Tweeting for Safety
20 years on from the Potters Bar train derailment, one question to ask is: How would things be different today? The answer, in a digitally connected world, is perhaps an unexpected one.
The Potters Bar Rail Accident
Twenty years ago this month, on 10th May 2002, a train travelling north from London through Hertfordshire left the tracks at nearly 100mph as it passed over a faulty set of points. The train slammed into a bridge and came to rest across platforms at Potters Bar station. Six passengers and one passer by were killed and over seventy people were injured.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) report, released a year later, found that the principal cause of the accident was poor maintenance of the points. The bolts that held the ‘stretcher bars’ that maintain the distance between the two point blades had come loose causing the blades to move apart when the train passed over them. The points had been fully inspected just a week before by a team working for the private railway maintenance contractor Jarvis.
The investigators also learned that the night before the crash two passengers travelling over the stretch of track at Potters Bar complained of experiencing violent jolts, known as ‘rough rides’. Two warnings went unheeded. A railway worker also reported a ‘rough ride’ however the report of this was misunderstood and an inspection team was despatched to the wrong part of the track.
Learning from Potters Bar
Network Rail was formed as an ‘arms-length’ public body to manage rail infrastructure just five months after the accident and it quickly emerged as a fundamentally different organisation to Railtrack. One significant change was to bring all of its maintenance work in-house, to avoid reliance on third party contractors like Jarvis. Significant enhanced focus on points maintenance occurred too; the lessons of Potters Bar are central to the way points are maintained and monitored to this day.
Nevertheless, anniversaries like this always offer the opportunity for reflection. One interesting question emerges: If Twitter and smartphones had existed in 2002, could they have prevented the Potters Bar accident? Communications applications, like Twitter, create the opportunity for virtually anyone to communicate to huge numbers of people instantly. It is certainly not difficult to see how real time communication of the ‘rough riding’ incidents, and the use of GPS data from smart phones, could have been used to help raise awareness and locate the faulty set of points if they had existed at the time.
‘Twitter’ as a safety monitoring system
Twitter is of course such a universal tool, and so central to modern communications, that it is now the subject of an ownership battle with the world’s richest man, Elon Musk. Its uses are myriad, and it has long been understood that the technology is massively disruptive. So how is it disrupting the world of real time safety monitoring? Or how might it?
Recently a flurry of Twitter reports appeared as a result of ‘rough riding’ when a train passed over points at too high a speed and was forced to make an emergency brake. The incident was immediately visible to all, in real time. Of course, railway companies should not have to rely on such channels to prevent accidents (and they don’t). Nevertheless the concepts of ‘defences in depth’ make clear that having a myriad of complementary measures and controls is the key to very high levels of safety performance and to delivering a high reliability organisation.
Pasengers and the public all now carry smart phones in which real time reporting is viable. In fact they will make reports regardless of what train companies say or do. And smartphones also include location services which, for example, can tag photographs with their GPS location. This creates an opportunity that can be effectively exploited to enahance safety.
It is perhaps strange that consideration of an accident from 20 years ago, about a mechanical failure of points should spin off in this direction. But then again maybe not. This discussion is yet another indication - if we needed one - of the all pervasive influence of Twitter.
A range of follow on questions emerge:
How deeply should we embed social media reporting into our formal safety management systems (if at all)?
What implications might this have, over time, for the dependence of companies on social media platforms?
With growing concerns around security, should we be careful about publicly encouraging visibility of, and engagement with the public on, the various ways in which transport systems can fail in an unsafe way?
Like many of the opportunities and challenges of technology these and other similar questions will inevitably need to be addressed. What do you think?
The next issue
Please do feed back your thoughts in the comments, on linkedin or on Twitter. Posts are (approximately) biweekly for 2022. I’m really excited about the next one which will be another podcast: an interview with Dr James Rogers, who is a world leading expert on drone technology. If you don’t want to miss it, please subscribe below:
I’m very keen to build the network to engage on these important topics, so if you know anyone who is interested in the safety of modern transport technology please do share a link with them.
Thanks for reading
Please feel free to drop me an e-mail on email@example.com. My particular area of professional and research interest is practical risk and assurance of new technology. I’m always keen to engage on interesting projects in this area.
The photo used on social media is an adaptation of a closeup of the converging points immediately north of Filton Abbey Wood railway station. It is used courtesy of Chris McKenna (Thryduulf), CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons.