The Railway Safety Commission, established in 2005 to oversee railway safety in Ireland, has recently been given new powers under EU law.

Despite the economic downturn, the government says it is committed to implementing previously-approved vital infrastructure projects, such as Transport 21. Under this plan, seven Luas projects along with two Metro lines are being developed in the greater Dublin area, and the intercity rail networks are being upgraded and expanded.

Recently, the body set up in 2005 to oversee railway safety in this country, the Railway Safety Commission (RSC), has been given new powers under the European Communities (Railway Safety) Regulations 2008, which transpose into Irish law EC Directive 2004/49/EC. Under the new regulations, both railway operators and infrastructure managers must provide to the RSC evidence that they have put in place a safety management system in accordance with new EU standards.

The overall ambition behind this new directive is "to pursue efforts to establish a single market for rail transport services". To this end, the European harmonisation of key elements of safety (including, for instance, certification that rolling stock meets EU standards) is felt to be essential if safety is not to present a barrier to pan-European transport operations. This means that where a railway operator has been granted a safety certificate in another EU member state and then plans to operate additional railway services in Ireland, it no longer requires a brand new safety certificate as a condition of operation but instead an "additional safety certification" issued by the RSC will be sufficient.

Common Safety Standards

The new safety certification regime seeks to make it easier to run pan-European transport operations by maintaining common safety level across Europe. On this basis, the new Irish regulations introduce a series of safety standards, to be implemented by railway undertakings in their 'safety management system'.

These include:

  • Common safety methods (CSMs): describing how compliance with safety levels and achievement of safety targets are assessed.
  • Common safety targets (CSTs): setting out the safety levels that must be reached by different parts of the rail system and by the system as a whole, expressed in risk assessment criteria, and
  • Technical specifications for interoperability (TSI): the specifications by which each sub-system meet the essential requirements to ensure the interoperability of the trans-European high-speed and conventional rail system.

However, CSM, CST and TSI do not apply to the Luas and Metro projects. The regulations do not extend their applications to railways which have been designated as light railway or metro. Nonetheless, these common safety requirements will apply to the Irish conventional rail system and intercity rail networks when operators are applying for new licences or their renewal after a five-year period.

The new Irish regulations also give the investigation unit of the Railway Safety Commission new powers of investigation, which, by analogy, are almost similar to the common law search powers. These new powers include the rights of access (for example, to the site of a railway accident or incident, to any relevant information or records and to the results of examination of bodies of victims) as well as rights of use (of contents of on-board recorders and equipment recording verbal messages and signals).

Transport 21 will mark a new era in the modern history of transport in Ireland. It will present some important challenges at a number of levels - transportation planning, civil engineering, technological, ecological as well as railway safety. The new railway safety legislation will no doubt give the RSC a broader scope in its supervisory role, and in particular in ensuring the attainment of the highest safety standards for this new generation of railway infrastructure, a colossal project which is expected to be completed by 2015.