Railroad worker safety has improved substantially over the last half century. An encouraging trajectory that, regrettably, has stagnated. The past few years there was even an increase in the number of serious injuries and fatalities amongst trackside workers. Breaking this stalemate and continuing on towards zero accidents has become a focal point for many operators,  and industry regulators.  

“No clear progress has been seen in reducing railway worker casualties since 2014, if looking at absolute figures”. A quote from a report by the European Union Agency for Railways.

In his 2021 annual report the UK’s Chief Inspector of Rail Accidents admitted that “The safety of people who work on the track continues to be a matter of considerable concern”. 

“Rail worker injuries increased last year despite safety reforms”. A January 2023 headline of the New Civil Engineer. 

In 2007 the US Bureau of Labor Statistics stated “With a fatal injury rate more than twice the all-industry rate, the railroad industry is hazardous”. This prompted a rigorous and admirably effective push for employee safety, in many ways aided by a wide array of new technologies. But there’s still serious work to be done.  

Because when things go wrong for a trackside worker, chances are they go wrong in a seriously bad way. 

Railroad worker safety trajectory halted

Over a century of efforts to improve railroad worker safety have had their effect. Results may have come slow and steady, but ultimately show a significant decrease in trackside accidents, injuries and fatalities. This is largely due to ever more efficient methods of rail operators and stricter policies of regulating bodies, to keep railway staff from harm. 

For the last few years, that positive trend has stagnated. The number of accidents with serious injuries and fatalities no longer declines. Some regions even show a small but unsettling increase since 2018. 

The Global Incidence Rate for 2018 was 18,8. In 2020 it was 19,3. 

The Global Severity Rate for 2018 was 625. In 2020 it was 841. 

European railroad operators are more likely to achieve acceptable safety performance in the category of passengers than in any other category. A possible or probable deterioration in safety performance is most frequently registered for employees (and unauthorised persons on railway premises).

Major rail network expansion, modernization and maintenance projects may contribute to this statistics-stalemate.

But they shouldn’t. 

In search of a stalemate breaker

Ensuring worker safety for railroad workers presents unique challenges. Current solutions and systems are often outdated or otherwise inadequate and clearly struggle with this problem. 

The International Railway Safety Council’s (IRSC) is often quoted on the following safety risks with traditional standard operating procedures: 

  • They rely on a lookout or watchman, providing a single point of failure
  • Worker inattention through complacency, fatigue and boredom
  • Too heavy workloads and responsibilities in too tight time schedules
  • No advanced warning to train operators of workers/worksites ahead
  • No advanced warning to track workers of approaching trains
  • Increased traffic movements on tracks

The UIC, the Worldwide Railway Organization, summarizes the key health and safety challenges as following: 

  • A lack of clarity in roles and responsibilities, developing and maintaining competence, and safety culture among trackside workers and managers,
  • Inconsistency around planning and implementing safe systems of work that give a 
  • high level of protection,
  • Insufficient use of technology to reduce the risk to those working on or around the track,
  • Limited visibility on the part of management of the risk to infrastructure workers because of deficiencies in monitoring, supervision, and assurance,
  • Collaboration to secure the required maintenance access.

Three out of five of these challenges either directly or indirectly suggest a solution through the development and implementation of (new) worker safety technologies. The consensus being these technologies could break through the seemingly unbending safety plateau. Allowing rail-operators and regulators to continue on towards zero accidents. 

Promising first steps

The Association of American Railroads (AAR) makes the claim that “Applying technology to worker safety has allowed the industry to make great strides in recent years. Rail technology empowers employees to do their jobs more effectively while keeping them out of harm’s way”.

UK’s Network Rail, explored the merits of geofencing technology to keep trackworkers safe from (inadvertently) wandering out of their pre-established safety zone. 

Automatic track warning systems (ATWS) like the US’ ATMS and Europe’s ERTMS and ALARP project date as far back as the early 2010’s. These are considered the pioneering precursors for today’s far more advanced solutions. A growing number of which are being tested and implemented in pilot projects. 

Recently a European national railway operator initiated and supervised a PoC of an innovative IoT solution and witnessed it passing 10 out of 10 practical test scenarios. 

In summary

It is imperative to overcome the current impasse in enhancing railroad worker safety, and innovative technological solutions play a pivotal role in accomplishing this goal. These advancements may even serve as the guiding beacon towards achieving a future with zero accidents.

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