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Rail regulator criticises Network Rail's safety culture

The Office of Rail Regulation has today hit out at weaknesses in Network Rail’s safety culture, criticising the “slow pace” of necessary safety improvements.

The regulator’s Network Rail monitor and annual assessment 2010/11 provides an overview of Network Rail’s performance over the past year. This year’s assessment said that weaknesses in Network Rail’s safety culture have been recognised including the exposure of flawed injury reporting.

It adds that the ORR is often frustrated by the slow pace of necessary safety improvements, and notes that a number of enforcement notices followed failure to make timely progress.

Last year the ORR issued 14 enforcement notices on Network Rail and a further 19 on its contractors to address safety risks. The report highlights a significant problem of under-reporting of accidents and a “climate of fear” towards reporting accidents in the supply chain.

“We are concerned about the robustness of Network Rail’s own assurance processes because these frequently fail to identify health and safety risks found by our inspections,” it says. “This year we uncovered significant under-reporting of injuries; an investigation by the Railway Safety and Standards Board found under-reporting resulted from perverse incentives and a weakness in safety culture.

Network Rail has already taken steps to address this and reported rates of worker injuries have risen consequently, it adds. But it warns that tackling under-reporting in the supply chain is a slower process.

“Reversing the underlying climate of fear and the incentives created in some contracting arrangements will take some time to be fully effective,” it continues, adding that there was a fatal accident to a Network Rail contractor in the year.

Overall performance

Overall Network Rail has made progress over the past year, it said, including successfully delivering a number of major rail projects. However some performance setbacks mean that the company has big challenges ahead, says the report.

Progress includes the successful delivery of project milestones including the completion of the Airdrie-Bathgate line and important progress on King’s Cross and Reading stations. The company has also developed improved plans for managing its assets, which the regulator now needs to see being effectively delivered.

But in addition to failures over safety, the regulator also noted setbacks in operational performance and Network Rail’s efficiency drive.

Network Rail missed many of its targets for the year including for delays and punctuality, the report says. The ORR has determined that exceptionally severe winter conditions were a major factor, and the company has admitted that despite its efforts it could have performed better. In addition, a recent upward trend in delays is concerning and the regulator has required Network Rail to submit plans for improvement, including how it will better cope with winter weather conditions in the future. Network Rail also breached its licence for poor implementation of its new integrated train planning system for which the regulator imposed a financial penalty as a strong incentive to consider better the interests of customers.

On efficiency, the report says that while Network Rail is on target for delivering maintenance and operating cost efficiencies, the regulator cannot confirm the overall position as there are “still questions” about its assessment of renewals efficiency “which need to be answered”.

“Network Rail made good progress in some important areas last year - delivering improvements to many railway stations and lines across the country. However, we have also seen performance setbacks and failures which mean that Network Rail faces big challenges if it is to meet the increasingly demanding targets it is funded to achieve,” said ORR chief executive Bill Emery.

“Network Rail missed the majority of its operational performance objectives for areas like punctuality, and it quickly needs to take steps to improve its safety culture. We want to see Network Rail learn quickly from its problems and to focus on improving performance that matters most to passengers.

“With targets getting increasingly tough year-on-year, ORR is pressing Network Rail not to fall off the pace of all its regulatory commitments - and to act now,” he said.

 

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