Engineering Failures at Irish Rail

This week the Railway Accident Investigation Unit’s report about the Malahide Viaduct Collapse has been published. I am unhappy at the response so far to the extremely serious non-disaster that occurred along the viaduct on the 21st August 2009. The structural failures that occurred, owing to inadequate inspection and preventative maintenance, could have caused a large number of fatalities and a large number of injuries. It is extremely fortuitous that this was a non-disaster, rather than a disaster. In consequence of the hair’s breadth between the actual direct consequences of what happened and what the consequences could have been, a very serious shake-up of the status quo is called for and I do not feel reassured by the recommendations in the report of the Railway Accident Investigation Unit or the written response that has been published by Irish Rail.

I am very concerned that when a danger was flagged on 17th August by a good citizen, the procedures within Irish Rail were totally inadequate to respond rapidly and adequately to that warning. I’m sorry to say that I do not have confidence that Irish Rail’s internal reconfiguration of its Civil Engineering function is a sufficient response. As a regular rail commuter between Newbridge, Co. Kildare, and Heuston Station my experience of making good-citizen type complaints to Irish Rail has been a very negative one: many of these have related to poor management, unsatisfactory customer service, inadequate information for customers and, on occasion, safety issues.

I have found that ticket inspectors on trains and staff at ticket counters are generally reluctant to accept complaints (in order to pass them on and have them acted upon). Usually when I raise an issue they indicate that I need to raise the matter with management or with head office or with customer service or by writing-in. I have done all of these things too over the years, with very mixed levels of response. For the most part I have been left feeling that the matter I raised was uncertain to be passed-on or dealt-with. As with the banks and financial institutions, a strong and competent regulatory authority at national level is required to enforce the standards. Furthermore, a strong and competent European regulatory authority is required to enforce the standards of the Irish regulatory authority.

Let me take a superficially humorous example. There have been occasions when the PA system at Heuston Station has announced that the train now standing at a certain platform, (say platform 6) is a certain train (say for Portlaoise), but the train was not actually standing at that platform. On one occasion, following such a PA announcement, and when the train was still not at the named platform perhaps five minutes later, I walked a long distance back to the customer service desk in Heuston station. I pointed out that, even as I was speaking to the staff member, the train was not where the PA system had said the train was. I pointed out that this raised the question of where the train actually was. I wondered were the signals and control systems correctly reporting where the train was. I have a strong suspicion that the staff member at the desk thought I was a crackpot. He told me that the PA system was only broadcasting a recorded message. As an engineer, that type of situation causes me concern. Why should an automated PA system be able to broadcast an incorrect message, falsely indicating the location of a train?

There is a lot of civil engineering involved in running a railway, but there are a lot of other types of engineering involved as well. One situation that has really damaged Irish Rail’s credibility in engineering terms, in my eyes, has been the introduction of automated barriers at Heuston Station. This saga, which has been going on for perhaps two years now, is a sorry one. Automated barriers exist at commuter stations around the world and, from my experiences in cities like London and Paris, they seem to operate very well. At Heuston station my experience of the automated barriers has been a very negative one. They seem to have been faulty since they were installed. They cause considerable frustration and delays for passengers and they do not fulfil their intended purpose of ensuring that everyone who passes through has a valid ticket. Although this is not a matter that causes injuries, it is a significant engineering failure. A private individual who purchases a car that does not work would return it and get a full refund. In the case of this automated barrier system, which I am sure was installed at great cost, this does not seem to have been possible. ‘Engineering’ extends to effective purchasing, commissioning and follow-up where equipment fails to satisfy its intended purpose.

The responses I have read so far in relation to the Malahide Viaduct Collapse seem to place the responsibility for preventing any recurrence of a railway bridge collapse on Irish Rail. That is where the responsibility should lie, but it must be enforced. All aspects of standards within Irish Rail and within the transport sector generally must be effectively regulated.