Bridging the gap

The number of bridge strikes is alarming, and occur despite clear height warning signs. What is happening, and what can operators do about it? Stone King‘s webinar discovers some of the answers

The hard fact is, buses are proportionately more involved in bridge strikes than trucks, and it’s time to do more to prevent them, says Senior Traffic Commissioner, Kevin Rooney.

Kevin Rooney

Stone King’s ‘Bridge Strike Awareness’ even brought together bus operators and a number of experts from academia and from National Rail to find out what’s happening, why it’s happening and how we can prevent it.

“We don’t know why the proportion of buses involved in bridge strikes is so high,” said Kevin Rooney. “It’s possible that truck collisions are under-reported because they can just drive away from the scene.”

While the TC realises that drivers are always the last line of defence against bridge strikes, they are not solely responsible for them: “Some drivers are just left to their own devices. Recently, we had one case in which a driver was using Google Maps to navigate with earphones, and I think was distracted by it when he hit a bridge. He was set up to fail, really, by the operator.

“The driver had expressed his concern but had been told to ‘get on with it.’ Drivers foten do not get proper support.”

Kevin said the buck stops with the Transport Manager: “He should carry out a risk assessment of the route. That’s his job. It all comes down to proper planning.”

Network Rail’s ‘tzar’ of bridge strikes, Mark Wheel, said that NR had relied upon the heavy vehicle industries to be ‘self-regulatory’ and depended on simply making information available to operators, but Mark has since begun contacting operators direct to try to raise awareness of the near-2,000 bridge strikes a year – and that’s just of Network Rail bridges.

“The cost to us is mitigated now by claiming back the cost from insurers,” said Mark, but warned that the costs can be huge, taking into account not just repairs but the cost to the network of rail closures.

We’re also working with the Highways Authority to identify the top 100 bridges and to get the signage as good as it can be,” he said. He added that, with Sir Peter Hendy now at the NR helm, they’ve raised the profile within bus groups but, nonetheless, there are still an average one bridge strike a week involving a bus.

Simon Goff, Interim MD of Firstbus Hants, Dorset and Berks, and Tom Bridge, Operations Director at Firstbus Leeds, explained how they have used a mixture of technology to ‘geofence’ low bridges and trigger a warning to the driver; and training including a ‘You must stop’ instruction to all drivers forced by traffic directions to go off route: “By geofencing 30 bridges we now have 30 no-go zones,” said Tom, who said First is also using regular driver communications over social media to continue to raise awareness.

It isn’t possible to geofence all low bridges, said Tom, because some are too close to bus routes: “So we leave those out, to avoid drivers getting so many false alerts they start ignoring them.”

Simon Goff added that the need for core of good route training, and correctly allocated fleet, plus raising awareness of vehicle height to the driving team were clear: “Drivers must have route learning and it must be regularly refreshed,” he said. He added that the most risky areas of business were rail replacement, often at short notice on unfamiliar routes, and engineering movements, although even with these, engineers have to agree the route in advance.

The TC, Kevin Rooney, warned that operators will be held accountable if they cannot demonstrate that they have performed risk assessments and engaged with drivers: “One operator who came before me had sent his drivers a Powerpoint presentation. Sending out guidance is pretty useless, no matter how good it is. I’ve even seen written instructions handed to drivers who don’t speak English.”

The answer, said Kevin, could be technology and it could be training, but is likely to be both. The penalties to a driver can be severe, starting at a six-month licence suspension.

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