Rail Safety and Section Cars

Important information.

The information provided in this article references old rail safety legilsation, which has since been superceded by the Rail Safety National Law. Similar principles apply. Refer to the Office of the National Rail Safety Regulators website for more information.

The idea for writing this article came from debates (December/January 2002) on the SPEEDERS list with regard to safety within the hobby. It was printed in NARCOA's SETOFF magazine, and later in the magazine of ASSCO - "TRACKSIDE"


It is apparent that the regulatory environment Stateside is much simpler than that here in Australia. This article will give an overview of the systems in Australia to ensure safe systems are in place in the Australian Rail Industry.

Background: The Industry

The Australian rail industry was, until the mid 1990's basically dominated by Government- run rail authorities, probably not dissimilar to that of Amtrak, and needing the same sorts of investment and reform.

The rail authorities were state based, hamstrung by politicians, and by a gauge problem that persisted from the 19th century. These bodies included Western Australian Government Railways (42" mainly), Commonwealth Railways (56.5", 42"), South Australian Railways (63", 56.5" and 42") Tasmanian Government Railways (42") (these last three merged in 1976 to become Australian National Railways, now defunct) Victorian Railways (mainly 63" with some 56.5"), New South Wales Government Railways (56.5") and Queensland Government Railways (42").

There were a few private railways, but these were mainly for built for a set traffic, such as iron ore in the north west of Western Australia. The notable exception being the Silverton Tramway Company (42") running between Broken Hill (NSW) and Cockburn (SA).

Background: The Hobby

The operation of section cars in Australia was very informal until the late 1990s, with many owners running on tracks owned by some of the tourist railways. And yet many others ran illegally on lines that were closed to traffic, or in some cases, where trains were still being run commercially.

In the mid 1980s the first attempt to start formalizing the hobby was made with the incorporation of the South Australian Section Car Preservation Society Inc. and in the early 1990s with a group in NSW, namely, the Australian Trike Association.

Both groups ran foul of the government bodies that managed the railways. This is despite a group of people running from Marree to Alice Springs in 1980 with a handcar, and in 1988 running across Australia with the Bicentenary of Australia.

Several other groups exist that concentrate solely on running section cars on a dedicated section of track, but they do not have general access to the networks.

By 1999 it had become apparent that the potential was there for a body to hold accreditation so that persons who own section cars could be represented for access on the railway lines. Hence the formation of the Australian Society of Section Car Operators Inc.

Changes to the Rail Industry.

In the early 1990s there were several events that occurred which led to deregulation of the rail industry, and closer management of the way in which the industry works.

There were a few big accidents, in particular "3801" (a steam train hit from behind, killing several people), and the demise of Australian National.

With the demise of Australian National (AN) the railway system of South Australia was broken up into two key areas, the local network and the "defined interstate network". The local network was sold to Australia Southern Railroad, along with its freight capacity and equipment, whilst the "defined interstate network" was transferred to Australian Rail Track Corporation Ltd. The freight task had, in the main, been sold to National Rail Corporation, another government business unit.

At the same time, the politicians sat down and drafted legislation that allowed the industry to develop an open access regime. The same Acts, broadly, have since been passed in most States and Territories of Australia.

These two Acts, the Rail Safety Act (1996) and the Railway (Operations and Access) Act 1997, are now what, broadly speaking, govern the industry in South Australia.

The Acts, and more.

As well as the two Acts named above, the industry needs to take into account several others directly. These include;

And for the Australian Society of Section Car Operators (ASSCO)

The Rail Safety Act (1996) requires participants in the rail industry to have developed a detailed Safety Management Plan (also known as a safety case) that is audited to a predetermined standard. The size and detail of the plan has to be relevant to the needs of the organisation.

In particular, the Act requires the Plan to be developed using a standard known as AS4292, Rail Safety Management Standard. But we will come back to that.

The Act also looks at two distinct groups: the railway operator (the one wanting to run the trains, or in our case, the section cars) and the railway owner (the people who own and maintain the running lines), though these are not mutually exclusive, and some companies are both. The Rail Safety Act also appoints a "regulator" who oversees the industry, the process of accreditation, and access arrangements.

Once the Plan has been approved, the organisation becomes an "Accredited Operator", an "Accredited Owner" or an "accredited Owner/Operator".

The other Act, the Railway (Operations and Access) Act, looks more at how organisations in the industry relate to each other, and go about getting access to a rail line to run their trains. The intent of the Act is an open access regime, whereby, in theory, a body who is accredited can ask for access, and gain it, subject to reasonable business requirements. In practice, some owners stall, or put ridiculous conditions on access, that make it difficult for the body wanting to gain access.

Once an agreement has been reached, the parties then approach the regulator, who will, if he is satisfied that the safety management systems are appropriate, issue a "variation of accreditation" to the parties for the new activities.

To sum up, ASSCO has a safety management system that fulfils the requirements of AS 4292, and this is audited, internally each time we run, and externally, on an annual basis, by the regulator. The safety management system meets the same requirements as the "big boys" who run trains for $$. This plan had to be developed and audited before a car was set on track!

In addition, each time ASSCO first negotiates out an agreement with an owner of track, we go to the regulator and request that our accreditation be varied. If the regulator believes our proposed operations (or anyone in the industry) are unsafe, they may refuse the variation, or request further changes to our safety management plan.

The Standard:

The Acts call up one main standard AS4292, as the framework for Rail Safety Management systems. A new standard AS 5022 has just been issued, this looks at accident investigation.

AS4292 was written by the industry in consultation with the regulators and others, and it is believed to be up for review. It lays out the framework for the package that operators and owners must submit, and maintain, to remain a part of the industry.

The standard also crosses over with AS4801, Occupational Health and Safety Management. Indeed the two standards are very similar, particularly with respect to the continuous improvement model.

Continuous improvement is a process of identifying, controlling and reviewing systems and hazards to ensure that the risk is not only effectively controlled, but that the controls are appropriate for the changing circumstances of the operation.

The requirement is that a hazard is identified, its risk quantified, a control developed and implemented, and then monitored before being checked again. After a period of time, the process is re-applied to ensure that what was done worked, and perhaps to consider ways in which it could be made better.

AS4292 broadly calls up six areas that the safety management plan (or a "safety case") must cover. These are:

Management Policy and Structure.

The organisation applying for accreditation needs to have a broad policy defining how it will manage rail safety, who is responsible for what, the processes by which compliance will be measured, document development and control, a process for financial capacities (mainly insurance's), records retention, internal audits and reviews.

Risk and Incident Management

This section requires the applicant to develop a broad database of hazards and other risks associated with its operations, the way in which those risks are controlled, how it will manage, report and investigate major incidences, and the way it monitors and reviews statistics related to accidents.

Personnel Management

The organisation is required to have in place systems that ensure workers are fit to work, are adequately skilled and trained, and that they are not unduly influenced by drugs or alcohol. Changes from an incident in Victoria have required a tightening of drug control and management in that jurisdiction and there will undoubtedly become accepted practice in others. (ASSCO already has a process in place, and these will be reviewed).

Goods and Service Procurement

This section refers to contractors. ASSCO contracts in safeworking and training for certain runs and purposes. The document requires us to ensure that we have a process to ensure that the services we use meet railway safety requirements.

Engineering and Operational Systems Safety

For our purposes, this relates to the mechanical condition of our speeders, making sure that they are fit for the task, and that the parts and components meet a minimum standard.

Basically, a premeet inspection and logbook are used to ensure integrity to the groups agreed standards.

Interstate Operations

The final section refers to the defined interstate network, but also provides some guidance in respect to access and operations.

The Other Act

The other Act that affects ASSCO is the Occupational Health, Safety and Welfare Act, 1986 (OHSW Act). This is a South Australian State Government Act, and has counterparts that generally say the same in other States.

In addition to the Rail Acts, ASSCO complies with this act.

This act is known as a Robens style law (based on an enquiry in the UK by Lord Robens in the early seventies) and is what is known as a consultative process.

Broadly, this act requires any employer (this includes volunteer organisations) to meet a minimum standard of health and safety. It requires:

The key terms in this Act are "as far as is reasonably practicable". Given our activity uses equipment designed nearly 70 years ago, there are some factors that we accept, and control with various means, and others that can be controlled "reasonably" and thus ASSCO expects action.

The OHSW act calls up a bible of rules known as the Consolidated Regulations. Whilst ASSCO does not enforce many of the requirements of the regulations, it does provide members with training on what the regulations require of them in regard to owners of plant and equipment. There is, however, the likelihood of prosecution should a party breach its duties under the regulations.

Other Bits of Paper.

As well as the Acts and Standards, ASSCO is required to comply with certain systems of safeworking, and several different forms of safe work practices.

We generally contract in safeworking, to minimise the risk of safeworking system failure, or contradictory opinions. However, our operations are nearing complete compliance with the National Code of Practice for the Defined Interstate Network.

This tome requires some specific training, which about a third of our members have completed. Generally this is the "Track Awareness Certificate".

The ASSCO Perspective.

The Rail Acts have opened the doors for safe operation of railway motor section cars in Australia, whereas 10 years ago the response from the industry (bar one or two heritage operators) was (this is the polite version) "Go away".

ASSCO is no different from any other employer or body in the railway industry. The regulatory environment, and its required safety management plan, mean we perform at the same level as anyone else in the industry. We are no longer considered, nor allowed to be, "boys playing trains".

The safety management systems we have are based on the combination of about 60 years of field and operational experience, and reflect this experience.

The membership needs to accept that the past is the past, and if operations are to continue, and expand, the direction to date needs to continue. The training we provide, both from within and from external sources has been generally well attended, with about 90% of our membership completing the induction day, and 30% completing the Track Awareness program.

Initially there was some resistance to the changes brought about by the regulatory requirements, but this has faded. Most of this resistance came from a small group who thought nothing would change from the days of "trolley bashing"; sadly some continue this past-time. Many see that the way we run our operations is clearly structured and straightforward.

As our processes are consultative, we accept the opinions of our members, and use the information that they pass to us to improve or modify our systems. Some of the controls in place to manage hazards cannot be easily changed (and some are required of us regardless), but that has not meant that the issues are not considered.

Safety Management in General

Given my background, it is of concern when members of the hobby are heard to say "we have a good safety record".

The response is simple, if there is not a process of managing safety and measuring performance, how do you know?

Indeed, some posts on the Speeders' group suggest that there is not a good safety record.

Use of traditional indicators such as Lost Time Injury Frequency Rates, number of prangs etc are perhaps redundant because of the low (rare) frequency of such events.

Whilst not yet refined, ASSCO is looking at a range of other positive performance indicators to help gauge performance in the field.

Auditing helps, but feedback and comments from members, the public, our hosts (people who own the rail lines) and those from whom we contract services all provide a window into how well we are going.

By monitoring the way access and its associated activities are managed, it should be easier to gauge performance.

The other arguments heardare that "safety is taking out the fun", and that "it's too expensive".

Appropriate Safety Management does neither. The fun may come from the adrenaline rush of doing something stupid like bootlegging, or accepting the risk of not taking appropriate actions when planning and when out on the track. The expense is an excuse that also has little value. What value your life?

Mind, PPE (personal protective equipment) may be the last resort, but given our hobby involves machines that are old technology, the cost of modification would eliminate the hobby altogether. We come back to the key phrase "what is reasonably practicable".

Closing Comments

In closing, it is hoped that this article has given you a broad perspective of the regulatory environment down-under. Whilst it is not onerous, it is required, and we endeavor to meet the requirements.

Because what we do is so unique in Australia, it is important for ASSCO not only to do the right thing, but also to set the pace for safety management in the (heritage) industry.

It is important that the hobby continues to grow and thrive. Part of this is to be able to demonstrate just how it is managed safely.

The Section Car Page

Contents © Nic Doncaster 2003

Revised September 2016

Not to be reproduced without permission