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Transport & Logistics

Q&A Session: Derailments in Australia

16 Jan 2012, by Informa Insights

Laurie Wilson, General Manager, Infrastructure & Engineering, RISSB joins us for an in-depth look at the nature and  significance of derailments in Australia. He discusses the progress made over the last decade and the opportunities that exist to learn from investigations in order to improve the system and ensure rail remains one of the safest forms of transport.

Q: Over the Christmas break, there was mainstream media coverage of the dramatic train derailment north of Katherine caused by flash flooding from ex-Tropical Cyclone Grant. How common are derailments in Australia?

A: Not all derailments are as dramatic as the one reported widely over Christmas. Derailments occur around Australia at a less alarming rate than they used to. Rail organisations have been working and investing in safety systems and education in the last decade or so. The professionalism of investigators is getting to be of a higher standard and safety management systems provide a high degree of guidance for operators. Safety standards have and are being continuously developed and reviewed to ensure that the chances of derailments are significantly reduced and managed.

How common are derailments? ATSB receives and produces the data for the industry and the data is published on the website and is accessible to everyone. In numbers alone the data shows a trend down through the first 75% of the previous decade. The numbers have started to increase slightly since 2008. This could be to the return of the wet weather, increases in temperatures or other impacts. This is also reflected when the numbers are normalized against the number of rail kilometers traveled. Only a very small percentage of derailments occur on the passenger networks around Australia as the safety systems and standards are very high. This ensures rail remains one of the safest forms of passenger transport.

Q: BITRE’s 2003 report on ‘Rail Accident Costs in Australia’ estimated that derailments accounted for about 37% of all rail accidents in Australia and property costs due to derailments totaled just under $30million. Given the growth of rail traffic in the last decade and that property costs are not the only costs of derailments, what is the significance caused by derailments?

A: The BITRE report identified quite correctly that it has always been difficult to obtain accurate cost capture and analysis due to the different reporting and accounting systems utilised in the various rail organisations.  Organisations capture data for what they require and that may not be the information that is required for the BITRE type report. Above rail costs, below rail costs or a combination of both… If you look at infrastructure costs from derailment damage you will find not all repairs or replacements are captured against the actual incident. The track is usually repaired to a level of safety that allows the movement of trains. The organization then may conduct further repairs and improvements at a later date or over a period of time as finance and/or resources become available. A large component of the 2003 report was based on averaging and estimates due to this situation.

The real significance of derailments is the failure of the system. The benefits from this failure provide the opportunity to learn from it and improve the system to ensure similar occurrences are eliminated or the likelihood of recurrence is reduced. The National Derailment Investigation and Analysis workshop to be held in February will assist in this.

Q: Who is responsible for investigating derailments in Australia?

A: This question is not an easy question to answer in this type of forum. As most people are aware significant changes are taking place in this area with the appointment of the National Investigator. This basically provides an extension to the existing ATSB investigative jurisdiction – expanding from the DIRN to all rail networks. The ATSB however only takes on the larger scale occurrences that may have significant learning that can improve the rail industry as a whole. They only investigate a small percentage of the overhaul number.

Each individual rail operator/manager is responsible for undertaking an investigation into every occurrence. The level of investigation and the detail of the investigation and report vary according to the size/impact of the occurrence. This varies from a brief notification of an event and outcome to a full detailed investigation and analysis that results in a significant report with findings and recommendations that impact on the industry. The government provides the information required to industry through the Act and regulations. All rail organisations incorporate this information into their Safety Management Systems, Policies, Standards and Procedures.

Q: Is there a template for derailment reports?

A: The ARA in conjunction with RISSB and the major rail organisations developed a National Code of Practice (NCOP) for rail safety investigations. This was released in 2006 and is still applicable today. The NCOP contains information on good practice investigation methodologies and also a number of tools to assist rail safety investigators.  The NCOP also contains an Investigations Reporting Template. Investigators usually modify this to suit specific occurrences such as derailments. The ATSB and OTSI also have some publications that provide relevant information to assist Rail Safety Investigators.

Q: What happens to the data after a report is issued? Is the data on derailments in Australia easily available and/or shared within the industry?

A: The ATSB compiles an annual report that covers all reported rail occurrences. The data is useful but more is required to ensure that reporting is consistent across all states and organisations. The major investigative reports undertaken by the ATSB and state regulators are published on their websites. Individual rail organisations investigative reports and findings are usually kept in house and not circulated publically. This is a lost opportunity for the rail industry in general to learn from others. This is tending to improve with the better quality of reports identifying the root causes and contributing factors and staying clear of the blame game.

Q: RISSB’s inaugural two day National Derailment Investigations and Analysis Workshop will bring together rail operators, track owners, researchers and regulators. What do you hope this mix of safety and track personnel will achieve?

A: The rail industry is seeing some significant growth at present. Skilled rail safety practitioners are a critical contributor to ensure this growth is undertaken without a decrease in safety. The rail safety practitioners have less and less time to undertake research and this includes time available to review reports to identify learning from rail occurrences outside of their own organisations.  My hope is that this workshop will provide them with a large amount of information on lessons learned in a short period of time. They will then be able to evaluate what can be adopted to potentially improve their systems and processes without having to have the occurrence themselves. The workshop will bring together a large group of likeminded people that will be able to discuss issues and potential solutions.

 Q: Also participating is Mike McLoughlin of XD Rail UK. What will Mike’s involvement bring to the workshop?

A: Mike has had extensive involvement in derailment research and investigation for more years than most. He has been involved in judicial inquiries representing different parties in various derailments in the UK. Mike has been coming to Australia since 1999 providing his expert advice to potential and current derailment investigators. I would say that Mike is the “Investigators investigator” with a depth and breadth of knowledge that most of us can only aspire to have. He constantly challenges investigators to stretch the boundaries of their thinking.

Q: Following this workshop, RISSB is holding a three day practical investigation and analysis course at the Kingston Railway Museum, Canberra during 22-24 February 2012. What is the rationale for this course and what are the benefits of running this course at the Museum?

A: The key to all improvements to safety is to learn as much as you can from any occurrences that you have. Derailments are a very specific rail industry phenomenon. Rail is a guided system – a derailment is a loss of this guidance. This means it is a significant event for the rail industry. It is critical that rail safety investigators correctly identify the mechanisms of derailment and the contributing factors that caused the loss of guidance. The three day course will provide the opportunity to gain and/or improve existing knowledge and skills in this area. The Kingston Rail Museum yard gives us safe access to rail and rollingstock that will maximise attendees learning time. The infrastructure is in place and the Rail Museum staff are very supportive of the event.

Q: As the coordinator for the workshop and field course, what do hope attendees will take back to the office with them? 

A: As the coordinator I am, on behalf of RISSB and the rail industry in general, providing an opportunity to improve knowledge that should either directly or indirectly improve safety through a reduction in derailment numbers and with better investigation and analysis of occurrences in general. The attendees will take back new ideas and solutions to apply in their relevant organisations.

For more information, visit:

RISSB National Derailment Investigations and Analysis Workshop 20-21 February 2012, Hotel Realm Canberra

RISSB National Derailment Investigations Workshop: Practical investigation and analysis 22 – 24 February 2012 | Kingston Rail Station/Museum, Canberra


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