lecture, Higgins added that only by encouraging a more transparent and collaborative approach in which the industry adopts honest and open attitudes to accident and near-miss reporting will a real step change in safety be achieved.

“There is a real passion for safety transformation on the railways,” he said. “But the UK network is the world’s fastest growing and most fragmented, with a commercial set up that encourages the industry to fight. Running this growing railway safely is a huge challenge.”

Higgins reflected on Network Rail’s decision last year to plead guilty to criminal charges following the 2005 death of two schoolgirls on a level crossing in Essex, despite being cleared by a 2007 investigation which recorded a verdict of accidental death.

“We had failings in our systems [around the management of level crossings],” he said, pointing out that a transparent and honest approach was the only way to drive progress in safety on the railways. “Pleading guilty was the only right thing to do. You simply have to be honest with yourself.”

Network Rail safety & sustainable development director Gareth Llewellyn agreed that the industry still had work to do when compared to other sectors such as the petrochemical industry, which has a more open approach to safety improvement.

“The implications of accidents go way beyond those directly involved,” he said. “Getting away from witch hunts is part of the safety cultural change journey that we are on.”

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