Accidents involving railroad workers often come with a traumatic and tragic human cost. They also provide valuable lessons. Since understanding precisely how they happened can help improve railroad safety systems and prevent future incidents. Here are seven key lessons learned from recent accidents and near misses.

1. Report every incident

To investigate an incident it needs to be reported promptly. Sure, lessons can be learned from investigating accidents. But just as much information can be derived from examining near misses. It is a concerning reality that many accidents occur in situations with a history of close calls. Near misses that often went un- or underreported. Accumulating a greater volume of data translates into more comprehensive, detailed and well-substantiated insights. This requires an efficient, accessible and streamlined reporting protocol. And just as important: it also demands the commitment of all involved actively utilize it. Which brings us to the next lesson.

2. No true railroad safety without a healthy safety culture

The investigation into the fatal accident of a UK rail worker in 2020 revealed that the victim was reputedly in the habit of walking on the line when he didn’t need to. His co-workers knew he did this, but no one had picked him up on it. In a healthy safety culture everyone shares a responsibility to themselves and their colleagues. This includes reporting and challenging dangerous or non-safety-compliant actions. A healthy safety culture is fundamental for the effectiveness of nearly all safety protocols and systems.

3. Training and competence

A near miss incident where a trackside worker came close to being struck by a passenger train revealed, amongst other factors, competence-issues. The worker turned out to be not adequately managed to ensure his safe behavior on the job. Local management not functioning properly, affected the recruitment, training and ongoing monitoring of its employee. Accidents often highlight the need for ongoing, up-to-date training programs that emphasize safety protocols, emergency response, and the use of protective equipment. Also: most new technological solutions aimed at improving rail worker safety, will suffer in efficiency without proper instruction and compliance.

4. Vigilance, situational awareness and fatigue

Maintaining vigilance and situational awareness is crucial for railroad workers. Especially for those operating on or near the tracks. A significant number of investigated accidents underscore the importance of staying alert, avoiding distractions, and adhering to safety procedures. In some regions and under some operators or contractors, fatigue proves to be an alarmingly critical counteracting factor. Fatigue can lead to poor decision-making and even the briefest lapse in attention can have terrible consequences. Lessons learned emphasize the importance of managing work schedules to provide adequate rest periods, and implementing fatigue risk management programs.

5. Effective communication

For railroad workers, clear and effective communication can make the difference between life and death. Literally. Accidents often reveal breakdowns in communication between workers, operators, and dispatchers. The learning points highlight the importance of processes associated with safe systems of work and with safety-critical communications. This goes from real-time, (human) error-free warning and protection alerts to a prompt reporting of safety concerns. This communication in a broad and safety sense is (but) one of the areas where railroad operators turn to new technologies.      

6. Equipment/process maintenance and modernization

Accidents can result from equipment failure, such as faulty signals, worn-out tracks, or generally malfunctioning systems. Maintenance and inspection schedules must be rigorous and adhered to without compromise. Regular checks and preventive maintenance help ensure the safe operation of railroad systems. And when better, more efficient and safer technologies present themselves, these should be tested, evaluated and implemented.

7. Looking out for a new lookout

When taking a closer look at incidents involving railway workers over the period of 1997 to 2021, the Safety Task Force of Network Rail came to a compelling conclusion. In about 3 out of every 4 cases, the fatality was the result of a failure of a lookout system. A system that depended on a human being vigilant and communicating the presence of trains to trackside workers. In several cases it was the lookout himself that was struck. The obvious lesson learned here is the urgent need for a ‘lookout’ system that takes away human error.

Incorporating these lessons and investing in technology will not only protect the lives of rail workers It will also bolster the overall safety and efficiency of the railroad industry, making for a safer and more secure future for all involved.

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