Thursday, October 27, 2022

Decisions, Delivery and Data - A decade of ONRSR

On the 20th of January 2013 the Curiosity Rover found signs that water once flowed on Mars. Elsewhere, Barack Obama was sworn in for a second term as President of the United States, and a little closer to home, a heat wave that had sparked bushfires across much of south-eastern Australia finally relented.

And on that same day, in a somewhat less seismic but nonetheless historic development, the doors opened at the Office of the National Rail Safety Regulator.

Image i Stock tracks in heat

The process that gave rise to Australia’s first national rail safety regulator had begun in earnest four years earlier when in July 2009, as part of the Federal Government’s Seamless National Economy Agenda, the Council of Australian Governments agreed to a raft of national transport regulation reforms including the institution of national rail safety law. In 2010 the National Rail Safety Regulator Project Office was established in Adelaide and, following the drafting and passage of Australia’s Rail Safety National Law, (RSNL), ONRSR formally commenced operations in January 2013, with initial jurisdiction in South Australia, New South Wales, Tasmania and the Northern Territory. RSNL was subsequently passed in the Australian Capital Territory and Victoria (2014), Western Australia (2015), and Queensland (2017). ONRSR became the fully-fledged national regulator in December 2019 following the removal of a service level agreement with the Victorian Government.

An important part of establishing ONRSR was to develop a vision for the organisation, one that could unite a team drawn from many and varied backgrounds and locations. It was quickly decreed that ONRSR exists to play its part in the delivery of Safe Railways For Australia and in keeping with that vision, everything it does, every day has to be for the outcome of rail safety – that is absolutely paramount.

This shared purpose and passion has served ONRSR, and all Australians who rely on rail, well in its first decade by ensuring that our railways are safer now than they were a decade ago. Railway related fatalities in Australia reached a five year low in 2019-2020 and have remained at these historic low levels in the two years since. Since ONRSR commenced regulation in each of the jurisdictions there has been a significant reduction in rail safety worker fatalities. While of course, one such fatality is one too many, over the last decade similar downward trends have been recorded in a range of major rail safety incident categories including:

  • Heavy rail running line collision rate (between trains/rolling stock) - a slight overall downward trend, with collisions involving ‘in-service’ trains remaining low with a definite downward trend.
  • Light rail running line collisions between light rail vehicles - dropped three years ago and remaining stable with most involving very low speed collisions. Note: the light rail system within Australia has increased substantially over the last decade.
  • Passenger train running line derailments - a significant downward trend. Freight train derailments remain steady but trending downwards slightly over the last 5 years.
  • Heavy rail passenger train Signals Passed at Danger (SPADs) - a slight downward trend in 2021-2022.
  • Track work rule and procedure breaches - trending down for three years with a slight increase again in 2021-2022, but still below levels seen in 2017-2018 and 2018-2019.
  • Level crossing equipment failures and defects - steadily trending down over the past 10 years, reaching a five year low in 2021-2022.

In April 2020, the Productivity Commission’s National Transport Regulatory Reform Inquiry Report into national regulation in heavy vehicles, marine and rail found that, …This regulatory model is most advanced in rail … and that … By most measures, heavy vehicle and rail safety continue to improve, largely due to new technology and infrastructure investments.

Key to these achievements and to maintaining the momentum, has been ONRSR’s identification and addressing of National Rail Safety Priorities - rail safety areas of regulatory focus that apply to multiple jurisdictions and operators and warrant sustained periods of regulatory attention. Launched in 2016, National Priorities have covered a range of topics in the last six years including road rail vehicle safety, track condition, rolling stock maintenance and tourist and heritage safety management. In line with ONRSR’s risk-based approach to regulation, and to ensure the sector can capitalise on the opportunities afforded by new ideas and know how, they are reviewed and recast every two years.

Indeed, keeping pace with the advances in modern technology has also been a hallmark of ONRSR throughout its first decade. The effective application of RSNL and the co-regulatory model has facilitated the introduction of generational change in the Australian rail industry including the introduction of the world’s first heavy-haul, long distance autonomous rail operation in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. Driverless trains have since arrived on Sydney’s metropolitan passenger network while ONRSR has also played an integral role in the development of safety systems that support new tech such as communications-based train control systems and next generation high-capacity signalling.

Such advances are only made possible by the national focus provided by ONRSR, and the development of a high functioning national team has been key to creating that environment. In the years since its inception, ONRSR has established jurisdiction and operational structures in all Australian states and territories, building a national team dedicated to administering RSNL in line with the risk-based approach, and driving consistent and effective regulation that recognises the many and varied networks and operations that feature on the Australian rail landscape. Since ONRSR commenced operations there have been six prosecutions against major rail companies where a significant incident has constituted breaches of RSNL. Furthermore, in overseeing the national application of RSNL and, in the decade since opening its doors, ONRSR has delivered outcomes including:

  • Consolidated single accreditation process
  • A risk-based national work program of safety audits and inspections
  • Issuing over 65 guidelines including specialised guidance for major rail projects
  • Nationally consistent data sets and an annual national Rail Safety Report
  • A dedicated ‘National Priorities’ program addressing key rail safety issues
  • A national ‘one invoice’ fee structure
  • Reviews of fatigue and drug and alcohol provisions of the RSNL (at the request of Ministers)
  • Review of more than 80 derogations and the removal of many within the RSNL
  • The removal of layers of specific requirements associated with the previous regime of seven different regulators
  • A digital ‘portal’ for the exchange of regulatory information and documentation
  • A National Level Crossing Reporting Portal
  • The National Rail Safety Data Strategy

While the focus on in field regulation, compliance, enforcement, and administration has always been necessarily strong, ONRSR has always recognised the power of data and the need to ensure its systems and expertise are strong enough to capitalise on the opportunities it affords. The collection and analysis of rail safety data is a game-changer for regulators, operators, governments and the public alike and its importance has grown in line with ONRSR’s. The national model has directly facilitated the development of Australia’s purpose-built national rail safety data source designed to deliver relevant, consistent and quality national data that is available to appropriate stakeholders and decision makers. Launched in 2022, the new national data set features unprecedented access to ontology data and facilitates ‘chain of event’ reporting that can be used to better understand the root causes of incidents and accidents. Through data analytics, the national rail safety data set has allowed a more risk-based approach and the targeting of specific rail safety issues where needed.

Similarly, the National Level Crossing Reporting Portal, an initiative of the National Level Crossing Safety Committee, was developed and delivered by ONRSR. Launched in 2021, it is a tailor-made data analytics software program designed to help various level crossing safety committees inform governments and to also help industry make better informed planning and investment decisions in relation to level crossings. 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. Excluding trespass and suicide, accidents at level crossings account for the largest number of railway-related fatalities involving members of the public.

Of course, engaging effectively with the public, our major stakeholder, industry, governments, unions and the broader rail safety community has been integral to the success of ONRSR across its first 10 years. To ensure its ongoing performance, ONRSR has conducted three, three yearly stakeholder surveys. These are independently conducted and fully anonymous surveys of rail safety stakeholders including operators, industry bodies, governments, ministers and unions. The survey measures performance as a fully national rail regulator, the identification and action of safety initiatives, processes, stakeholder engagement and communication. Among a host of findings, the 2022 revealed that more than 50 percent of those surveyed believe national rail safety regulation has improved in the last 3 years, with another 37 percent of respondents believing it has remained steady. The overall performance rating was 7.59 out of 10, 7.83 for effectiveness and 7.58 for efficiency. Although, as always, there will be areas for improvement, the results and comments reflect a ‘strong, ethical safety approach’.

They also demonstrate that there will always be more to do, new priorities to set, projects to embark upon, opportunities to pursue and challenges to face. ONRSR knows that the first ten years of operation have not all been smooth sailing, and that the next decade will undoubtedly throw its fair share of curve balls. Whether the issues be short term - like the work being done to improve level crossing safety and train visibility in regional Australia, medium term like ONRSR’s desire to expand and optimise its educational role and offerings to operators, or longer-term challenges such as the national skills shortage, it is vitally important to face and resolve them.

ONRSR would like to thank all rail safety stakeholders across the country for their support and contribution to national rail safety regulation in Australia. Ten years may be a long time and much has been achieved by many, but the journey has only just begun.

Note: You can view a series of graphs and charts documenting key rail safety occurrences in Australia 01 July 2013 – 30 June 2022 below. Click on the icon located in the ribbon or download to view in greater detail.

Last updated: Oct 27, 2022, 8:27:57 AM