At around 11:22 hrs on 5 October 2017, a group of track workers narrowly avoided being struck by a train close to Egmanton level crossing, between Newark North Gate and Retford on the East Coast Main Line. A high speed passenger train was approaching the level crossing on the Down Main line at the maximum permitted line speed of 125 mph (201 km/h), when the driver saw a group of track workers in the distance. He sounded the train’s warning horn, but saw no response from the group. A few seconds later the driver gave a series of short blasts on the train horn as it approached, and passed, the track workers.
The track workers became aware of the train about three seconds before it reached them. One of the group shouted a warning to three others who were between the running rails of the Down Main line. These three workers cleared the track about one second before the train passed them. During this time the driver had continued to sound the horn and made an emergency brake application before the train passed the point where the group had been working, thinking his train might strike one or more of them. The train subsequently came to a stand around 0.75 miles (1.2 km) after passing the site of work.
The immediate cause of the near miss was that the track workers did not move to a position of safety as the train approached. The group had been working under an unsafe and unofficial system of work, set up by the Person in Charge (PiC). Instead of adhering to the correct method of using the Train Operated Warning System (TOWS) by moving his team to, and remaining in, a position of safety while TOWS was warning of an approaching train, the PiC used the audible warning as a cue for the lookout to start looking out for approaching trains in order to maximise the working time of the group on the track. This unsafe system of work broke down when both the lookout and the PiC became distracted and forgot about the TOWS warning them of the approaching train.
Although the PiC was qualified, experienced and was deemed competent by his employer, neither his training nor reassessments had instilled in him an adequate regard for safety and the importance of following the rules and procedures. Additionally, none of the team involved challenged the unsafe system of work that was in place at the time. Even though some were uncomfortable with it, they feared they might lose the work as contractors if they challenged the PiC.
As a result of its investigation the RAIB has made three recommendations. These relate to:
- strengthening safety leadership behaviour on site and reducing the occurrences of potentially dangerous rule breaking by those responsible for setting up and maintaining safe systems of work
- mitigating the potentially adverse effect that client-contractor relationships can have on the integrity of the Worksafe procedure such that contractors’ staff feel unable to challenge unsafe systems of work for fear of losing work
- clarifying to staff how the Train Operated Warning System (TOWS) should be used
The findings of this investigation have also reinforced the importance of railway staff understanding their safety briefings, and challenging any system of work that they believe to be unsafe.