Emergency Special Working (ESW)

Emergency special working (ESW) is a new alternative to temporary block working which allows trains to be moved more quickly and more safely following a major signalling failure.

During a major signalling failure, trains may have to be authorised to pass multiple consecutive signals at danger to keep them moving. Until now the main way of doing this has been temporary block working (TBW), which was originally introduced into the Rule Book in the early 1990s.

A TBW section is set up on each affected line between an entrance signal and an exit signal, with hand signallers provided at both. All points within the TBW section must be secured on the ground, usually with clips, scotches and padlocks, regardless of whether they are still correctly detected by the signalling system.

Finding hand signallers, getting them to site and arranging for all points to be secured means TBW can be slow to introduce – it’s not uncommon for it to take a few hours to put in TBW after the signals have failed. All the time trains are at a stand, risks to passengers and staff increase: more trains stopped means more red signals and a greater risk of SPAD incidents. Stranded trains can quickly become uncomfortable and unpleasant for passengers, especially in hot or cold weather or where trains are crowded. This has led to passengers self-evacuating from trains onto the track and putting themselves in danger. Stations may become overcrowded as well, increasing the possibility of injuries to passengers and staff from incidents such as slips, trips and falls. Both stranded trains and crowded stations can also result in an increased risk of assaults on staff, so it’s important to keep the length of time trains are at a stand following a signal failure as short as possible.

Emergency Special Working (ESW) is a new set of rules for dealing with the same kind of signalling failures as TBW is designed for. These rules have been developed over more than ten years based on detailed research, risk assessment, and input from Network Rail, train operating companies, ASLEF and RMT. ESW has also been trialled operationally in some areas of the country since 2013.

ESW uses the same operational principles as TBW: both methods of working can only be used on lines that have two or more tracks and are signalled under track circuit block regulations. However, there are some key differences between ESW and TBW: ESW uses direct communication between signallers and drivers, so does not need hand signallers. Where points are locked and correctly detected by the signalling system, ESW does not require them to be secured on the ground. The exit signal from ESW must be at a location that is easy for drivers to recognise.

These changes allow ESW to be implemented more quickly than TBW: on some occasions during the operational trials introducing ESW has taken less than 20 minutes. This reduces the risks to passengers and staff that arise when trains are trapped for a long period of time.

The new ESW rules come into force on 1 December 2018. The resources on this page, which include briefing notes, a presentation and a video, are designed to help you understand the rules if this is the first time you’ve encountered them or refresh your knowledge if you’re already familiar.

If you have any questions about ESW which cannot be answered by your line manager, please contact us through the RSSB


GERT8000-S5: Passing a signal at danger or an end of authority (EoA) without a movement authority (MA)
NR3190 Iss 1: Emergency Special Working Ticket
Emergency Special Working - a guide for drivers
Emergency Special Working: a guide for the competent person and person in charge
Emergency Special Working: a guide for signallers
Emergency Special Working – Questions and Answers
Emergency Special Working briefing presentation
Video - Emergency Special Working: Introduction
Video - Emergency Special Working: Principles
Video - Emergency Special Working: Demonstration for drivers
Video - Emergency Special Working: Demonstration for signallers
Emergency special working record - printable
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Get in touch with our expert for more information
James Webb
Tel: 020 3142 5533
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