Asset integrity – let’s keep listening

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How can the risk of assets failing or contributing to incidents and harm be reduced? The industry has set itself several challenges as part of the Leading Health and Safety on Britain’s Railway strategy.

At this time, during the Covid-19 pandemic, the railways need to be available to everyone who needs them.

There may not be the high volumes of people travelling right now, but the railways have to be in a position to provide passenger and freight services. In particular, services should also be available for those living in Tier 3 restrictions (very high alert level), who need to travel for work, education, or for their wellbeing. At the same time, the railways need to be safe and secure, and asset integrity has a very important part to play. 

But what is asset integrity? Well, it is the extent to which the resources we use—be they tracks, trains or equipment, whether they are physical or virtual—are contributing to safety. Are the train and track strong enough for each other? Are the systems controlling signalling secure and reliable enough? How long will this bridge last before it needs replacing?

A big contribution to this comes from standards. These codify good practice into industry’s approach so that assets are looked after, and the right level of effort is programmed into organisations’ management systems. 

At RSSB we’ve played a big part in the process of building the consensus and coordinating the railway to produce common positions. The standards and guidance that we produce with industry, along with the reporting systems and data we gather, together help crystallise where we are in terms of risk—and where we need to focus.

But safety isn’t just about documentation, it’s also about people. To manage all assets effectively, everyone needs to be involved. But are we able to hear everyone when we need to?  

With more than 25 years of engineering experience, across space, energy and transport, I can see that the strategic challenges in Leading Health and Safety on Britain’s Railway (LHSBR) are broad and contain some of thorniest and “live” problems not yet under full control. Structural issues due to the way we are organised, technical issues due to the difficulty of spotting and tracking emerging hazards, and the challenges the railway currently faces in terms of money and resources all play a part. 

For me, there are specific challenges due to newer technologies, gathered under a “digital” umbrella. It’s usually a lot easier to spot and repair a physical crack than a digital “crack”, which can be hidden in software, or on a chip, or locked away in a black box. Whilst we can all have a pretty good go at establishing a physical “parts list” of a train, I’ve yet to meet someone who can do a complete list of a digital parts equivalent for a train (that’s covering both software and data). Across the industry, we can’t easily and consistently collect incident and near miss data (design and operational) if we can’t name and describe the thing that is causing the problems. And if we don’t know it’s happening…

What is it that we are not doing in asset integrity that we should be doing, and what is it that we are worried about?

One of our recommendations to address this is quite simple-reporting. If you see something that doesn’t look right, whether it’s a bit of digital technology, or physical infrastructure or rolling stock, it should be reported through your operational or maintenance systems, and our industry systems such as SMIS and NIR On-Line. This is in line with the requirements in the standards such as those for reporting high risk defects in rolling stock (RIS-8250-RST) and Reporting of Safety Related Information (RIS-8047-TOM). If you’ve got concerns that you can’t get addressed elsewhere, there are confidential reporting systems like CIRAS.

You may see something about your assets that is “not quite right” and really only a nagging question at the back of your mind. It might be nothing, and you might feel a bit silly for raising it, particularly if in the end it turns out to be nothing. But major accidents have rarely happened without any warnings. When we look back there’s always been a series of small issues, and if these had been picked up at the time, might have stopped things escalating. 

Some information can’t be fully shared in certain circumstances. Those who are not duty holders may hold increasing amounts of technical knowledge and insight, but there are barriers to access and understand such information. The ongoing restructuring and reorganising of the railways means that we are all experiencing or anticipating is changing how we work together. And there’s no getting away from the fact that it takes courage to be the first person to speak up, to raise an issue.

To support you, we’re removing such gaps, and blocks to engagement, and scoping out projects to address them. We’ll be bringing in people from different backgrounds to work on the safety challenges in LHSBR, including those who understand the digital perspective. We are raising awareness of the full legislative framework (both safety and broader, including NIS and others) and the use of standards and guidance for support. And of course, we’ve got reporting systems. It’s a challenge, and one that can only be met by working together.

The railways are changing in many ways, technically, organisationally and personally, both for people who work on the railways and those who use them. What constitutes a railway asset is different for everyone, and we need people’s help, staying alert to those early warning signs.

In safety, there’s no such thing as a “stupid question”. And in these unprecedented times, it’s certainly more difficult to predict the future. 

Can we ask all of you to help all of us keep an eye on what’s really happening on the frontline? I hope we can, and please let us know what you see. 

Thank you for your support and engagement.

Further information

This blog was originally published in February 2021, and written by Dr Emma Taylor. 

If you want to know more about the Leading Health and Safety on Britain’s Railway strategy, asset integrity, or the work of the Asset Integrity Group, please get in touch with Chris Knowles, our Professional Head of Asset Integrity.

Listen to our podcast episode 6 for more information on 'Digital asset integrity: one path to reducing railway risk'.

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Get in touch with our Professional Head of Asset Integrity for more information.