A SIX YEAR peak in construction worker deaths on UK railways is driving a Health & Safety Executive investigation into track safety.
Research by NCE has uncovered figures showing that five trackside workers have died on Railtrack sites in the last ten months - all in separate incidents. This represents the worst sequence since 1993 on the rail network. There were only six deaths in the previous five years.
The HSE said it has launched an investigation into whether contractors were given enough green zone working time - the safest working conditions, as no trains are allowed to pass close to track workers.
Deputy Chief Inspector of Railways Dr Bob Smallwood said: 'These figures are a cause for concern. It is not just a blip, it's a real phenomenon.
'There is pressure on the railways to minimise working time and we are looking to see if full opportunity is being taken to undertake work in a green condition. This means talking to Railtrack about scheduling and long term planning of work.'
Smallwood added that if green zone working was impossible then the HSE would like to see greater use of trackside warning devices.
Contractors said the increased use of subcontracted labour on the railways was a key factor in the rise in accidents. One contractor said: 'Rail units are buying in subcontracted labour from outside the industry who do not know the correct procedures.'
Another contractor claimed: 'The changing shape of the industry means that more work is being done by fewer people. There is pressure on people to become more multi-skilled and gangs are now responsible for more areas of track than before. This can mean people do not know their job or the track so well.'
However, these views were rejected by Colin Wheeler, from rail sector watchdog the Track Safety Strategy Group. He said: 'I would be very surprised if the fatality figures for subcontractors were any higher than those for main contractors.'
He suggested a more likely cause might be that contractors had shifted the focus of management effort on to quality issues and securing maintenance contracts, many of which are up for renewal.
The HSE was criticised by contractors for failing to raise safety awareness on a day to day basis at ground level.
Smallwood acknowledged the perception that the HSE is not as visible as it should be on rail sites, but claimed: 'We are trying hard to get the balance right between focusing on the systems of managers and sampling on the ground.'
A Railtrack spokesman said the network manager is due to introduce a new register and certification scheme for trackside workers in August in response to the rise in fatalities. The scheme should ensure that nobody can work on the track without being properly trained.
But he added that although there had been a rise in fatalities during the past two years, the annual average since 1994 was just two - the lowest in Europe.