Wednesday, December 14, 2022

Safety Message: Lineside fires

ONRSR is highlighting the risk of lineside fires and detailing a range of effective controls.

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As per ONRSR’s Notifiable Occurrence Reporting Requirements, lineside fires are a notifiable occurrence and occur when rolling stock sets fire to material in the rail corridor. For example, a spark from exhaust fumes or hot friction material from the brake blocks sets fire to sleepers and/or vegetation in the rail corridor.

Lineside fires can lead to major fires resulting in injuries and/or fatalities, as well as damage to property and surrounding habitat.

While not exhaustive and given the range of operational environments within the Australian rail industry, the following causes and contributing factors, and controls, detailed below should be noted.


The causes of lineside fires can be classified into organisational, technological, environmental and individual factors.

1. Organisational factors e.g.

  • Inadequate controls put in place to address the risk e.g. not adopting or implementing controls that are higher on the hierarchy of controls.
  • Failure to implement an effective maintenance regimen of controls e.g. management of vegetation.
  • Inadequate or unclear procedures or rules such as, not specifying the activities to restrict on days of extreme fire danger or on total fire ban days.
  • Inadequate training such as on the preventative maintenance activities to undertake to minimise the risk of lineside fires.
  • Inadequate culture or leadership in providing policies, processes, procedures and practices for managing lineside fires.

2. Technological or equipment factors e.g.

  • Spark arresting systems not working properly
  • Braking system faults. Dragging or sticking brake systems.

3. Environmental factors e.g.

  • Weather conditions and how these have contributed to the fire risk.
  • Natural environment e.g. volume and type of fire load (trees, plants, grasses) in the rail corridor.
  • Vegetation and combustible material in the track ballast.

4. Individual factors e.g.

  • Fatigue, miscommunication or not following procedures leading to a lineside fire e.g.
    • forgetting to release a park brake
    • not undertaking daily inspections
    • not communicating extreme fire danger or total fire ban days to workers in the field


While not exhaustive and given the range of operational environments within the Australian rail industry, the following controls should be noted. RTOs must consider a range of factors, including the likelihood of the hazard and the degree of harm to determine what controls are reasonably practicable to implement (see the ONRSR Guideline – Meaning of duty to ensure safety so far as is reasonably practicable SFAIRP for more information).


During days of extreme fire danger or during total fire ban days eliminating the risk of lineside fires by:

  • Not running trains
  • Bans on hot working processes [welding, grinding, rail cutting]


Substituting rolling stock with non-rail services (such as buses) during:

  • days of extreme or high-risk fire danger; or
  • during total fire ban days.

Substituting higher risk rolling stock with rolling stock that presents a reduced risk e.g.:

  • substituting steam trains with diesel electric; or
  • steam trains which have a lower likelihood of causing a lineside fire.

Engineering controls:

The following engineering controls pertaining to rail infrastructure or rolling stock can reduce the risk:

Rail infrastructure controls

  • Use of construction materials – construction materials can contribute to instigating a fire or promoting a fire should it start. Materials that are fire resistant mean there is less risk of a fire e.g.:
    • Sleepers made of concrete decrease the risk compared to wooden or composite (usually made of a combination of plastic and steel) sleepers.
  • Fire breaks – an area of cleared or reduced vegetation and combustible material for the purpose of stopping, slowing or reducing the intensity of a fire.
  • Graded railway corridor – where either side of the tracks, the corridor is semi-sealed allowing easy access of maintenance vehicles and lineside vehicle access tracks to put out any sparking or fires that occur.
  • Vegetation clearance – where vegetation is cleared along the railway corridor to reduce the fire load.
  • Remove and clean vegetation and combustible material from the track ballast.

Rolling stock controls

  • Spark arrestor screens – which trap embers and prevent them being ejected out of the engine exhaust or smoke box.
  • Brake block material – Composite brake blocks do not produce sparks like cast iron blocks.

Administrative controls:

The following administrative controls pertaining to preventative activities, and communications, training and procedures can reduce the risk:

Maintenance and operational controls

  • Scheduled maintenance – activities covering engine condition, exhaust system condition and braking systems).
  • Daily inspections – daily inspection oil leaks, dragging brakes and other factors contributing to lineside fires.
  • Restrictions on infrastructure rail track maintenance work – such as restrictions for hot working processes and controls [welding, grinding, rail cutting] that can cause a fire.
  • Maintenance and vehicle access restrictions – restricting maintenance and vehicle access on track during extreme or total fire ban days.
  • Worker restrictions – restricting worker activities such as putting in place smoking controls (cigarettes) for temporary work sites i.e. when and where you can or cannot have a cigarette.
  • Carrying sufficient water or other fire extinguishing equipment to put out spot fires e.g. when undertaking higher risk activities such as rail grinding, on rolling stock itself or on a fire patrol road-rail vehicles.

Communications, training and procedures

  • Hot weather circulars, notices, alerts, other types of communications – that inform relevant personnel (workers, contractors, staff) that that there is a total fire ban day and/or hot weather precautions and altered operations will be in place.
  • Portable or in-cab radio systems, or mobile communications – provide a way to communicate that there may be a fire present and to provide location details which can then be used to alert emergency services or other train services.
  • Protocols and procedures – provides a system governing how the RTO will ensure that risks of lineside fires are minimised e.g.
    • How total fire ban days are alerts are received.
    • What measures are put in place.
    • How relevant staff and contractors are informed.
    • How operations are monitored.
    • The process for how all of the above is undertaken.
  • Worker and driver training so staff understand the risks and controls, and how to properly implement those controls, to prevent or manage lineside fires.

This information is provided as guidance only and may not be applicable to all rail transport operators.

A comprehensive collection of ONRSR Safety Messages is available to view here.

Last updated: Jan 10, 2023, 10:09:56 AM