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01 September 2016

The impact of "Brexit" on Rail Safety

By Stephen McCabe

There is no doubt that United Kingdom’s decision to exit the European Union (EU) has led to an increase in uncertainty to “what’s around the corner” with no firm decisions yet reached on how or when on the whole “Brexit” fiasco. 

With EU standards seeking to regiment the manner in which countries work together for stronger competition and wider access to the workforce’s skill sets, the period from now until the activation of the well-documented Article 50 will have a number of twists and turns.

Despite this market ambiguity, the fourth railway package could still represent a strong method of the EU countries operating together for mutual benefit, in terms of safety, efficiency and interoperability.

Maintaining a robust and controlled approach to safety on Europe’s railways and the task of interoperability has represented a significant test to the National Safety Agencies (NSAs) and the various legislation parties within the European Commission in recent years.

Whilst safety standards on the whole are statistically improving across Europe’s rail sector, (there has been an annual reduction of just under 10%), the majority of recent high-scale tragedies and fatal safety incidents (such as Bad Aibling in Germany, the Santiago de Compostela derailment in Spain and Dalfsen in the Netherlands) could probably have been avoided.

According to the European Council: "The fourth railway package aims to remove the remaining barriers to the creation of a single European rail area. The end result should be higher levels of safety, interoperability and reliability in the European rail network.”

Traditionally, some critics have falsely viewed the rail industry as being averse to change, dated, and incapable of performing efficiently, due to its switch to privatisation (this happened in a number of countries and not just the UK). This argument has also been disproved by technology-driven new high-speed major rail projects, such as HS2. One potential hurdle associated with the decision to exit the EU could be related to supply chain and contracts – these may now see higher costs as a result of less competition and a marked reduction in the bi-directional movement of skills between the UK and on the continent.

The commission’s regulation (EC) 653/2007 of 13 June 2007 advises on the use of a common European format for safety certificates and application documents in accordance with Article 10 of Directive 2004/49/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council and on the validity of safety certificates delivered under Directive 2001/14/EC.

Taking the lead from other safety-driven industries such as aviation and oil & gas to roll out and adhere to EU-wide standards and directives are proven to yield positive results. While these industries do not have a fault-free record in terms of safety, these shared standards have helped to promote a collective understanding and responsibility for safety, quality and risk reduction.

There is a minor possibility that with the United Kingdom’s exit, the national regulator (Office of Rail Regulation) could seek to rewrite the regulatory frameworks to be a tailored fit for the needs of the country.  Certain business areas, such as freight and rolling stock companies (ROSCOs), may seek to strategically alter standards in this area – whereby the majority of freight issues and standards relate to more domestic movement of goods. However, with any of the current EU standards committees existing external to the EU constitutional framework and containing members that are not members of the EU, there is no reason why the UK will not continue to sit at this top table in driving change.

The EU referendum will perhaps have an influence on the underlying challenges here, but it is not envisaged that safety standards will shift monumentally – the International Air Transport Association has already underlined that safety standards will continue as “business as usual”.

There are a number of benefits to introducing a centralised method of logging safety incidents, close-calls and non-conformances – the main advantages are that common safety indicators, methods and targets can be enhanced – meaning that risk is reduced when crossing borders. The main challenge in introducing single safety certificates is multiple languages, different cultural approaches to safety and multi-country differences in terminology (Common Safety Indicators were harmonised in 2010). The bottom line is that, once these hurdles are overcome, the rail industry will be more streamlined, efficient and vitally it will be a safer place for passengers, employees and the supply chain.

Transparency in incident reporting will no-doubt help EU member states become more intelligent in terms of smarter analysis of trends in data around incidents and close-calls. A combined shared service would allow data to be analysed almost instantly – which in turn allows the identification of trends in locations and controls can be put in place to potentially stop incidents occurring. The potential is there for a marked improvement from the existing (often unreliable and inaccurate) manual processes involving spreadsheets and paperwork.

The UK rail industry has recently taken the steps to roll out their new SMIS+ safety information management and close-call system throughout the industry – this is arguably a true sign of ‘safety leadership’. This approach could conceivably be followed by train operators, national safety authorities and regulators across Europe – a challenge which many look set to rise to and become safety-driven.

With a number of changes on the horizon, it could be a perfect time for key national operators to position themselves to deliver a competitive advantage and leadership in this area – prior to the official introduction of fresh ways of working.

Once any initial “teething problems” have been tackled regarding “Brexit”, the rail industry is perfectly positioned to challenge other sectors as being leaders in safety – whether as an independently operating country or the remaining EU countries wish to continuing with their positive progress on the fourth railway package. 

It must be emphasised that any changes will not occur overnight, giving companies and regulators time to access and make a well informed judgement to future decisions. This definitely does not have to represent “the beginning of the end”. 

Learn more about Ideagen's rail safety management software, audit system capabilities and positive client experiences.

This piece was also a feature article within September's issue of Rail Professional Magazine

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