The railway branch of the Health & Safety Executive HM Railway Inspectorate came into being in 1840, 'in the middle of the very first rail mania', says HMRI deputy chief inspector Alan Cooksie.
Its job was to inspect all new railways including trams and trolley buses. But in the early days its powers extended no further than inspections. Its first formal inquiry followed the Tay Bridge disaster in1879.
Over the next century it passed through the Board of Trade and Department of Transport until it was transferred across to the HSE in 1990.
HMRI currently has around 100 staff of which around 50% are inspectors. But the current boom in rail work means that HMRI needs to expand rapidly. It is currently seeking 12 approvals inspectors, five field inspectors and five administrative staff.
It is split into three divisions. Cooksie's division RI1 deals with technical issues such as design approvals and standards. RI2, headed up by Marie Power, carries out research and safety case acceptance. Bob Smallwood leads RI3, which deals with field enforcement and accident investigation. Chief inspector Vic Coleman heads up the entire HMRI.
Though his department is involved in setting standards Cooksie says the bulk of its work is the approval of new and altered railway equipment.
'Any alteration that can materially affect safety needs approval,' he says. 'Currently we have a lot of major works with a high level of new technology. That takes time. Providing proof of safety of new systems is not easy.'
Surprisingly Cooksie says HMRI is not responsible for safety. 'That is with the railway,' he says. 'We are merely the watchdogs. The approvals process is to make sure the responsibility is taken by the railway and to make sure they have finished properly.'