Safe railways for Australia

ONRSR's national priorities

A national priority for ONRSR is defined as a rail safety area of regulatory focus that applies to multiple jurisdictions and operators and warrants a sustained period of regulatory attention. ONRSR typically targets its national priorities through operator-centric national compliance projects or industry-wide, education-focused safety improvement projects.

ONRSR applied a structured, evidence-based risk assessment process to identify the following four national priority areas of regulatory focus:

Track worker safety

ONRSR’s aim has been to heighten the awareness of track worker safety to both industry and workers alike by increasing its presence in the field, challenging operators to demonstrate their commitment through training, monitoring, review and enforcement activities, and by running a theatre-based safety improvement program for frontline workers.

Following its adoption as a national priority, and an initial focus on worker competency and safety critical communications, ONRSR shifted the scope of its work relating to track worker safety. Over the last 2 years an emphasis has been placed on the collection of better incident data from operators, exploring innovative options for promoting and improving track worker safety, and on the performance of specific compliance activities.

Level crossing safety

There are more than 23,000 level crossings in Australia many of which involve interactions between rail operations, road traffic, cyclists and pedestrians every minute of every day. At all of these level crossings there exists a level of risk to safety – indeed, other than suicide and trespass, accidents at level crossings are the primary cause of railway related fatalities among the general public.

All rail safety stakeholders, including the general public, have a role to play in improving safety at level crossings and ONRSR continues to advocate for co-operation between all parties that will ultimately help reduce the rate of fatalities and serious injuries associated with collisions. ONRSR also continues to be fully supportive of the work being done by government and industry to remove level crossings and to commit to a policy of no new level crossings unless totally unavoidable.

Contractor management

Operators are directly accountable and responsible for safety within the scope of their operations. Following the principle that safety cannot be contracted out, this accountability and responsibility for safety remains with the operator even when they employ a person or organisation, through contracts, to carry out rail safety work.

Those who carry out rail safety work for an accredited operator (e.g. design, commission, manufacture, supply, install, maintain or build anything used in connection with rail infrastructure or rolling stock) also have obligations – known as general duties – to ensure what they do is safe. This includes workers contracted under labour hire arrangements who undertake rail safety work.

Regulatory activities conducted by ONRSR have identified a number of concerns in relation to contractor management, including:

  • contractors being unaware of their duties and safety requirements under RSNL;
  • accountable operators failing to gain assurances that contracted work has been adequately performed;
  • ambiguity over who has effective management and control when several contracted parties are involved; and
  • concerns that a small, but not insignificant, proportion of labour hire workers are failing to meet the competency requirements for rail safety worker roles - particularly in relation to track work. .

Control assurance

Under RSNL operators are required to specify the control measures they use to manage the safety risks associated with their rail operations and to have control assurance procedures in place for monitoring, reviewing and revising the adequacy of those controls.

Control assurance is a critical component of the risk management element of an operator’s SMS. When done well it provides risk owners, duty holders and (when required) ONRSR, with assurance that all reasonably practicable safety control measures are in place and working effectively to manage operational safety risks.

Regulatory activities conducted by ONRSR have identified inconsistent or inadequate control assurance practices by operators across all sectors of the rail industry. Weaknesses identified include a lack of robust, rail safety-focussed internal audit programs within operator organisations and a lack of risk-based monitoring of safety controls implemented by rail safety workers (e.g. worksite protection planning and right of way procedures).

Managing a control assurance strategy

A control assurance strategy is a plan which is developed to clearly outline what assurance activities will be undertaken to assess if the risk controls are working as they should. Essentially a control assurance strategy defines how evidence of risk control effectiveness will be collected, who will do this, when it will be done, and how it will be reported. There are many examples of control assurance strategies (such as the three lines of defence model) and RTOs should consider a strategy that is appropriate for their railway operations and governance structure.

The complexity of the assurance strategy should reflect the complexity of the railway operations. It would generally not be feasible or practical to “obtain assurance” at all times for all controls, so the strategy should give priority to activities that represent the greatest risk.

The assurance strategy should be supported and implemented throughout all levels of the organisation to allow senior management to monitor and review the key risks and key controls within the organisation and take appropriate and decisive corrective action when necessary.


The information from control assurance activities can be recorded in various ways, such as inspection or audit reports; corrective action registers; SMS review records; maintenance inspection records; and investigation reports.

A summary of the results of assurance activities should be reported to senior management and can be reported annually as part of the RTO’s safety performance report to ONRSR.

ONRSR regulatory activities relating to control assurance

As part of the National Priority, ONRSR has developed a program of regulatory activities to examine RTO’s understanding and implementation of control assurance processes. The program is aimed at gaining an insight into any gaps in RTO’s knowledge, systems or implementation of control assurance and may inform additional regulatory responses from ONRSR, such as education. Additionally, ONRSR may ask an RTO to provide evidence that rail safety risk controls are effective:

  • Following a rail safety occurrence
  • During or after an ONRSR activity
  • After a change has been implemented

Related information

Last updated: 17 December 2020