The rail regulator has highlighted the potentially dangerous signalling system which is currently in place for most of the country.
The warning comes from the Commission for Rail Regulation, which says there was a significant increase in the number of “Signal Passed at Danger” (SPAD) incidents last year.
In its 2015 annual report, the commission points out that, since 1983, maximum speeds on the network have increased from 120km/h to 160km/h, frequency of rail services has doubled on most mainline routes, and additional routes have opened.
It said the risk profile associated with train movements had changed over the period, but that change had not been balanced by a proportionate increase in the level of protection offered by the signalling systems.
“The margin between tolerable risk and intolerable risk has therefore been reducing”.
“In regard to the safe working of trains , Iarnród Éireann (IE) signalling systems currently do not offer the level of protection that is nowadays expected of passenger carrying railways in a developed economy.”
It said that proven technology to reduce the exposure to driver error “is only applied to a small proportion of the IE network and some of that equipment is now of a 30 year-old vintage”.
The commission said less than 5% of the network has Automatic Train Protection (ATP), predominantly the Dart. That automatically applies the brakes if a driver fails to obey a signal or a speed limit.
A further 41% of the network has Continuous Automatic Warning System which provides drivers with an in-cab indication of signal aspects, but will not override the driver’s subsequent actions if they are inappropriate.
The other 54% of the network has no driver warning or ATP system.
“A marked increase in the number of SPAD events on IE is a reminder of the ever-present risk of a human error induced railway accident,” the report said.
The number of SPAD incidents in 2013 was 18, That fell to 10 in 2014, but rose again to 15 last year. The commission said 14 of those were attributable to Irish Rail. Besides the SPADs, there were 18 other reportable incidents including derailments, collisions between machinery and the Mallow to Tralee train running through landslide debris.
It pointed to three incidents which, under slightly different conditions, could have resulted in “serious consequences” including a SPAD and collision with level crossing gates in Castleconnell in November 2015.
The commission said it was to be expected that there would be “healthy tension” between a regulator and regulated entities, but it described relations between IE and itself as “strained” throughout 2015.
“This was most evident in the stance adopted at the most senior level of IE management when responding to matters of safety management compliance identified by the commission.
“It is of concern that the type of sentiment expressed in its correspondence with the regulator may be a reflection of a leadership attitude to safety that would be less than the commission expects.”
For its part, Iarnród Éireann said that, during 2016, it had engaged with the commission and agreed a joint programme of actions, including revised reporting and governance arrangements between the two bodies.
It said safety was the number one priority across all levels of organisation adding that it had received a recent allocation of funding to commence installing Automatic Train Protection Systems “as a strategic response to the principal risk of Signals being Passed at Danger”.
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