The Red Eye – A Driver’s Terror

Well hello once again my loyal readers! I’ve been bad for not writing, but I had writers block, please forgive me! To make up for it, I’m writing you a bumper edition size blogpost!

Today I want to talk about Signals, specifically Red Signals or more specifically passing Red Signals. In Rail Industry terms this is referred to as a Signal Passed at Danger or a SPAD. I am very passionate about this subject, so passionate that I decided to call those signals ‘The Red Eye’.

What causes a SPAD? Well, let me first say that there isn’t a driver alive or dead that sets out for the day and says: ‘Today, I’m going to pass a Signal at Danger’. Here are some of the causes (Not all railways are the same, so some of these might apply to all Railways and some causes may only apply to a few):

– Fatigue: Long hours on a specific shift, not enough rest between shifts can cause Micro-sleeping.

– Loss of Short Term Memory: A driver forgot the Aspect of the Last Signal he/she passed.

– Familiarity: Specific signals are always at a proceed aspect and today happens to be the day that one signal is at Danger all of a sudden. You may also hear the relay switches operating, indicating that you have door interlocking on an EMU/DMU, and would normally depart only to see the signal is still at danger. The driver may even not look at the signal as he ‘knows’ it’s at proceed. The Conductor/Guard/Platform Staff also never checking and just telling the driver to proceed (yes, the Conductor/Guard/Platform Staff are not responsible for checking signals, it is always the drivers responsibility but the driver is just used to departing when receiving the call or indication).

– Loss of concentration: Happens especially before sign off time (excited to be done and going home). Also before or after a vacation (Thinking of what activities you will be doing or did) or even a life changing event such as a funeral. Problems at home also fit into this category.

– Read Across/Through: This happens when the driver sees a signal in the distance for their track is at a Proceed Aspect but forgets to check the signal immediately in front of his/her train. Also if the signal is on a Signal Gantry/Bridge where there are multiple lines, the driver can confuse another tracks signal for his.

– Low Rail Adhesion: A major problem, especially in areas where there are lots of leaf fall from trees and also from rain or snow. A driver applies the brakes a bit too hard/too late and the wheels lock or it’s too late for the anti-slip system to have any effect.

– A technical error with the Signalling system or Degraded Operations: Loss of interlocking on the part of the Control Centre or signals that cannot be Operated/Set to the Off position/Changed to a Proceed Aspect.

– Signal returned to Danger in front of Driver: Either deliberately by the signaler or something tripping a track circuit.

There is also a SPAD on some railways called a SOYSPAD – Starting on Yellow Signal Passed at Danger. This happens a lot at platforms where the signal before entering the platform is yellow (in most railway terms a yellow aspect means the driver must slow down and be prepared to stop as the next signal could be red) and there is no Platform Starting signal and the Driver forgets the aspect after he pulls away. Even if there is a Starting Signal, the Driver may forget to check the signal aspect as he/she departs.

Most railways categorise their SPADs. Last year (2013) March, Great Britain started to reclassify their SPADs in order to be in line with European Standards.

The categories used to be:

Category A: A Driver passes a signal at danger when there was sufficient time/distance to stop at it. There are four subcategories – A1, A2, A3 and A4

Category B: A signal returns to Danger in front of a train because of equipment failure.

Category C: A signal is returned to Danger deliberately, whether manually or automatically.

Category D: Runaway vehicle(s) pass a signal at Danger.

Only a Category A SPAD is considered a SPAD in Europe. Since Great Britain is adopting this Standard, they are keeping all the forms for Category A SPADS (A1; A2; A3 and A4) but Categories B, C and D are now classified as Operating Incidents and so are no longer called SPADs. The actual cause of the incident (reversion, replacement or runaway) is the main concern.

Depending on the type of SPAD, there can be serious repercussions. A train could be in the section ahead – stopped, moving away or moving towards your position. Turnouts may not be correctly set for your route or only in ‘Half Cocked’ position, the train may derail or there may be workers on the line ahead. Now-a-days, trains with Automatic Train Protection help minimize these problems as the on board computer will always apply emergency brakes if the driver doesn’t respond.

Even though there is technology in these trains to help minimize the danger, Train Operating Companies still see SPADs under a serious light and if the Driver is to blame, he can find himself on a Final Written Warning and sent on a refresher course or fired. If the Driver is to blame, he normally is removed from service (the assistant too if there is one) and taken for alcohol tests. He may be suspended with or without pay.

A way to prevent SPADs on the Train driver’s part is to have enough rest, know the route he is working and to never become complacent. He can also drink lots of fluids, get out the cab at stations and use Commentary/Risk Triggered Commentary Driving. Lastly, in all situations, Communication is key in operations – repeating orders/messages is a sure-fire way to remember them and to ensure you perform the correct moves.

I hope you enjoyed this article, until next time!

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