Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

Passing the Buck - Poor industrial relations lay at the heart of the Grayrigg rail crash

Last week, Network Rail and Virgin published the findings of their inquiry into the tragic Grayrigg derailment in February. The report was troubling to read. It revealed a cascade of failures which investigators say was directly responsible for the tragedy, which resulted in the death of 84-year-old Margaret Masson and injuries to 22 others.
According to the report, passing trains had shaken loose the nuts and bolts holding three stretcher bars in place at the Lambrigg 2b points, where the accident occured. Stretcher bars are used to keep the points at a fixed distance apart, so if they fail or become detached, derailments is almost inevitable.

None of the three stretcher bars on the Lambrigg 2b points were correctly in place. As a result the “switch” rail, which guided trains onto tracks alongside, was able to move freely. By the time the 17:15 Euston to Glasgow train reached Lambrigg on 23 February, the switch rail had moved, and the train’s wheels struck the loose rail.

The train derailed immediately, leaving the carriages sprawled across an embankment, like the train-set of a spoiled child.

Yet, to have been an efficient inspection regime would, Network Rail claims, have discovered that the stretcher bars were loose – one was even missing entirely as it had been hit by a previous train and shunted into the undergrowth.

Unfortunately, the report shows that such an efficient inspection regime was not in place. It also points out that attempts to get an efficient regime together were hampered by the fact that there was animosity between patrollers who checked the track, and their supervisors. This lead to a lax approach to patrol regimes, which ought to have been rigidly policed.

On the day of the last inspection, on the morning of Sunday 18 February, the patroller actually completed a little over half of the area he should have covered. The damaged points were left unchecked.
Without question, Network Rail should be applauded for pulling no punches in its frank and open appraisal. Subsequent reports by the Office of Rail Regulation and British Transport Police will reveal, respectively, whether charges will be brought as a result of the crash.

Most damaging is the notion that animosity between the patrollers and supervisors was a key obstruction to safe inspection procedure. This could have its roots in long-standing industrial relations problems facing the rail industry.

NCE spoke to Mott McDonald transportation director, Richard Williams, who has experience of the industry: “Ownership of this accident is not as simple as one worker missing his beat,” he says. Poor relations between patrollers and supervisors are more likely to occur in a nationalised businesses, where unionisation can take deeper root. London Underground is a good example of this.

“But, it is disgraceful that a person was allowed to leave early and not complete his inspection. This is not to just ‘knock-the-worker’ – he is also a victim. Network Rail allowed the poor industrial relations to develop. Someone has failed, but so has the system to catch that failure,” he says.

Williams has first-hand experience of investigating systemic failures, as he was involved in the aftermath of the Clapham rail disaster in 1988. He says that there is simply no room for an “us and them” culture in a safety system, and who can argue? Safety must be a top priority for all staff.

That Network Rail chief executive Iain Coucher is only “fairly certain” that such work practices are not at work elsewhere in the country is as much because of the complexity of the maintenance and inspection system. There has to be a degree of trust, and we all have to hope that this dreadful accident woke both sides to realising this.

In May, rail union the RMT was condemned Network Rail after it suspended bonuses for inspection workers in Cumbria, while the Grayrigg debacle was picked-through. What better way to preserve an “us and them” culture?

Both sides need to start again, and put safety and excellence of the railway first. While Network Rail has advanced light years from the dismal days of Railtrack, it still has plenty of work to do.

The ideas set out in the government’s rail White Paper show a vision of a world-class network. Let’s hope Network Rail can convince its workforce to get behind it and give us the world-class railway we all expect.

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions. Please note comments made online may also be published in the print edition of New Civil Engineer. Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.