NIK about safety of passenger trains

The care of rail administrators and carriers about safety has improved systematically. Nevertheless, in 2016-2018, the threat of serious rail accidents in Poland was almost four times higher than the EU average. Out of 30 countries associated in the European Union Agency for Railways (ERA), only Greece, Croatia, Lithuania, Latvia, Hungary and Romania had worse fatality risk ratios. Also as regards the number of serious accidents on level crossings, Poland is one of ten countries with the worst ratios. According to ERA report, they have more than doubled the EU average.

Previous NIK audits also revealed that trains were not properly equipped with technical devices designed for travellers’ safety and comfort as well as support of persons with reduced mobility. It also happened that trains were used without required servicing or repairs.

Key audit findings

Rail carriers kept passenger trains in a good technical condition. They also made sure that train crews were properly qualified. Although the technical condition as well as passenger transport conditions improved, the total number of occurrences (serious accidents, accidents and incidents in rail traffic) increased from 732 in 2017 to 851 in 2019. In 2020 (1st half), despite significant decrease in transports because of COVID-19 epidemic, there were 365 incidents.

Total number of occurrences in passenger rail traffic in 2017‑2020 (1st half)

Type of rail occurrence 2017 2018 2019 2020 (1st half) Total in 2018-2020 (1st half)
Serious accidents 3 6 2 0 8
Accidents 347 312 261 128 701
Incidents 382 416 588 236 1240
Total 732 734 851 365 1950

Source: NIK’s analysis based on data of the Office of Rail Transport (ORT)

The majority of occurrences were reported in 2018-2020 (1st half) on level crossings (about 25%). In that period there were eight serious accidents (of which five on unprotected crossings) and 701 accidents (of which 167 on unprotected crossings). The primary cause was improper behaviour of road users and pedestrians as well as the absence of two-level level crossings in Poland.

Another reason could be the changes of ratios implemented in 2015, used to establish the category of level crossings. The changes led to lowering the crossings’ categories, in spite of intensified train and car traffic. The NIK audit of traffic safety on level crossings in 2016 revealed that as a result of some changes implemented with the ministerial ordinance of 2015, higher-category crossings could be qualified into lower categories (categories are determined, among others, by the number of crossing trains, their acceptable speed, visibility at the crossing, number of rails, installed safety systems).

Crashed passenger train after its collision with a lorry on an unprotected level crossing. Source: Koleje Wielkopolskie Sp. z o.o.

Safety and smoothness of traffic flow were also determined by numerous collisions of trains with wild animals. The data of PKP PLK S.A. (Polish railway infrastructure manager) shows that in 2019, more than 10 collisions a day took place on the lines managed by that company.  However, PKP PLK S.A. did not take effective measures to protect the access to railway lines in the places of repeated migration of wild animals.

In spite of the above minor irregularities, NIK has positively evaluated the way rail carriers discharged their tasks related to:

  • keeping trains in good technical and operating condition which guaranteed safe transport;
  • equipping passenger trains with technical devices to improve passengers’ safety and comfort;
  • making sure passenger train drivers and ticket inspectors have necessary qualifications;
  • using properly the indications of devices designed to detect train breakdowns (dSAT).

At the request of NIK, ORT President made inspections of 190 trains in 2020. They revealed 250 irregularities related to technical condition, maintenance and signage of trains, such as:

  • delays in servicing trains and the lack of effective supervision of scheduling service dates;
  • poor technical condition of trains in use, such as: damaged doors, improper signage, toilet failures, non-functional system of passenger information and other mechanical defects;
  • inconsistencies in the Safety Management System (SMS) documentation kept by the rail carriers;
  • improperly kept train documentation;
  • non-compliance with acceptable working time of train drivers.

In 2018-2019, the number of passengers and the train operating time increased. At the same time, the number of used trains went down. Rail carriers were structuring their rolling stock. They liquidated or sold unnecessary and obsolete trains, modernised old ones or purchased new trains. All that helped improve the technical condition of the rolling stock.

Overall assessment of technical condition of passenger rolling stock used in 2017-2019. Source: NIK’s analysis based on ORT data

In spite of some improvement, trains are old. The average age of used passenger rolling stock, in 2018-2019, did not improve much and was: about 34 years for electric locomotives, about 42 years for diesel locomotives, about 29 years for train cars with seats, about 35 years for couchettes, about 25 years for electric multiple units. In 2018, as much as 27% of regional and agglomeration trains were at least 40 years old. That situation not only resulted in increased failure frequency of aging trains but also left passengers dissatisfied as their expectations as to the trains’ equipment (such as air conditioning, room for bicycles or bigger luggage, facilities for the disabled) were often disappointed.

Additional equipment of passenger rolling stock in 2019

Type of additional equipment

Types of passenger rail vehicles:

 

Motor cars

Multiple units

Cars:

 

electric

diesel

electric

diesel

with seats

couchettes

 

air conditioning

100%

84%

62%

89%

45%

24%

 

Internet access

100%

48%

45%

49%

7%

0%

 

mobile phone signal booster

0%

18%

22%

19%

1%

0%

 

toilet with container

100%

82%

61%

98%

55%

55%

 

GPS location

100%

68%

68%

77%

5%

0%

 

room for bicycles

100%

89%

97%

98%

10%

0%

 

changing table

100%

52%

70%

68%

52%

55%

 

ticket machine

100%

11%

33%

28%

0%

0%

 

seats for persons with reduced mobility

100%

52%

61%

54%

7%

7%

 

Additional equipment of passenger rolling stock in 2019

Type of additional equipment Types of passenger rail vehicles:
motor cars multiple units cars:
electric diesel electric diesel with seats couchettes
air conditioning 100% 84% 62% 89% 45% 24%
Internet access 100% 48% 45% 49% 7% 0%
mobile phone signal booster 0% 18% 22% 19% 1% 0%
toilet with container 100% 82% 61% 98% 55% 55%
GPS location 100% 68% 68% 77% 5% 0%
room for bicycles 100% 89% 97% 98% 10% 0%
changing table 100% 52% 70% 68% 52% 55%
ticket machine 100% 11% 33% 28% 0% 0%
seats for persons with reduced mobility 100% 52% 61% 54% 7% 7%

Source: NIK’s analysis based on ORT data

Most passenger trains lacked AEDs (automated external defibrillators) designed to give first aid to passengers with cardiac arrest. The majority of carriers did not sufficiently train their employees in pre-medical first aid.

NIK has underlined that suspending obligatory health checks of train drivers due to the COVID-19 pandemic poses a threat to traffic safety. The suspension reduces the possibility of train drivers contracting coronavirus. But, at the same time, it leads to a situation where trains are driven by persons not covered by medical or psychological examinations, which are critical for the safety of rail transports.

The issue of detecting the use of alcohol or psychoactive substances by railway employees still remains unsolved. In response to the Labour Code amendment in 2019 and the opinion of the President of the Personal Data Protection Office (PDPA), some rail employers stopped making sobriety tests in their employees. As a result of differences in opinions between the ORT President  and the PDPA President, the former moved to the Minister of Infrastructure to make law changes to allow sobriety testing in persons directly responsible for the safety of rail transport. At the same time, the ORT President requested statutory eligibility to suspend the licence of a train driver in case there is evidence that he or she was working under the influence of alcohol or psychoactive substances. Without waiting for final decisions, some rail carriers brought back the sobriety tests.

In view of the changes in the process of training and examining train drivers, implemented in 2011-2014, the ORT President analysed their impact on rail traffic safety in 2019. The analysis showed that ⅔ of railway occurrences, which were at least partly caused by a breach regulations by fresh train drivers (with less than 5 years’ practice), were related to persons trained and examined in line with new principles. The NIK findings indicate that the existing model of educating and examining train drivers needs modifications to provide required safety of rail transport.

Positive evaluation of PKP PLK S.A.

One of the key devices detecting breakdowns in running trains is the train breakdown detection device, or dSAT. The company responsible for the location and maintenance of those devices is PKP PLK S.A. The NIK audit showed that the majority of over 200 dSAT devices were kept in a good technical condition and provided reliable information on breakdowns to rail carriers.

The NIK findings indicate that some dSAT devices were installed too close to train stations where trains were braking. As a result, measurements were made when the brakes were heating up. Consequences included false alarms and unnecessary delays of passenger trains, caused by the need to make the train check-up. Rail carriers provided that information to PKP PLK S.A. but the company did not change the devices’ location. This situation poses a safety threat because repeating, unconfirmed alarms generated by dSAT devices may weaken train drivers’ response to those signals.

Positive evaluation of ORT President

The ORT President properly exercised supervision over the way railway companies discharged their tasks related to the safety of using passenger trains.

NIK has pointed out, though, that the ORT inspectors could not immediately limit the use of trains in a poor technical condition (or withdraw them). According to NIK, that poses a threat to passengers’ health and life. In line with the Rail Transport Act, the use of a train may be limited or eliminated by the ORT President by way of an administrative decision. Although the decision is immediately enforceable, it is enforced only after being delivered to the other party to the proceedings. It should be stressed that effective delivery of such decision may take place - in line with applicable Code of administrative proceedings - even after 14 days of its issue. It would be much easier if such decisions were issued by eligible inspectors in the course of an inspection. NIK has established, though, that efforts taken by the ORT President, to enable the Minister of Infrastructure to conduct works in this area, did not prove effective.

Barriers to improving the safety of passenger rolling stock:

  1. Too old trains.
  2. Insufficient efforts to modernise used trains and purchase new passenger rolling stock.
  3. Passenger trains were not adapted to the needs of disabled persons and persons with reduced mobility.
  4. Insufficient additional equipment of passenger trains.
  5. Insufficient number of defibrillators and training programmes in reanimation.
  6. Obligatory medical and psychological examinations of train drivers during the epidemic were suspended for several months.
  7. Part of dSAT devices were improperly located on the PKP PLK S.A. network.
  8. Lack of dSAT devices on railway lines of other administrators.
  9. Absence of clear provisions of law enabling employers alone to test sobriety of train drivers and conductors.
  10. Poor organisation of the process of training and examining train drivers and candidates for train drivers.
  11. On half of level crossings the traffic was unprotected - there were no mechanical securities.
  12. ORT inspectors were not entitled to immediately limit or eliminate the use of trains posing a threat to rail traffic safety.
  13. Access to railway lines in the places of repeating migration of wild animals was unprotected.
Source: NIK’s analysis based on audit results

Recommendations

NIK has recommended that the Minister of Infrastructure should take efforts to implement regulations:

  • enabling the provision of required funds to modernise the existing trains and purchase new ones,
  • obliging rail carriers to equip passenger trains with defibrillators and to train conductors in first aid,
  • ensuring immediate reactivation (after the pandemic-related break) of obligatory medical and psychological examinations of train drivers and conductors,
  • making sure rail employers can - on their own - conduct sobriety tests of train drivers,
  • enabling limitation or elimination the use of trains in a technical condition which poses a threat to rail traffic safety,
  • related to the protection of access to railway lines in the places of repeating migration of wild animals,
  • obliging train manufacturers to install devices detecting breakdowns in new or modernised trains.

NIK has also addressed the President of the Office of Rail Transport with the following recommendations:

  • take efforts to immediately deliver administrative decisions to rail carriers, limiting or eliminating the use of trains,
  • make checks of all dSAT devices used by PKP PLK S.A. in 2021,
  • analyse the safety of rail transports in the light of the number and location of dSAT devices on specific railway lines.

Article informations

Date of creation:
08 March 2021 12:53
Date of publication:
08 March 2021 12:53
Published by:
Marta Połczyńska
Date of last change:
31 March 2021 15:42
Last modified by:
Marta Połczyńska
A Polish train running through an unprotected level crossing © Adobe Stock

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