One of the railway's most frequent and expensive safety issues begins on the road network. Every year in Britain there are about 2,000 bridge strikes, where road vehicles hit railway bridges and viaducts – that's an average of more than five every day. Each incident can cause hours of delays for tens of thousands of rail passengers – and road users – and costs the taxpayer thousands in repairs and compensation.
Network Rail shells out around £23m every year – of taxpayers' money –in compensation to train companies for services delayed during investigations and repairs. On average, that's £13,500 for every incident – money I would rather see spent on improving and upgrading our railway.
The cost to the taxpayer isn't the only consideration. As a qualified Passenger Carrying Vehicle (PCV) driver, I speak from experience when I say size does matter when you're a professional driver of a heavy vehicle. Not knowing the size of your vehicle or load could lead to a serious accident, and the loss of your licence. Bridge strikes are a safety risk that have the potential to derail a train, so where they might destabilise our infrastructure, our teams need to find out quickly and resolve any issues to keep the railway and passengers safe, and get trains running again.
Safety is a priority for all professional drivers, so our job isn't to get them to care about the issue – they already do, or should – it's for us to raise awareness in an imaginative and creative way. We want drivers to know the height of their vehicle, and always have it in mind that there may be low bridges on their route, and to have an action plan to avoid them, before they set off on the road as well as when they're travelling.
Year-round, our route-based 'bridge champions' do a fantastic job raising awareness among local professional drivers and haulage firms. We want all professional drivers to have the right tools to prevent bridge strikes, and I thank these companies for joining with us. Collaborative relationships are the only way forward when an issue affects two transport networks.
Together, they're making a difference already, but it's time to roll this out nationally. We know there's scope to grow on this, with 31 per cent of drivers who responded to a survey we recently carried out saying their employer has never given them any information on bridge strikes.
This is why we're stepping up our messaging this October with the launch of our new campaign to reduce bridge strikes. Research shows this is the month they happen most – darker mornings and a growing workload before Christmas play a part. Distraction is another factor, as bridge strikes usually happen where roadside advertisements and road signs proliferate.
We want to reduce the number of bridge strikes across the rail network by at least 10 per cent by April 2018. Our main messages, which drivers are already familiar with, are to know your vehicle's dimensions and plan your route to avoid low bridges before setting off. We also want to empower drivers so that if they are involved in a bridge strike they know what to do.
We listen to companies' and drivers' needs. One example is our foreign language guides endorsed by organisations including the European Transport Safety Council and the International Road Haulage Union (IRU). These supplement four good practice guides developed with industry.
The approach makes all the difference to whether people take our bridge strikes messaging on board. For our campaign there will be new material, alongside a multi-channel launch including social media and broadcast advertising, that will cut through the noise of the messages that drivers receive daily.
We're also calling for more enforcement of penalties for drivers when strikes do happen. Drivers who hit a bridge may find themselves with a £2,000 fine and nine points on their driving licence. Their vocational licence will also be under threat, as will their employer's Operators licence. Tackling bridge strikes makes financial and business sense too, with Network Rail able to recover 100 per cent of the compensation we have to pay to train operators (Schedule 8) from the company involved. Companies who transport goods across the country also face delays on the road and rail networks not of their own making when bridge strikes occur.
There's more for us to do, but I am confident we can beat our target of 10 per cent fewer bridge strikes across the rail network by April next year. Our new campaign approaches this safety issue from all angles, engaging drivers and opening up the conversation to the wider public in innovative ways. It's time to bridge the gap between the local and national agenda, in the cause of both road and rail safety.