Failure to learn lessons blamed for ‘life changing’ rail injury

A rail maintenance operative suffered “life changing” injuries when a stationary mobile elevating work platform (MEWP) was hit by a crane in the second such incident involving the same subcontractors, the Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB) has found.

According to a report released by the RAIB yesterday, Network Rail had contracted J Murphy & Sons to undertake overhead line renewals at Ramsden Bellhouse in Essex. The civils-focused firm then subcontracted SPL Powerlines to undertake work packages.

The RIAB said SPL Powerlines supplied two MEWPs and employed the controller, crane controller and MEWP operators. Readypower Rail Services supplied the crane and employed its operator.

The agency’s report into the May 2021 incident found that the MEWP was stationary and was hit from behind by a road-rail machine, configured as a crane, travelling at around 7.5 mph.

Around 10 seconds earlier, the MEWP operator had stopped to stow away a tool, the report found. Around the same time, the crane operator became dazzled by the rising sun and turned to look out of the side window but did not apply the brakes, resulting in the collision.

The probe found that the crane operator had allowed the gap between the crane and the MEWP to reduce to around 30 metres, when a minimum separation distance of 100 metres was required by Network Rail standards.

It said: “The shortened separation distance in this case reduced the time the crane operator had to observe and react to the obstruction ahead.”

Fatigue was a possible factor, as the crane operator had not rested before the night shift at a hotel provided by his employers, the report said. He had also not declared his actual travel time at the site access control point.

According to the RAIB’s findings, the causes of the accident were the lack of time to observe and react to the obstruction, the crane controller’s failure to warn the operator of the MEWP ahead and possibly crane operator fatigue.

“The MEWP operator suffered life changing issues due to the collision,” the report concluded.

In its report, the RAIB highlighted a previous incident at Wellingborough in 2019 where, again, SPL Powerlines provided an MEWP and Readypower Rail Services provided a crane.

In that case, the vehicles had been travelling in convoy with only 30 metres between them, and the MEWP stopped for up to 15 seconds before it was hit from behind by the crane.

This week’s RAIB report cited a rail industry investigation into the Wellingborough incident which found that the work group “regularly ignored the requirement to maintain a  separation distance of 100 metres between machines”.

Chief inspector of rail accidents Andrew Hall said: “What is particularly frustrating about [the Ramsden Bellhouse] accident is that lessons from a previous accident … had not been learned.

“Both accidents shared similar factors, including a lack of adequate separation between vehicles, a loss of attention and avoiding action not being taken. Not applying these lessons to improve planning of work or the site assurance processes was an opportunity missed to avoid a collision with severe consequences.”

The RAIB recommended Network Rail should clarify the role of a machine controller when travelling with their vehicle, and continue the development of obstacle detection for road-rail vehicles.

It said Powerlines UK and Readypower Rail Services should review how recommendations from previous incidents are incorporated into planning future work, site inspections and safety processes.

J Murphy and SPL Powerlines have been approached for comment.

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