A signal passed at danger, or SPAD, is a cause of real concern to the railway industry. It’s how accidents happen. When a train passes a red signal it can run into the back of another train that the signal was protecting, or hit a group of track workers, or overrun a junction, putting itself in the path of danger from an oncoming train on the other line – the so-called ‘conflict point’.
Worryingly, 41 trains passed red signals in July 2019, the highest number in a single calendar month since October 2007. 10 of these reached the ‘conflict point’. This is higher than the five-year average of between four and five, and the total for the last financial year 2018-9 which was seven. The risk from SPADs has not been as high since September 2014.
Now, the rail industry’s independent safety body RSSB has asked if enough is being done to reduce the risk of a train accident from trains passing red signals.
RSSB chief executive Mark Phillips has written to all managing directors in Network Rail and train and freight operating companies, highlighting the latest data and asking if enough is being done, or whether more effort is needed in managing SPAD risk.
Mark’s warning comes close to the 20th anniversary of the Ladbroke Grove train crash. At 08:09 on 5 October 1999, a three-car diesel multiple unit leaving Paddington passed a red signal at Portobello junction and collided head on with a High Speed Train (HST) at a combined speed of around 130mph. The accident killed 31 people, including both drivers, and injured more than 250 others.
In the last 20 years, the industry has reduced the risk from SPADs by more than 90 per cent. It has been over 12 years since the last train accident involving fatalities to those on board, and Britain has one of the safest railway networks in Europe.
This is partly down to significant improvements in collaboration across the rail industry, and a shared commitment to monitor risk, as well as improved investigation processes which consider underlying causes.
Research has led to improved engineering solutions, and a new understanding of the human factors that affect how people undertake their roles. Findings from such research have led to the application of more advanced ergonomics and psychology behind drivers’ decision-making.
Understanding the detail of SPAD risk is being improved through the use of Big Data, in collaboration with the University of Huddersfield. A new tool will draw on real-time train movement data to give a more in-depth picture of operational risk and understand which signals are approached at red most often.
However, RSSB has been keen to avoid any sense of complacency, which is why it has asked its members whether enough is being done to address SPADs, as Mark Phillips explained: “It’s part of our role to be the railway’s critical friend, and provide our members with an independent assessment of the risk they’re facing.
“The 20th anniversary of Ladbroke Grove is a timely reminder of what can go wrong if we don’t keep our eyes on the ball. We need to look at current train protection technology and industry initiatives, and ask whether enough is being done.”