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Transport & Logistics

Ensuring rail safety controls stand the test of time

26 Apr 2021, by Amy Sarcevic

Developing consistent and effective safety controls is an increasing challenge for the rail sector, particularly when its backdrop is in a constant state of flux.

Commercial and off-the-shelf technologies create ongoing change for railway operators – with each new system forcing them to assess safety in a different light.

Moreover, controls implemented today will need to retain their efficacy towards the end of the asset lifecycle – often several decades later.

During this time, the business model, organisational structure, or supply chain may undergo seismic change, rendering many established processes ineffective.

With this in mind, we spoke with Oliver Lake, ATP Test & Commissioning Engineer at Sydney Trains and Chelsea Winskill, Regulatory Data Analyst at ONRSR – both graduates of the RISSB Horizons program.

Ahead of their session streams at the RISSB Rail Safety Conference, they unveiled four key tips on how to design effective safety controls, in a rapidly evolving environment.

#1 – Manage risks through the whole rail service delivery model

One key change affecting the longevity of safety controls is the decline of vertically integrated rail networks – a framework in which constraints are more easily passed between above- and below-rail entities.

“A growing number of rail networks in Australia are becoming less vertically integrated, yet some safety systems are expected to mitigate key enterprise risks across an interface on a network,” said Mr. Lake.

Without clear lines of communication, things may be overlooked or not properly handled through the service delivery model, creating risks up and down the chain.

“What a trackside system supplier may see as an exported safety constraint to the rail infrastructure manager, may have flow on impacts to the rolling stock operator. Similarly, a safety constraint related to the rolling stock operator, may have flow on safety constraints to a trackside system supplier,” he said.

“With these challenges, the industry has to think hard about how it goes about that assurance piece. It’s critical that each level of rail service delivery understands any application constraints,” he added.

To this end, rail transport operators should routinely revaluate their interface and interoperability agreements. This will ensure a common understanding of the operational context of safety systems.

#2 – Align assurance protocol with the operator/maintainer

An organisation will inevitably change shape throughout the lifecycle of an asset, meaning assurance arguments will need to move in parallel.

“You may have an asset that is delivered into a certain operational environment, and that environment will at some point remould – whether structurally or in terms of its personnel,” said Mr. Lake.

“Assurance protocol of the asset goes with the asset, of course. But at the most granular level, administrative controls have to apply across the organisation. A cultural change of the company will therefore demand that you reassess and re-align the system with the operator maintainer.”

As one key example, a new signalling system implemented at Sydney Trains required its signalling designers to learn a new process, creating an ongoing requirement for training and competency management.

“For the European Train Control System (ETCS) Level 1 project, new roles in the signalling design process had to be embedded within the organisation. This was so that Sydney Trains – as a system maintainer – had the requisite framework, procedures and protocols in place to satisfy the safety requirements of maintaining ETCS (including the configuration management),” said Mr. Lake.

“But beyond that, the training and competencies related to ETCS will need to be revisited and tailored according to how future projects are delivered – in line with any future business models and potential structure changes.

“It’s important to remember, the operator or maintainer may be required to gain a variation of their accreditation as a result of the implementation of a new safety system.

“Organisations throughout the rail service delivery model need to be cognisant of the specific protocols and requirements a rail transport operator may have with respect to this process,” he added.

#3 – Qualitative, not just quantitative, controls

New safety systems often come with an additional list of exported constraints and make elementary maintenance procedures more important. Mr. Lake believes a strong safety culture is paramount in developing the assurance piece for these systems – and for ensuring any new processes are accepted on the front-line.

“Many safety controls are quantifiable. But it’s the integration of the administrative controls with qualitative organisational traits – including communication and team building – that help you go beyond the bare minimum of safety controls,” said Mr. Lake.

“Within rail, paperwork will always come naturally – but safety culture will encourage the meaningful review of those documents and ensure changes are accepted and embedded by staff on the front line.”

To this end, engineering and cultural changes will need to be assessed hand-in-hand, he added.

“The best opportunity to bring the engineering and cultural change together is at the concept stage. An operational readiness framework allows both the safety system and the organisation to be assessed at a desktop level.

“Operational readiness is a two way street: does the system match the organisation? Does the organisation match the system? No off-the-shelf safety system will ever dovetail perfectly into an organisation; a balance is required to be found, however realising the safety benefits is critical.”

#4 – Leverage and properly understand data

Data and data-led technologies are used widely in the Australian rail sector to address a range of the industry’s pain points. A reliance on data alone, however, may not be wise from a safety standpoint.

“A lot of operators are using data for defect detection within both track and rolling stock assets. That’s great, but the challenge is to make sure staff at the ground level understand exactly what those defect alerts mean,” said Ms. Winskill.

“If you look solely at the data you will be blind to a whole range of safety factors. You need data combined with the expertise of people to really add value.

“It’s human technical competency that will help diagnose and troubleshoot problems with data-led technologies, train algorithms, and strive to mitigate algorithmic bias.

“The smartest way to conceptualise data, from a safety assurance perspective, is as an extra layer of protection,” she added.

Oliver Lake is an ATP Test and Commissioning Engineer working on the current deployment of ETCS on the Sydney Trains network. Oliver works in the ATP Integration business unit of Sydney Trains. A business unit tasked with the integration of technology, systems engineering and assurance processes associated with ETCS. Oliver has worked on rolling stock and rail systems projects in various stages of the system lifecycle, including new fleet procurements, brownfield upgrade projects, maintenance and disposal. He specialises in both technical and organisational interface management for complex systems. He has held positions in rolling stock design, fleet delivery, and ETCS Level 1 and Level 2 projects. Oliver is a Member of Engineers Australia, deputy chapter chair of the Railway Technical Society of Australasia and a RISSB Horizons Program graduate.

Chelsea Winskill is a Regulatory Data Analyst at ONRSR, within the Risk & Analysis team. With six years of experience in safety, and graduate studies in Applied Statistics, Chelsea supports all levels of the organisation to leverage the data available. She is currently involved in the development of the National Level Crossing Portal initiative and part of ONRSR’s internal National Data Strategy working group.

Here more from them at the RISSB Rail Safety Conference due to take place 11-12 May 2021.

This year’s event is being offered as a hybrid event, with the option to attend in-person at the Swissotel Sydney, or virtually via the streaming features available on the event app.

Learn more and register.

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