ONRSR, RISSB, and ACRI are collaborating to provide the Australian rail industry with the best track worker safety technologies and systems.
In one of only two prosecutions carried out in the 2018-2019 year, the Office of the National Rail Safety Regulator (ONRSR) brought two charges against Sydney Trains after a track worker was killed while working on the network in 2016.
The rare use of the most severe enforcement tool, besides a revocation or suspension of accreditation, signalled to the industry just how serious the regulator was taking the issue of track worker safety.
CEO of ONRSR and Australia’s National Rail Safety Regulator Sue McCarrey said that currently, the Australian rail industry is not going in the right direction on track worker safety.
“Track worker safety is a continuing priority for us because some of the data and the information that we have says we’re not quite improving as much as we would like to.”
Focus areas are based on inspections, audits, and the compliance activities of ONRSR, and in the case of track worker safety, both the number of breaches and the rate of incidents per thousand of track kilometres has increased since 2015-2016.
“Our rail systems are getting busier and rail is under pressure to keep moving,” said McCarrey. “If you look at the work that’s happening right across the rail industry, whether in Sydney, Melbourne, or Brisbane, that puts additional pressure on the system, and with many more worksites happening, that does cause an increase in the statistics.”
While few incidents are fatal, with the 2016 Sydney Trains being one of the tragic few, what is frustrating to the regulator, said Peter Doggett, ONRSR chief operating officer, is that all are preventable.
“We see a large number of very significant near misses and when you go into the factors that contributed to them, every single one I’d argue is preventable with really simple changes and processes. It’s simple stuff that is breaking down and leading to these incidents.”
IMPLEMENTING GLOBAL BEST PRACTICE
The issue of track worker safety and more work going on within the rail corridor is not only an issue in Australia. According to McCarrey, there is a global push to put the best technology in the hands of rail maintenance workers and network managers to prevent track worker safety incidents.
“It’s an area of concern for rail right around the world. There’s a whole lot of work that’s being undertaken by individual rail companies in Australia and overseas looking at what are different systems, approaches, and, in particular, uses of technology that are being used to keep track workers safe.”
Seeing this work in action, ONRSR, are collaborating with the Rail industry Safety and Standards Board (RISSB), and have tasked the Australian Centre for Rail innovation (ARCI) to conduct a global survey to provide a baseline reference for Australian operators of global best practice when it comes to track worker safety.
By collaborating and combining insights from government, research bodies, and the rail industry, the project aims to provide useful information that can be applied straight away.
“The idea is that this research will help companies make decisions as to what is the best approach for them,” said McCarrey. “It’s different if you’re a Sydney Trains or a Melbourne Metro, or if you’re in the Pilbara and you’re in a fairly remote part of Australia or you’re the Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC) and your track goes across the Nullarbor. The approach has to be different but everybody’s out there looking at similar systems around the world.”
To be completed before the end of 2020, the research will be a result of collaborating and describe what systems and technology are available, what are the advantages and disadvantages, and where has the system been proven to work in different environments.
Andrew Meier, CEO of ACRI, describes the project as a proactive tool.
“It will be seeking engagement from across industry to find out about those trials that are not widely known and that are underway or have completed and what decisions have been made on those that are safe solutions. Being able to have that information available for industry is vitally important.”
The final report will be made up of a literature review as well as a scan of technologies on the horizon, informed by collaborating with industry through a survey as well as stakeholder workshops.
“ONRSR and RISSB are collaborating and want this to be a seminal tool for industry to use, to say this is what we know, and you can take this from here. It may well be that some of the things that are identified still need a level of development but perhaps someone will want to pick up that trial and take it further. It will give people a baseline of information to immediately know what they can do to keep their track workers safe,” said Meier.
“It’s a tool for now.”
THE REGULATORY APPROACH
With the adoption of new, safety critical technologies, McCarrey outlines that ONRSR and the National Rail Safety law allows rail operators to adopt new technology, for example in the adoption of driverless trains on the Sydney Metro network and on Rio Tinto’s network in the Pilbara.
“The law actually allows rail companies to introduce new technologies but what we do as the regulator is to have a look at their safety assurance of that,” said McCarrey. “We will work with the rail operator all the way through. We will be looking at where did the technology come from, where has it been used before, how have you tested it in your system, so that we can ultimately see that, so far as is reasonably practical, they have put all the assurance and a governance system in place to ensure that they believe that the system is safe.”
With the adoption of technology to improve track worker safety, the reduction in cost of GPS-based location technology, as well as real-time communication systems which can alert the driver and network operator, it is becoming more important than ever that rail operators look at what can be applied to their network or operations.
Meier also notes that ACRI is conducting research into the application of off-the-shelf robotics technology to remove people from potentially dangerous locations. However, McCarrey stresses that this research project and ONRSR more generally will not select any particular product or technology.
“We’ve got to be really careful as a regulator, we must remain independent, because different companies will implement different things,” she said.
“What the project will develop is a suite of possible solutions. It’s not going to pick a winner of some kind of technology but what it will produce is a table of technologies and techniques around track worker safety. This will cover at indicative costs, time frames for implementation and where they might be useful in different environments. It’s not going to say, ‘This is the best.’”
Instead, noted McCarrey, the research project will be a resource for industry.
Currently, the project is conducting desktop research and is seeking industry feedback. Companies seeking to be involved should contact ACRI.