The railway regulator brought concerns over Irish Rail's response to safety management issues to the Department of Transport after its already "strained" relationship with the company deteriorated further early last year.
Details of the engagement between the Commission for Railway Regulation (CRR) and Iarnród Éireann are contained in the regulator’s annual report for 2016, just published.
The regulator said that early in 2015, it had become clear the company was “adopting a noticeably different approach to safety regulation, and the working relationship between IÉ and the CRR was strained throughout that year”.
The report said interaction between the two parties did not improve during the first few months of last year and that matters, in the opinion of the regulator, “deteriorated further”.
"In light of the continuing strained relationship, and the absence of a positive change in IÉ's attitude towards the regulator, the CRR brought its concerns to the attention of officials in the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport (DTTaS) in April 2016, emphasising the requirement for a paradigm shift in IÉ's attitude to safety regulation," it added.
‘Strategic safety implications’
It said that overall it was concerned that “there could, over time, be strategic safety implications for the future” if the trends it had observed continued.
However, the regulator said it had discerned a commitment by the board “to turn things around and to progress in the direction that the CRR sees as appropriate” and there was now an “ongoing and constructive dialogue”.
The regulator said it kept Minister for Transport Shane Ross apprised of the situation, and that he had requested quarterly updates this year.
The CRR is the national safety authority for the railway sector in the Republic.
Iarnród Éireann is the infrastructure manager and is responsible for an operational network of 1,700 route kilometres and 135 route kilometres of non-operational lines.
Four railway undertakings operate on the network, but Irish Rail accounts for more than three quarters of the regulator's activities.
Iarnród Éireann said that during 2016 and 2017, it had engaged with the regulator and agreed a joint programme of actions, including revised reporting and governance arrangements between the two bodies.
“The board and management of Iarnród Éireann are committed to fulfilling this programme of actions and to working with the CRR to ensure the highest standards of safety are achieved within Iarnród Éireann for customers, employees and third parties,” a spokesman said.
It said comparative statistics showed Iarnród Éireann was one of the safest railway companies in Europe.
“Despite these encouraging statistics, the company is ever-conscious that complacency has no place within safety culture, and is continuously striving to improve its safety record. Iarnród Éireann has a strong record in safety management and has been working tirelessly during the recent years of constrained funding in particular to ensure best practices are applied. Safety is the number one priority across all levels of organisation.”
Incidents on the Irish Rail network last year included four fatalities. The regulator said there were several other incidents that “under slightly different conditions” could have had more serious consequences.
These included a person being struck by a train at an overbridge in Newbridge, a person being hit by a train in Killiney, and a contractor cutting into a live 650v cable at Birdhill in Limerick.
In relation to Luas, the Dublin light railway service which is operated by Transdev, the regulator said the response to last year's industrial dispute, in terms of safety management, "should have been stronger".
Transdev notified 26 incidents to the regulator. Of these, 14 related to road traffic collisions with vehicles, two to “contact” with cyclists and two contacts with pedestrians.