30 August 2009

Railway Safety Commission failed to do its Duty "because it could not employ enough Staff"

Critical safety checks on Ireland's railway system have not been carried out for the past three years, because the official body charged with the inspections did not have enough staff.

According to a report in the Irish Independent newspaper, Iarnród Éireann (Ireland's state-owned railway company) "admitted that its inspection regime - covering more than 1200 bridges - would need to be reviewed after one of the busiest rail lines in the country collapsed into the sea last week". (see my entries of August 22nd, 23rd & 26th)

The Railway Safety Commission (RSC) has revealed that it was "too busy approving new rail projects to carry out planned safety checks on existing lines". It was not employing enough staff and apparently "only able to recruit the full complement of safety inspectors this year".

The RSC is charged with ensuring that Iarnród Éireann and other operators perform to the highest safety standards. But it has emerged that just half of the necessary staff were in place to cope with the huge workload of checking safety systems.

The Irish Independent also reports that:
  • The RSC has warned about a lack of inspectors since it began its operations in 2006.
  • It said this "lack of resources" prevented it from "devoting the time we would wish" to safety checks.
  • It had just four inspectors responsible for almost 2000 km of rail lines and hundreds of bridges until this year.
  • Only in 2009 could it recruit an additional three inspectors, bringing the total employed to seven.
As I have reported here earlier (see my entry of August 22nd), the Broadmeadow viaduct, which crosses open water in North-Dublin, collapsed into the sea despite being passed as "safe" following not one, but - as it has now emerged - two inspections by Iarnród Éireann engineers.

According to the Irish Independent, "the company stands by its inspection regime" and is "defending a decision to pass the structure as safe", despite having been told by members of the Malahide Sea Scouts (referred to originally by an Iarnród Éireann spokesman as "a member of the public") that one of the supporting piers was damaged.

The paper also reports that the collapsed pier that caused the viaduct to fall into the water will not be rebuilt. Instead, rail engineers are planning to "strengthen the line", whatever this means.

Serious questions have been raised over how a supposedly 'safe' bridge could suddenly fall into the sea after two inspections.
As additional details emerge about the incident and the more than lax inspection regime of RSC and Iarnród Éireann, it becomes clear that we are unveiling another major Irish scandal here.

There are further concerns about the general safety on Ireland's rail network, especially as the Railway Safety Programme was extended from five to seven years in an effort to reduce costs in last year's Budget.

Ensuring that bridges, viaducts, railway lines, level crossings and all other pieces of Ireland's rail infrastructure are safe is a key plank of the RSC's brief.
Last year, it also approved 57 infrastructure projects, ranging from construction of new bridges to the approval of new Luas (Dublin's city tram) extensions, which led to the postponement of vital inspections.

"The number of railway projects that required RSC approval meant that we were able to commit less time to performance auditing and monitoring than we would have wished," the inspection body warned in its 2008 report.
"A safety management system is only as effective as its implementation. Assessing the railway undertakings' safety case compliance is an essential part of the RSC's work, but lack of resources has, in the past, prevented us devoting the time we would wish to this task."

Fergus O'Dowd, TD (left), Transport spokesman for the main opposition party Fine Gael, said that the Railway Safety Programme had seen its funding cut, and that there is "a lack of accountability" in relation to the Broadmeadow inquiry.
"They're the regulator of the industry, and the guarantor of safety on the trains. I would be very concerned," he said.

Under the Railway Safety Act 2005, Iarnród Éireann is required to commission an independent audit of its safety management system every four years. The next audit is scheduled for 2010.
It will - among other issues - consider if inspections of the Broadmeadow viaduct were regular enough, and if an underwater survey of the pier should have been conducted.

Iarnród Éireann and the RSC are also expected to appear before the Dáil Transport Committee next month to answer questions about safety.

In my opinion a full and independent inquiry into the incident and into the general safety of the Irish railway network is urgently required. On its own Iarnród Éireann can no longer be trusted.

The Emerald Islander

1 comment:

The Wild Goose said...

I am shocked. It is sort of wonder no one was hurt or even killed when the viaduct collapsed. I hope this will lead to change the current situation. Thank you once again for the whole information you give about Ireland to people like me who are abroad.

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