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Safe on Rail

Published: 01st Apr 2004


Safety on railways is only achieved by a combined effort - the asset owner and employers provide the recognised safe systems for work with Rules for workers, signalmen and train drivers that are designed to protect the track worker.

Real people protected by processes and technology.

You can't just sign on for a job with an employer and expect to start work on the UK railway within hours. We expect employers to be serious about safety so there are many checks to be done before a company can trade on the railway and before its staff set foot on the line.

The workers themselves must be qualified and equipped to modern standards.

This article will highlight some of the range of protection that is insisted upon, and why we put so much effort into safety.

What's special about rail?

If we are talking about work on the UK tracks, we are talking of work being done on behalf of a single asset owner - now called Network Rail. This is the private company, limited by guarantee, which took over Railtrack's responsibilities. Railtrack, as readers may know, was the privatised company that took control of the railway infrastructure assets from the former (government-run) British Rail.

I labour this point because the former British Rail had been making considerable strides over the 10 years prior to privatisation to improve the safety for passengers and the safety of track workers. There had been a series of very bad train crashes in earlier years, and there had been many worker deaths. Success in reducing track worker deaths was measured in the number of days between fatal staff accidents, not in how many fatal accidents there were each year. In some years the number was more than 365 days, but sadly, there were many years when there were several deaths per year.

In order to maintain the gains made prior to privatisation, the Government and the UK Health & Safety Executive made Regulations to make sure that both passengers and workers would be protected by safety management systems described in 'Safety Cases'.

The public sector rail industry was, at the time, the direct employer of 30,000 staff involved in work on the infrastructure. It did have some experience of managing contractors for discreet projects and renewals work, but the vast majority of staff were employed within the British Rail organisation. Privatisation changed this employment pattern dramatically, so that almost all those staff transferred to 13 private sector Contractor companies, with (perhaps) 500 contract managers being retained within Railtrack to make sure that the right work was done to keep the railway infrastructure maintained.

This change made the 13 Contractor companies responsible as the employers, but they were all obliged, under law, to adopt the former railway Rules and Standards, and to document their safety management systems, for scrutiny and acceptance by Railtrack (now called Network Rail).

Up-to-date readers will know that track maintenance staff will now become employed by Network Rail instead of the Contractor companies, so the organisation arrangements have come full circle in the 10 years since privatisation. Whilst this may seem bad, organisational changes happen all the time in the rail industry - as in other industries, too. The important thing is that safety practices are consistently maintained for the workforce. So how is that done?

Work on UK rail infrastructure Network Rail

As mentioned already, Network Rail is the custodian of track safety - it is their asset and they are responsible for its maintenance. They also carry some responsibility for the staff who work on their premises and on their assets - both for workmanship and for the heath, safety and welfare of the staff - and need to manage many of these responsibilities through contracts.

For staff who work on infrastructure maintenance, such as on track, signalling and overhead line, there are company procedures that reflect the best practice developed over many years, and which are carried through to today's operations. Management methods include all of the requirements of UK law, and include the result of risk assessments for the full range of work that staff might be asked to do.

Track work procedures, in particular, are based on the industry Rule Book (more of this, later) and these provide protection to make sure that staff are not injured by trains, and also to make sure that trains can run freely without being delayed by track work (except under pre-planned conditions).

Other employers

Where Network Rail wants another company to do the work, that Contractor company is required to observe Network Rail's procedures and Rule Book. The Contractor is required to go through a process to qualify them as a supplier to Network Rail, and this is intended to provide the necessary confidence to Network Rail that the Contractor company is committed and capable of working to these safety standards.

Qualifying the Contractor

At the heart of the qualification process, the Contractor is required to provide a comprehensive document called a "Contractor's Assurance Case".

This "Case" describes that company's quality, safety and environmental policies and procedures, and especially their competence management system for track working staff. The concept is that any company wishing to trade with Network Rail must become registered - an organisation called Achilles Link-Up manages this part of the process. The company chooses the classification for his type of supply, and fills in a questionnaire for assessment. If the scope of supply includes high-risk activities, such as working on the railway, then the Contractor Assurance Case must also be written. If successful, the company may be offered orders for work, and will be subject to audit against his Contractor's Assurance Case.

Network Rail Recruit Cosalt: Ballyclare

Network Rail has recruited Cosalt: Ballyclare to supply all 15,000 personnel with personal protective equipment (PPE), ad-hoc safety garments and a laundry service over the next nine months.

Each worker will receive a 'Man Pack' which includes Gore-Tex® all-weather jackets and trousers, and a combination of everyday items from boiler suits, jacket, trousers, bib and braces, vests, polo shirts, body warmers, fleeces, helmets and a hold-all bag. Welders will also be given a range of flame-retardant products.

Tony McGovern, Business Director for the Rail Division at Cosalt: Ballyclare, said, "This is a fantastic gain for the company which ultimately cements our market position as the leading supplier of PPE and work wear to the rail industry. "All items in the 'Man Pack' either existed or have been designed specifically for Network Rail. We have on hand a full catalogue of recognised rail products and a laundry service which will ultimately support the worker in any situation. "The relationship between the two companies is extremely strong and we fully expect a seamless rollout of products and services."

For further details please call +44 (0) 1942 898 800 or visit

The Rule Book and track safety

The Rules

It is inherent in all of the above that everyone works to the same procedures and rules, in order that people use the same words for the same things, and similar levels of competence are applied for the same types of work.

The UK railway Rule Book has been in continuous development since railways began, with new rules being written in order to make sure that particular types of accidents are not repeated. In recent times, British Rail and its successors were much more pro-active, and developed new Rules before accidents occurred. The latest version of the Rule Book has been presented in a modern style, with great efforts to ensure clarity and ease of understanding, and this Rule Book has been awarded Crystal Marks from the Plain English Campaign.

The Rule Book includes rules to be observed for your own personal safety, and includes the rules and procedures for staff taking "possession" of the line (and thereby making sure that trains will not injure staff working on that piece of line). The Rule Book also includes rules for operating trains and signals so that trains run safely when the railway is operating normally, but also when trains are delayed or when there are incidents or accidents.

Personal track safety

Clearly, it is important that staff working on the line know the relevant rules for their own safety, so it is mandatory that these staff attend a 2-day Personal Track Safety (PTS) training course and must pass the examination. The resulting certificate must be available at all times when staff are on track and is valid for two years. After this a 1-day refresher course must be attended and, after an examination, a new certificate is issued.

Rail work demands adequate personal fitness and standards of hearing and eyesight, so a formal medical examination is a prerequisite for the PTS training. People with colour blindness cannot be employed in certain jobs - especially those where the colour of a railway signal needs to be checked, or even for electricians where cables or idents are colour coded.

When a PTS card (certificate) is issued, the person's employer (his sponsor) must ensure that the person is registered on a national database of rail training competences, for the competence standard he has achieved, the date of expiry of his certificate, and the date of his medical.

The database is managed by NCCA-Sentinel, and provides on-line facilities to individual cardholders, employers and approved auditors. Access can now be made from site using card-readers or 24-hour call-centre lines so that sub-contractor staff can be checked at the pre-work site briefing. If staff are found to have competencies that are expired, they can be sent home before work starts, thus ensuring the safety of the rest of the work-group. On visits to worksites, Inspectors and Auditors regularly interrogate this database, which also contains records for many other rail competencies and for all track staff whether employed by Network Rail or Contractors. This helps to ensure compliance with the mandatory standards, and makes sure that untrained casual labour is not employed on dangerous work.

Higher qualifications

The PTS standard is suitable for individual staff who will be working in groups under the supervision of a leader, but the leader himself is required to hold competences that permit him to be in charge of a group, and allow him to set up safe systems of work and safe work-sites. These competences are the subject of formally defined training programmes, and supervision and mentoring, and are also registered on the NCCA-Sentinel database.

Training provision

As might be expected with a requirement for over 10,000 staff to be competent with rail skills, there is a busy industry of training providers. As you will no doubt guess, these too are fully scrutinised and subject to Network Rail audit processes, in order to make sure that standards are upheld. They also work from standard training materials prepared and authorised by Network Rail, and delivered via internet channels. Following a successful audit (and supplier qualification, as described earlier) the companies are listed on the NCCASentinel database. People or companies who want to procure rail safety training in the UK now only have to log-on to and a full list of training providers is available, and this can be searched for specific types of course or for training providers in a particular area.

Track safety arrangements

Work on the track

It has been normal for many years to allow staff to work on the track, without stopping the trains. It was a familiar site to see maintenance staff standing to one side when an express train came, and then go back to work after the train had gone past. They would be interrupted again perhaps half an hour later when the next train came.

Protection was provided by people posted as 'Lookouts'. Their task was to raise the alarm by blowing a horn and waving a lookout's flag when a train was coming. When the track staff heard the alarm, they would acknowledge the warning, stop working, and move away to a place of safety (taking their tools with them). This method was permitted where the staff would be clear of the line and in the 'place of safety' at least 20 seconds before the passage of the train.

If the work was noisy (for example, when using powered hammers), or in a noisy place, or in high winds, the lookout was required to touch the staff to ensure they were aware of the warning.

If the work was done on a curve so that the lookout could not see the approach of the train (with at least 30 seconds notice), then the rules required an 'advance lookout'. His job was to blow his horn and wave his flag when he saw a train coming, thus providing sufficient time for the 'site lookout' to do his job and for all the staff to get clear of the line.

Over the years this practice, which is now known as 'Red Zone' working, has been a flexible and effective way of getting small pieces of maintenance work done. But, there have been accidents, due to loss of concentration (the lookout job requires hours of time spent standing in the same place, often in terrible weather conditions), and through staff problems when moving themselves or their tools in time to the place of safety. This practice is not now the favoured method of working because the risks of staff injury are so much higher than they were.

In modern times, the number of trains and the speed of trains has increased so much that in many places there is so little time between trains that track maintenance gangs cannot do much useful work. So new methods of staff protection have been introduced with the creation of 'Green Zones', meaning that trains are stopped if staff are still on the track.

Now the leader of the work-group acts as a Controller of Site Safety and arranges a short duration 'possession of the track'. This is done by telephoning the signalman and agreeing a start and finish time so that the work can be done without delaying trains. Forms are filled in and serial numbers issued so that the arrangements are formalised. Then the signalman places the signals to red, in order to provide protection to the work-group. After the work is completed, the leader telephones the signaller to hand back the track, the signaller turns the signals to green, and the train passes the work site. If the work is completed on time no delays occur. If it is finished late the train will be delayed but the staff remain safe.

Clearly, this new arrangement is much safer than the previous method, but it is only suitable for simple repairs. Planning is still essential, and pre-booking these possessions is required. For major pieces of work, involving large pieces of plant on site, the planning of the work and the safety arrangements is started more than six months in advance. This is so that train timetables can be adjusted to provide a big enough gap between trains for the work to be done. Many large work projects can be carried out within 16 hours (often done in two shifts on a Sunday) but often it is necessary to shut the railway with an engineer's 'possession' for 36 or 52 hours.

Personal Protective Equipment


The safety rules above rely on staff being aware of the hazards on the railway, and being vigilant. And yet their work is outdoors in all types of weather: rain and sleet demand full waterproofs; night working, or cold and windy weather, demand wind resistant and warm layers. In summer, high temperatures mean that lightweight and flexible clothing is needed.

Waterproof clothing needs to allow exertion and physical work to be done, so breathable materials that allow moisture to evaporate are important. There are many materials that are successful this way, but they also need to be capable of easy cleaning - many staff work with oily equipment that needs to be carried to site or off-loaded from lorries and vans.

Working outdoors in summer brings different problems, as for any industry. Protection from sun damage is often low on worker priorities so many want to work without shirts - but still wearing the minimum size of high-visibility. Also, many want to wear shorts, despite the hazards of scratches and cuts from brambles and other trackside plants. Standards require workers to wear at least a high-visibility vest (see below), but apart from this, employers have freedom to manage Personal Protective clothing in their own way.

Recently, standards have been published that require track staff to wear safety boots with metal insoles (to protect against piercing through the sole), and hard hats, and for company names to be printed on the back of high-visibility vests and jackets. This has been the general practice for a long time with many employers, but the boots and hats standards are meeting with some staff resistance because, they claim, the boots or hats are not suitable for the work or are just plain uncomfortable to wear for the jobs some people do. This may be old-fashioned rumour, but if it is genuine, there is scope for the supply industry to offer products that are more acceptable to staff.

High visibility

Whilst employers have some freedom to choose what clothing is provided to staff, there is a mandatory requirement that any High Visibility clothing worn by staff working on track must have Class 2 area of high visibility material (or for certain staff Class 1 is permitted), and it must be in a specified shade of orange to BS EN 471 (1994) - see Table 1.

This common background orange colour is therefore recognisable by train drivers, and they instantly associate it with staff working on or near the line. Drivers blow their train horn when they see staff on the track, and the staff acknowledge. If the staff do not acknowledge, the driver will keep blowing the horn until they do, therefore avoiding staff stepping out into the path of the train if they are not aware it is coming.

The orange colour on its own is not enough in conditions of poor visibility or at night, so retroreflective stripes are also required. These pick up some ambient light but are also picked out by the headlights on trains, so that the driver can see staff working in these poor light conditions.

The retroreflective stripes - to BS EN 471 Clause 4.2.3 - must be configured in 'belt and braces' style in order to reflect as best as possible when the worker is sideways on or facing in any direction, and also when bent over while working.

Retroreflective stripes on trousers have been subject to more freedom. The stripes are applied as hoops, but many designs have the hoops at ankle level, which cannot be seen if the worker tucks the trousers into long boots. Hoops positioned above the knee and below the top-coat level seem to be most versatile.


This article shows that, for the protection of staff from injury on the railway, there are defined systems, procedures, and personal protective clothing for employers and workers to observe, wherever they work on the UK national rail network. These reflect the best practice that has been developed over many years, and include experience from within the UK, Europe and elsewhere.

David Greenway, Director RISC Ltd, Railway and Industrial Safety Consultants, Harlyn House, 3 Doveridge Road, Stapenhill, Burton on Trent, DE15 9GB, UK Tel: +44 (0) 1283 515126 . Email Web

Published: 01st Apr 2004 in Health and Safety International

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