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Managing safety

When you have new technologies, such as the pioneering battery-operated trams in the UK’s West Midlands, who should be responsible for their safety approval? M. Davis / CC-BY 2.0

Safety. Everyone agrees that it’s vital. Yet until it becomes an issue it is something that is just delivered behind the scenes – at least if you’re the travelling public.

In fact, surveys show that passengers are more likely to be worried about punctuality, cleanliness, value for money, convenience… safety doesn’t come into their everyday thinking. It needs to be a given.

That’s at least in part a demonstration of just how safe light rail is as a mode; indeed, it’s so much the case that most don’t give safety a second thought. They certainly don’t consider how it is managed. In many respects this is a very good thing as it shows passengers’ confidence in the systems.

Yet the topic is never actually far from people’s thoughts – and not only with regard to light rail. Few folk would worry about driving over a bridge. However that might not have been the case in Italy following the collapse of a motorway bridge into the River Polcevera in Genoa during 2018.

Occasional tragedies like that or the fire that engulfed the Grenfell Tower block of flats in London, gain immediate and worldwide public attention. As, closer to our subject, have the failure of a metro overpass in Mexico earlier this year (which killed 65 people when a train crashed to the ground), or the overturning of a tram in Croydon five years ago (which killed seven).

More to the point though, such incidents spark fierce debate among authorities continuously searching for safety improvements. It’s almost a truism that each new accident, awful as it may be, adds to the knowledge and the lessons that can be learnt; inquiries and investigations are launched, questions asked, and certification procedures queried. Sometimes changes are made to laws and guidelines in response.

The latter point is perhaps key. For ever since the first passenger trains ran on rails nearly 200 years ago, these questions have arisen: what are the best ways of governing safety, and the verification and certification that goes with that? Leaving aside the specifics of often disparate incidents, is there a perfect system of oversight for rail networks?

And from that, how, if at all, can we be better than we were before?


David Keay is now an independent consultant. However, before he retired in 2017, he was the UK’s Deputy Chief Inspector of Railways – with particular responsibility for tramways and light rail.

Mr Keay has advised federal authorities in the US and sat on pan-European regulatory committees. He has a close interest in German systems, and an understanding of the German BOStrab, a comprehensive framework of rules that has steadily developed over many decades and which is held by many internationally to be the ‘gold standard’.

BOStrab is so comprehensive in fact that it has been adopted and adapted for other nations as they have embarked upon their own tramway and LRT schemes. A perfect example of this is seen in Denmark. As street-running light rail is, in effect, a new mode to the country, one of the biggest challenges surrounds regulations and standards. For this, a joint working group of municipalities has created a framework based around the German BOStrab regulations, adapted to take into account local factors.

In the UK, Mr Keay has worked under both the Railways and Other Transport Systems (Approval of Works, Plant and Equipment) Regulations 1994 – generally known as ROTS – as well as the Railways and Other Guided Transport Systems (Safety) Regulations 2006 – ROGS – which swept ROTS away. The new regulations removed much of the state’s previous role in safety, making verification of new schemes the direct responsibility of promoters, developers, and suppliers.

Mr Keay is, then, well placed to compare different systems. Although the specifics vary, these fall into two general categories: official state approval, and independent verification, as carried out in the UK. That latter process is unique. He explains: “Everywhere else in the world, the state carries out the approval process.

“Government here is adamant that it doesn’t want to be involved in the role of granting permissions. They want the responsibility to lie with those who create risks.”

Having worked with both systems, Mr Keay is a supporter of the latter approach: “In my view that’s right and proper – and it works. I’ve seen it in practice. It focuses people’s minds, really makes them think, and makes them do a better, safer job.”

Under ROGS, UK promoters of rail and tramway schemes appoint their own Independent Competent Person (ICP) to carry out safety verification. That ICP acts as a source of expert opinion, able to advise on aspects of design that could introduce significant risk. Employing ICPs to carry out the safety assurance/verification role is mandatory.

Under such a system, responsibility clearly lies with the promoter, with the state concentrating on an enforcement rather than an authorising role.

That new approach came, in part, out of criticism of a previous situation in which HM Railway Inspectorate (now part of the Office of Rail and Road – ORR) had been both the approvals and investigating authority – and therefore could end up having to probe and pronounce on its own decisions.

“Part of the problem…” Mr Keay says of state approval, “is that you can very easily ‘get into the weeds’. There’s a risk that you end up concentrating on what such and such paragraph says rather than the real risks.”

The two approaches are “diametrically opposed” so, he contends, “you have to live with the tensions inherent in whatever system you adopt, and seek to mitigate them.”

However, the former Deputy Chief Inspector makes a further point, which is that any system relies on the people operating it.

Avoiding black holes

Despite his conviction that independent safety verification is the preferred method, Mr Keay does not consider the UK’s ROGS to be perfect. There are still “black holes”, he argues.

One is that “trams are the only vehicles on the highway not subject to state approval. Every other vehicle has to comply with the Construction and Use Regulations. “However, the Department for Transport’s view is that this is the law of the land, so that’s fine.

“Equally, the construction of light rail systems lies outside the normal process of building controls. Again, this comes under safety verification, through the use of Independent Competent Persons.

“There are certainly improvements that could be made. One of the worries is that a promoter could employ an ICP who would agree to anything. The ORR doesn’t scrutinise ICPs to any great degree.

“You do need ‘intelligent clients’, but in my view the ORR should still scrutinise the process through spot-checks to build checks and balances into the system.

“Equally, it’s possible that one part of an organisation could be advising on construction, while another undertakes the ICP process. People in this industry are certainly responsible, but there’s still the potential for conflicts of interest to arise and this takes careful management, especially given the industry’s relatively small size.”

Tendency to ‘gold plate’

With little modern light rail experience to draw lessons from, countries such as Denmark are adapting the BOStrab regulations when developing its next generation of tramway and light rail systems. A pair of Stadler Variobahn LRVs in central Aarhus in late 2018. Wolfgang Hirsch / CC BY-SA 2.0

One person very aware of the challenges of a small UK industry is Carl Williams, Chief Executive of the Light Rail Safety and Standards Board (LRSSB).

Although discussion about the need for such a body date back a decade or more, the LRSSB is a relatively new organisation, estab-lished in 2018 and partly in response to the Sandilands (Croydon) accident five years ago. Mr Williams himself joined last year after a quarter-century in the industry, latterly as Director of Operations at West Midlands Metro. Like Mr Keay, he has therefore worked under both ROGS and ROTS.

“The entire light rail sector is fully engaged in a process of continuous and sustainable improvement, and a lack of commitment from individuals or organisations is not a factor when it comes to issues with the current system of verification”, he explains.

“What really needs to be addressed is the ‘light touch’ nature of existing ROGS in relation to safety verification. In relatively small sectors such as ours this can create a regulatory void that becomes filled by other parties. These can include local authorities, highway authorities, or even engineers brought in from heavy rail or from overseas systems.

“Each will have slightly different ways of doing things, with some becoming more influential than others. This creates a very different landscape than was created by ROTS. Under this system, the ORR provided guidance in a truly independent way, with no commercial considerations.”

Costs may also manifest themselves in other ways, Mr Williams believes.

“Without clear guidance” he says, “there may be a tendency to ‘gold plate’ solutions to problems or areas of concern. The problems are not so much in terms of excessive initial capital expenditure, it’s in the ongoing lifetime costs of equipment, which could be much higher than an acceptable alternative.

“Also, while people can be clear about what needs to be done under ROGS, there can be confusion surrounding when things need to take place, and who is responsible for ensuring this work is undertaken.”

‘New and novel’

A second concern for David Keay is that whereas nobody would ignore a missive from one of Her Majesty’s Railway Inspectors, that’s not the case with an ICP engaged by a promoter or scheme developer.

“Strictly speaking, the ICPs have no powers. All they can do is make recommendations. If you read the legislation, you’ll see that promoters are at liberty to reject that advice.

“However, in reality, scheme promoters are responsible and while in one sense you might ‘get away with it if nothing went wrong’ if you rejected an ICP’s advice, in reality that course of action could have an immediate impact on things like insurance.”

Perhaps a greater worry then is what he considers a third potential flaw, “that safety verification only occurs if something new and novel is introduced.”

“So, for example, if a promoter bought proprietary building cladding that was neither new nor novel for its depot, then the ICP wouldn’t have sight of it. That’s different to how things used to be under ROTS, when HM Railway Inspectorate would sign off everything, the whole system.

“This brings us to a related issue, which is that by its nature, safety verification only looks at bits of a system in isolation. So, even though individual elements are safe, and signed off as such, that’s never put together and the system signed off as a whole.

“Because there’s no ‘whole picture’ approach, situations could therefore arise in which a combination of things that are individually OK could, when taken together, actually import risk into the system.”

This contrasts with countries such as France and Germany where, Mr Keay explains, schemes “are signed off in their entirety”. There promoters “have to present a safety case for the whole thing, not just the ‘new and novel’ parts.

“In my view that has to be the right approach, though in our case it would still be done through the groups of ICPs.

“Now, every owner/operator needs a Safety Management System in order to run – but they may have accepted risks put there in the construction phase, because they have little other option. It’s this point that needs focus.

“Taking that holistic approach means we can then ask ourselves about the way we construct something: ‘has this eliminated, where reasonably practical, all of the hazards? Not transferred them on into the custody of the owner or operator?’

“Overall though, I think the envelope of the existing legislation is okay. We can work within it.”

How then the does the sector get to a point where problems such as those raised above can be ironed out?

“We can do it through a combination of things: good guidance; and the promoter/owner having a person onboard at a very early stage who’s got that holistic overview, as part of the safety verification team. The LRSSB wants to address these issues, and it’s already working hard on them.”

LRSSB roadmap

Cities such as Besancon, France, have used established and novel techniques to create their tramways; these are signed off in their entirety, rather than as a series of individual components. N. Pulling

In fact, the LRSSB has already obtained “a legal note to give clarity on what the role of an Independent Competent Person and Safety Verification (SV) under ROGS actually means”, says Carl Williams.

The organisation has also established a steering group to address the kinds of concerns raised above – and which includes “influential sector figures” such as former West Midlands Head of Operations and Rapid Transit Colin Robey, another former railway inspector Steve Firth, and Mr Keay himself.This group is now “working on a roadmap towards SV”.

Williams argues that despite the size of the UK light rail sector, it also “has a vital role in meeting the country’s future transport needs and has huge potential for growth.”

The issues that concern him are, he says, “by no means unsurmountable although, at the moment, we rely on voluntary adherence to guidance and standards developed by the LRSSB, unlike heavy rail, where membership to RSSB [the Rail Safety and Standards Board] is mandatory.”

“If we can move to a similar position for the LRSSB, backed by secure, long-term secure funding – currently we are in the third year of an initial three-year package – then I think we can become the definitive agency for all matters relating to light rail safety and standards.”

Part of the work already underway is to create a digital reference library – a central platform that “can be accessed by members, authorities and scheme developers.”

The LRSSB is also working through a process to define the role of ICPs. “Note that I use the plural,” says Williams, “because I don’t see how in future that role can continue to be embodied in one individual; the scope of what we need from them will be just too great.

“So, what you’ll have is groups of ICPs, working together, within their own specialisms.”

“However, you do not need a large number of people to bring this about – only around a dozen – and we’ve already done a gap analysis to see where we need to develop new material rather than being able to access existing guidance from other sources.”

David Keay agrees: “In future, we’ll undoubtedly have groups of ICPs working together, as there’s no way one person will be able to be an expert on absolutely everything across a system.”

The former inspector is also concerned that “if we get a plethora of schemes, we’ll not have enough people to act as ICPs.”

“I think we’re probably two years away from getting enough of a group together, grown from within the industry, to support expansion. Fortunately we have a bit of breathing space: we’re not going to see new schemes in the UK for a few years, as none of those proposed yet have construction powers.”

Williams, too, sees potential progress: “All this work takes time, although it is achievable within three years if, of course, there is some certainty and stability when it comes to future funding.”   

For more on BOStrab see Reinhold Schröter’s excellent summary, BOStrab: The spirit of flexible regulation, in TAUT 874.

Article appeared originally in TAUT 1007 (November 2021)