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Transport & Logistics

What does ONRSR have in store for rail safety regulation in 2024?

18 Jan 2024, by Amy Sarcevic

Recently appointed Chief Executive for ONRSR, Dr Natalie Pelham, is on a mission to improve the efficiency of national rail safety regulation.

As part of this work, she has been on a ‘listen and learn tour’ for the last six weeks, meeting with colleagues, government and industry to hear more about the regulatory environment and the sector’s most pressing safety concerns.

Ahead of the Heavy Haul Rail Conference, hosted by Informa Connect, Dr Pelham shares some insights from this tour, listing her top three priorities for heavy haul rail in the year ahead.

#1 – Interoperability and harmonisation under the National Rail Action Plan (NRAP)

With a growing need for seamless passage across the seven connected networks for rail freight and people, dialogue around interoperability and technology investment is amplifying.

While Dr Pelham is part of an interoperability steering group led by the National Transport Commission, she says the supporting protocols still need firming up.

“We are looking at how we can bring this interoperability question into something more concrete, and in the past months we have developed a model for how we could make it work,” she said.

The model lays out a national rail interoperability network, along with some desired interoperability and harmonisation outcomes. These represent two of the greatest challenges when it comes to realising safety and productivity benefits.

“Travelling across different networks should be a smooth process for an above rail operator. So, we are looking at how we can remove the costs and differences associated with interchanging.

“We are also exploring what needs to be mandated in law and whether there are any complementary operating standards,” Dr Pelham said.

Dr Pelham also hopes that improved governance for rail infrastructure managers around technology procurement will improve safety outcomes.

“When infrastructure managers invest, they make decisions for their network. But with seven networks across the country, common decisions in the national interest – especially in the adoption of new technologies – are needed. So, the model will include governance arrangements with infrastructure managers to better coordinate investment decisions.

“A key question for me is the role of the regulator in supporting these proposed arrangements. Our role could be to provide assurance that investments deliver the right levels of safety and productivity as set out in the legislation for interoperability for example.

“If we get this smoother operation between networks, one would hope it would lead to greater productivity and safety.”

While Dr Pelham admits there is a lot left to do on the interoperability front, she is confident the industry is headed in the right direction.

“We still need to determine how this framework will work, but the NTC is developing the research needed to support any interoperability decisions we make.

“We are looking around the world at how other jurisdictions have done this to get the best of what has already been tried and avoid repeating the same mistakes.”

#2 – A coordinated level crossing safety approach

Following the fatal level crossing incident that took place on New Years’ Eve on the New South Wales / South Australian border, the topic of level crossing safety has regained focus.

The incident, which claimed two lives, involved a truck driver allegedly failing to stop upon approach, forcing the train to collide with its rear and derail.

Dr Pelham said that while these incidents are rare, they are usually of a catastrophic nature, prompting fresh discussion on the management of intersections between road and rail.

The issue of collaboration is a particular talking point, she says.

“As a regulator, I can certainly look at rail related issues and identify if anything warrants further attention, but I have no power to deal with road. This is why we need to explore better coordination between governments, road managers, road and rail transport operators and regulators.”

Dr Pelham said the issue becomes more pressing as trucks and hauling freight become longer, heavier, and taller. “We’ve got heavy haul trains that are kilometres long and a considerable weight and trucks increasingly becoming longer, heavier and taller, so it’s essential we give this our attention.”

To this end, ONRSR is developing a code of practice that will examine the interaction between trains, road vehicles, drivers, and pedestrians with a particular emphasis on achieving better train visibility.

“We are developing a tailored risk management approach to the assessment of operational risks and the selection of risk controls to deliver better train visibility”. Things like, is the surrounding vegetation okay? Are the approaches visible? Are trains lit up well enough? The code will be completed later this year and we’ll be working with the rail industry to ensure its adoption.”

#3 – Improved compliance among those with less rail industry involvement

Heavy haul industry representatives are increasingly asking whether ONRSR needs to do more to gain compliance from operators for whom rail is incidental to their business.

“Companies that move products around with rail, but whose main focus is another area of business may not be as familiar with Rail Safety National Law. Their systems may not adequately address the requirements in the way sole rail operators might.”

For this reason, Dr Pelham has begun thinking about opportunities for ONRSR to work with heavy haul operators to get together to discuss safety learnings and promote safety improvement.

“My preference is to facilitate discussion and escalate that to compliance and enforcement action when we are not seeing collaborative effort,” she said.

Further insight and discussion

Join Dr Natalie Pelham at the upcoming Heavy Haul Rail Conference and RISSB Rail Safety Conference, where she will share more about her priorities for 2024 and engage with delegates about other safety and regulatory topics.

This year’s event will be held alongside the Rail Turnouts Conference on 12 March at the Crown Perth.

Learn more and register your place at Heavy Haul Rail here.

About Dr Natalie Pelham

Dr Pelham is Chief Executive of ONRSR, National Rail Safety Regulator. She has more than 25 years in the public service, leading significant safety regulation, policy, strategy and reform at both state and national levels. She is passionate about rail safety and is a strong advocate for safety improvement.

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