Proper training and ongoing competency assessments are a crucial part of a safe rail environment. ONRSR is investigating whether training practices need to be improved.
On January 10, 2018, a Queensland Rail passenger train was travelling towards Brisbane Airport. Arriving at Bowen Hills station, the yellow departure signal at the end of the platform displayed was lit, indicating that the next signal would be red. At Bowen Hills the driver and guard changed over.
With the new crew on board, the train departed the platform with the yellow signal still lit. Proceeding along the line, the train passed through the next signal which was displaying a red light. The trains automatic warning system had sounded an alarm prior to the signal however the driver had continued. After an alarm was raised in the network control centre, a network control officer commanded the driver to stop. The train stopped 125m before the potential conflict point with another train.
The incident is currently being investigated by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB), however in a preliminary report published in February 2019, the investigators highlighted a concern with the maintenance of competency system that Queensland Rail had instituted.
“Queensland Rail’s administration of the Maintenance of Competency assessment process provided limited assurance that its Citytrain Rail Traffic Drivers meet relevant competency requirements,” the report notes.
A final report is expected in the first quarter of 2021.
An earlier investigation into an incident in 2015 also raised concerns about training and competency. An empty V/Line train transferring from Waurn Ponds to Geelong passed a signal set at caution. While the driver slowed immediately after passing the signal, the train increased in speed as it continued towards Marshall Railway Station.
Approaching Marshall station, the driver saw the home signal at stop and applied the train’s brakes, however the train passed through that signal and the next, both of which were at stop, before coming to a halt. The train had traversed a level crossing after Marshall Station before the warning devices activated. Fortunately there were no injuries or damage due to the incident.
In its final report, the ATSB found that the driver’s training did not adequately prepared the driver for the two-signal sequence in question.
Following the incident and report, V/ Line retrained the driver and developed a simulator session to improve driver training in two-position signalling.
To Peter Doggett, COO at the Office of the National Rail Safety Regulator (ONRSR) the two incidents highlighted the importance of training, and not just at the beginning of a rail worker’s career. While the 2015 incident was the first time the driver had driven unsupervised, the driver in the 2018 incident had been driving trains since 1985.
These incidents, and others like it, has led ONRSR to look more closely into the standard and quality of training for safety critical roles within the rail industry.
“We’ve noticed in a couple of key areas when we do the in-depth investigations we’re seeing a bit of an emerging trend where people don’t have the knowledge, competency or the training for some critical positions,” said Doggett. “We’re not saying everyone is in this boat at all, it’s just happened a little more often than we like.”
Through its investigations, ONRSR has identified two roles where proper training and ongoing assessment of competency is key; network controllers and protection officers.
“The protection officers and network controller are two fundamental positions that keep people safe out on the tracks, so if there’s elements in those work groups that aren’t as well trained as we think there needs to be, it’s a serious concern,” said Doggett.
In August 2020, ONRSR put out a safety message to the industry addressing these concerns, with a focus on network controller competencies.
“ONRSR is advising all rail transport operators of the need to assess and address where necessary the competency of network controllers following a series of concerning incidents,” the message noted.
“A lack of true practical competency of network controllers is an emerging trend in investigation reports suggesting that, while further work needs to be done to understand the issue in detail, many RTOs are using inexperienced staff in these safety critical roles.”
The message highlighted that a lack of opportunity and time for experience and a move towards theory-based learning was creating safety risks. In particular, incident investigations have found that decisions were being made without a full appreciation of the risks involved, and when an emergency has occurred, under- experienced controllers struggled to determine the appropriate response.
In the Australian rail regulatory environment, rail transport operators (RTOs) must ensure that staff are adequately trained and have the required competency to safely perform their role. In the co-regulatory system, the day to day enforcement of these requirements is the responsibility of RTOs. In the Rail Safety National Law, RTOs must maintain records of competency of rail safety workers. This includes the training undertaken, the qualifications and competencies, the name of the organisation who conducted the training.
While some RTOs conduct training in house, many rail safety workers are trained by private training organisations. Upon successful completion of their training, workers are provided with a statement of competency or certificate of attainment. As Doggett outlined, when ONRSR has a concern about a worker’s competency to perform their role or task safely, a certificate of attainment is often produced.
“Over the last few months and years we’ve had more and more concerns and thought, ‘They’ve got the certificate of competency, but they don’t know what they’re doing.’ That has made me start to think, well what’s the role of the registered training organisations that issues these certificates?”
Training organisations which provide training for rail safety workers are not regulated by ONRSR, and instead must meet the requirements set out by the Australian Skills Quality Authority (ASQA).
“That’s where it gets a bit tricky for us because we don’t regulate those organisations,” said Doggett. “The work we’ve been doing to date is to try and identify what registered training organisations are used consistently in industry.”
So far, in collaboration with industry, ONRSR has developed a database of training organisations that provide rail qualifications and sought information from industry about the quality of training delivered. From these inquiries, Doggett has found that most training organisations are doing the right thing and the vast majority of rail staff are well trained and competent. However, in the rail industry where safety standards are high, any exceptions to this have to be identified.
To ensure that staff are adequately trained and have up to date competencies, there is a role both for the regulators and the industry.
TRAINING AND COMPETENCY: A SHARED RESPONSIBILITY
With further investigations into specific training organisations ongoing, Doggett highlighted that maintaining a safe rail industry is an obligation of the regulator and RTOs. For RTOs this means that assessment of competency should go beyond producing certificates of attainment.
“If you’re a rail operator, while you need people to be qualified and have certificates, you have a real obligation as an RTO to ask, ‘How is that going to work in my operating context, in this environment?’”
When it comes to protection officers, knowing the specific conditions of each section of track they are working on is key, something that is not always possible to be taught in one classroom.
“Protection officers, who in many places are contractors, could be working in regional NSW one day, Melbourne the next, and South Australia the next week,” said Doggett. “That’s where we really rely on whoever they’re working for, to say, ‘Alright, you’ve got your certificate of competency, what do you know about the network in Adelaide?’ to make sure they understand the local operating environment.” Ensuring that staff have this knowledge could come down to a simple assessment before commencing work. Doggett highlights that the RTO must be confident that they are satisfied that the worker is competent for the task they are required to complete and be able to have the documentation to prove that. At the end of the day, Doggett notes, the legal responsibility lies with the accredited
RTO, and that competency must be proven by contractors and subcontractors.
“The accredited rail infrastructure manager (RIM) needs to make sure that whatever contractors they bring in understand the local knowledge,” said Doggett. “We’ll always go back to the accredited party as you’ve got to make sure your contractor is competent. You can’t contract out your risk.”
Beyond the black and white of the law and assessable competencies, there is also the need for a safety culture, said Doggett. This can mean training in soft skills such as being encouraged and supported to speak up or ask questions. Being able to respond calmly and effectively under pressure is another skill that rail workers, and network controllers in particular will need, and not one that can be assessed in a multiple- choice test.