Starting safety at the beginning. Make it real

Many railway improvement schemes start with a ‘great idea’ and are nearly always focussed on increasing capacity in one form or another. At the concept stage, the aim is to develop a working outline to achieve this primary goal and, given that no show-stopping dangers are apparent, the philosophy is that safety will be dealt with as the detailed design develops.

It would be very wrong to say that safety is not considered early on, because I can assure you that some very experienced and knowledgeable people will be involved and no scheme ever goes forward if these become aware of genuine issues, but by the time the more detailed phase of designing starts to happen, many parameters of the scheme have become quite fixed with very little written down to evidence what safety decisions have been made. It is at this stage that a safety engineer will ask the obvious question. Has anyone thought about and documented the safety implications in the initial concept design development? It is a basic truth that safety does not really start until it is written down. And we usually start writing too late.

So, what should we be doing? Is it simply a case of providing some clearer insights on why the scheme can be considered ‘safe’ or what needs to be done in order to assure that safety? Fundamentally, this is the tried and trusted approach of dealing with identified hazards and mitigating risk associated with them, with the added strength of starting properly early on in the design process. Definitely a step forward in many circumstances, but it still will not get us to the right place. Because we should be championing the positives and not stop at merely eradicating the negatives. So instead, I believe we need to also ask ourselves this question at the concept stage:  How do we use this scheme to improve safety?

The answer to this and similar questions (such as, How will it enhance the quality of people’s lives?) will form some of the most important goals of the project. It is how we will generate true improvements through infrastructure enhancement projects.

Oh, and one other thing. When these goals are set, let’s determine at the same time some basic criteria of how they are going to be eventually validated. Write it all down. Make it real.

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