Rail safety not defined by absence of accidents, says regulator

Iarnród Éireann must heed advice and ‘comply with the regulator’s directions’

Iarnród Éireann: According to the State-owned rail operator, a draft report by the regulator drew “conclusions that are unsubstantiated and often on the basis of individual opinion”. Photograph: Eric Luke

Iarnród Éireann: According to the State-owned rail operator, a draft report by the regulator drew “conclusions that are unsubstantiated and often on the basis of individual opinion”. Photograph: Eric Luke

 

Iarnród Éireann says it has one of the best safety records in Europe and has not had a passenger death in 25 years. However, on Wednesday it was castigated by the railway regulator over its attitude to safety.

The row puzzles many. However, the reason may may lie deep in the Commission for Railway Regulation’s annual report, which states simply that safety cannot be defined by an absence of accidents.

Rather, regulator Gerald Beesley follows the path laid by the 1987 King’s Cross underground fire inquiry, which ruled that safety results from management and staff identifying hazards and then doing something about them.

In a letter to the chairman of Iarnród Éireann, Phil Gaffney, in June 2015 , Beesley said he was not questioning the commitment to safety held by the board and senior management of the State-owned rail operator.

However, he said in the industry’s new regulatory environment, they had to show that commitment in the application of the various safety management guidelines and regulations.

In particular, Beesley told Minister for Transport Shane Ross last November the company had to understand its obligation to heed the advice and comply with the regulator’s directions.

However, Iarnród Éireann’s board’s minutes reflect a different reality, with members displaying frustration with the regulator, who they believed was acting disproportionately to the level of risk.

Stinging criticism

The conflicting positions erupted in public on Wednesday with the publication of the regulator’s stinging criticism of Iarnród Éireann management in his annual report for 2015, complaining that relations had deteriorated from 2015.

Meanwhile, internal correspondence seen by The Irish Times suggests the company was very unhappy in January 2015 with a draft report by the regulator into strategic safety management in the company.

The draft contained some positive elements, but they were “overshadowed by the overly negative” tone: “The report draws conclusions that are unsubstantiated and often on the basis of individual opinion.”

Meanwhile, Iarnród Éireann argued that the report contained inaccuracies and contradictions, and it questioned the basis for a claim by the regulator that “near misses” are not reported because staff are fearful of repercussions.

Talks between the regulator’s office and Iarnród Éireann in April 2015 appeared to go well, but plummeted later when the company discovered that Beesley had sent a note on the meeting to the Department of Transport.

The board minutes record Gaffney complaining that he did not understand why the regulator did not “act in a manner which is proportionate to risks”.

Factual errors in a regulator’s audit were not acceptable, while the minutes noted that Iarnród Éireann’s chief executive, David Franks, had been trying to arrange a meeting to improve the situation.

Another bone of contention was organisational changes planned within Iarnród Éireann, about which the regulator was unhappy that he had not been informed.

In a letter to Gaffney at the end of June, Beesley said successful co-operation in the past had been built on early engagement and open and transparent declarations by Iarnród Éireann of its intentions.

“It should not be necessary for the regulator to ‘extract’ information from any railway organisation,” he wrote, “and it is therefore prudent that the former modus operandi be restored.”

Safety expectations

In mid-August 2015, a senior regulator official wrote to Franks regarding strategic safety management systems, saying the State and the public have an expectation that “its operations are being managed safely”.

“The board must be assured that its management teams is doing, at a minimum, what the law requires, and that its safety management systems are being applied, complied with and are effective in the control of risk,” it went on.

The Commission on Rail Regulation called it worrying that directors with a specific responsibility for safety had not been replaced, and, also, that “the relevant professional heads of safety” no longer attended board meetings.

On Wednesday, however, the Minister said a new programme of actions had been agreed between the company and the regulator in a bid to deal with the concerns raised.

While the regulator had raised strong concerns about certain safety governance matters, Ross said these were of a long-term strategic nature, and that there were no immediate risks to safety.

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