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Brussels, 8 September 2009

Background on Railway safety

The Railway Safety Directive 2004/49/EC (RSD) is the main piece of Community legislation ensuring that railway safety is maintained at its high level and further improved where this is desirable.

Several players have a role in maintaining the safety of railways: the infrastructure manager, the transport railway undertaking, the owner of the vehicle, the vehicle technical manager ("keeper" in railway terminology), and the loader of the vehicle. All these actors have tasks and responsibilities that are laid down in EU legislation, national legislation, international regulations and private contracts.

This background MEMO addresses all aspects of railway safety, along four major themes:

  • Safety at the level of infrastructures and operations

  • Safety at the level of vehicles

  • Safety at the level of goods transported

  • Supervision and investigation.

Safety at the level of infrastructures and railway operations

The aim of the RSD was to ensure that safety was not used as a barrier to a fully open market. The Directive recognises that safety levels in the EU are generally high, in particular compared to road transport. This is confirmed by data from Member States over both the long and the short term. For instance, in 2007 there was a 15% decrease in the total number of accidents over 2006, mainly due to a decrease in rolling stock incidents (derailments/collisions).

The RSD introduced the concept that the railway undertakings and infrastructure managers must bear the full responsibility for the safety of the system, each for their own part and in conjunction with the responsibility of manufacturers, maintenance bodies and wagon keepers. The removal of state responsibility was seen as a key way to help the opening of the market and to ensure that safety was not used as a barrier to market entry and the revitalisation of railways. railway undertakings and infrastructure managers are obliged to implement risk control measures, where appropriate in cooperation with each other, and to establish safety management systems. The Directive identifies the requirements and basic elements to be fulfilled by the railway undertakings and infrastructure managers' safety management system (SMS). This system must provide for all the procedures and processes required to ensure the safe operation and maintenance of the railway. The application of the safety management system should ensure that the risk linked with the operation and maintenance of a railway system is adequately controlled.

Safety at the level of vehicles

The SMS of railway undertakings must also include processes for the control of contractors and the supply of maintenance and material. This is important for railway undertakings, particularly those which operate freight wagons (including those which transport dangerous goods), when they do not themselves carry out maintenance. In such cases their SMS should state how their processes manage the verification and control of a contractor (i.e. keeper) who performs maintenance on their behalf. This includes defining responsibilities clearly and ensuring traceability of documents among the parties involved.

The Railway Safety Directive was amended in 2008 (Directive 2008/110/EC), and the responsibility for maintenance is now assigned to a new player, the entity in charge of maintenance (ECM), which needs to be certified. Indeed, since the railway undertaking is responsible for safe operation, it has to get an assurance that vehicles are maintained and safe to operate. The certification of ECMs is intended to provide this assurance.

Safety at the level of goods transported

In the EU, inland freight transport, which is shared between road (76%), rail (18%) and waterways (6%), amounts to 2500 billion tons/kilometre per year. On average, distances covered by rail transport operations are longer than in road transport. In 2007, transport of dangerous goods accounted for 5.8 % of all inland freight transport. Due to the organisation of railway transport more than 60% of freight trains include at least one wagon carrying dangerous goods.

According to the European Rail Agency’s historical database, from 1990 to 2005, 38 railway accidents involving dangerous goods caused 27 fatalities and 75 injuries. These 27 fatalities have been caused by level crossing accidents (62%) with dangerous goods coming from the crossing trucks, collisions (19%) and derailments (19%). With 28 fatalities, the Viareggio accident is the most severe railway accident to occur over the last two decades. This kind of severe accident has a very low probability of occurring. The chance of this happening has been estimated to be around one over several hundred years.

Supervision and investigation

The Rail Safety Directive sets out requirements for the establishment of independent National Safety Authorities. Their role includes awarding safety certificates to railway undertakings and safety authorisations to infrastructure managers, and ensuring supervision of railway undertakings and infrastructure managers' safety management systems. This supervision should include checking that the conditions and requirements laid down in the safety certificate/authorisations continue to be met. However, the risks arising from railway operations remain the shared responsibility of the railway undertakings and infrastructure managers.

The Directive also requires Member States to investigate certain serious accidents and incidents (defined as those with at least one fatality, five serious injuries or with a monetary cost estimated of at least 2,000,000 euros). This is the task of the National Investigation Bodies which are required to carry out independent investigation and to consider the lessons to be learned from accidents without apportioning blame and to make recommendations for the National Safety Authorities to consider safety improvements where appropriate.

For more information

See also: IP/09/1282 and IP/09/1283

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