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322 collisions between vehicles and trains between 2014-2022 is way too many

Not something you hear about everyday but there is a movement trying to make it compulsory for trains to have lighting.

As someone who grew up in the country, I am well aware of the hazards of rail crossings. It is very easy to on top of one before you have had a chance to look for incoming trains.

It is obviously much worse at night time if there are trees around the crossing and the train has no lights

Between July 2014 and December 2022 there have been 322 collisions, 49 serious injuries and 39 fatalities recorded at Level Rail Crossings in Australia.

This is an email I received from Lara who is advocating for greater rail safety, in particular lighting on trains.

“I represent 12 families across Australia who have lost loved ones in rail level crossing crashes. For decades we have campaigned to save lives and been met with an obstructive rail industry, a toothless regulator and successive governments unwilling to force the most basic safety reforms. The human toll is catastrophic and tragically more people continue to lose their lives in preventable tragedies on the rail network every year.

In many industries flashing lights are used to warn people of an approaching hazard yet trains, which hurtle across more than 20,000 level crossings in the country are often up to 1.8km long, have lighting that is little more than what you see on motorbikes (please see videos attached highlighting the visibility concerns we have). Most regional crossings don’t have boom gates or flashing lights and with trains often operating in the dark, it is an extremely dangerous combination as multiple investigations have found.

Coroners, safety reviews, the Monash Institute of Railway Technology (please see ONRSR Briefing on the Monash Report) and numerous committees have recommended better lighting, such as rotating beacons or strobe lights, on trains. The industry has refused to budge. The Rail Industry Safety and Standards Board RISSB (owned and controlled by rail operators) has rejected multiple submissions calling for rotating beacons and wagon side lighting (please see public submissions put forward by the Australasian College of Road Safety, Engineers Australia, peak trucking group, the Australian Trucking Association (ATA), the Country Women’s Association of WA and the Transport Workers’ Union of WA). Australia’s Rail Safety National Law states that the regulator must facilitate safe rail operations. We say the Office of National Rail Safety Regulator has shamefully failed to do this. Last year it ignored a report it commissioned which found additional beacon lighting improves train visibility.

Still nothing except the occasional announcement of more ‘trials’, testing and ‘reviews’.

Sadly, successive governments, regulators and industry alike get away with this disgraceful inaction.
In my family’s case, former Western Australian State Coroner Alastair Hope investigated the deaths of my brother, Christian and his two friends Jess and Hilary who were instantly killed when a grain train hit them at an unlit Wheatbelt crossing in darkness on July 8 2000.

Coroner Hope made unequivocal recommendations for trains to be better lit immediately (see attached Alastair Hope Coronial recommendations 2001).

Almost 23 years later, we are still waiting, and we are forced to see more and more families put through the same trauma. I have spoken to one of the train drivers who was in the locomotive when it hit my brother’s vehicle killing three wonderful young people. He’s a good man who had to keep working to support his family, but it has had a lifetime impact on him. Reflecting on the crash he said he thought the train’s headlight looked no different to the headlights on tractors spraying in the paddocks that night.

At an unlit crossing, with vegetation around the ‘give way’ sign, it was far too easy for these three wonderful people to not realise the catastrophic hazard ahead.

We do not want sympathy – we want the profitable and powerful rail industry to make the most basic safety lighting upgrades to their trains – this includes both locomotives and rolling stock.

City drivers, who are physically stopped at rail crossings by barriers and lights, may not appreciate the dangers of these huge locomotives and wagons where there are no such barriers. Passenger trains in the cities also have lighting in the carriages which helps visibility.
As well as rail fatalities, there are many near misses. We know these aren’t adequately being recorded, which further diminishes the seriousness of this danger.

The National Level Crossing Safety Strategy 2023-2032 (please find NLCSS attached) recently released states on page 27 that, ‘Rail operators lack a consistent method for defining and recording near hits and there is a general lack of causal information recorded for level crossing collisions by first responders.’

This being the case, we have every reason to suspect that the 7,839 near hits tallied between 1 July 2014 and 31 December 2022 by ONRSR are possibly not accurate and in all likelihood could be much higher.

During the same timeframe, according to data extracted from the ONRSR portal, there were also 322 collisions, 49 serious injuries and 39 fatalities recorded.

We argue many of these accidents could be prevented if governments, rail operators, infrastructure owners and managers brought their best to the table. This currently isn’t happening. Instead of a shared responsibility and a collaborative approach, the industry has been plagued by general ignorance, reluctance, defensiveness, and blame shifting.

My family, along with families who have lost loved ones, have spoken up over the years and become connected (through tragedy) with other families. As time has gone by, we have gathered more community support and the backing of (non-rail) industries.

Road transport operators, who legally have to ensure their road trains have lighting along their trailers and around their cabs are supporting us. Every time they cross a rail line they are at risk. Their UHF radios aren’t able to communicate with train drivers to be warned of the approaching hazard.

The Transport Workers’ Union (WA) has supported our cause, after seeing too many truckies killed at level crossings.

The Australian Trucking Association (ATA), the peak national body for road transport in Australia have added their support to our families calls for improved train illumination.

The ATA represents 50,000 trucking businesses and 200,000 people in the Australian trucking industry. In addition we have also secured the support of state-based trucking organisations including the Western Roads Federation, the NT Road Transport Association, the Livestock and Rural Transport Association of WA (LRTA WA), Transafe WA, the Livestock and Rural Transport Association of Australia, Livestock, Bulk and Rural Carriers (LBRCA) NSW, Queensland Trucking Association (QTA), the South Australian Road Transport Association (SARTA), the Livestock and Rural Transporters Association of Queensland (LRTAQ), the Livestock and Rural Transporters Association of South Australia (LRTA SA) and the Livestock and Rural Transporters Association of Victoria Inc (LRTAV).

The National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) has backed our calls for better lighting along with more safety controls at regional level crossings. Farmers who live and work where level crossings exist are at risk every day.

The NFF passed a unanimous motion to support improved lighting on trains and improved safety at level crossings at the NFF Members Council meeting in May 2022 and their policy team has been publicly supporting our families ever since.

NFF CEO Tony Maher also attended an online meeting with Federal Transport Minister Catherine King on April 24th, 2023, in support of our families.

The West Australian Local Government Association (WALGA) and the Australian Local Government Association (ALGA) also support the safety lighting improvements our families are calling for.

In the last two years our families have also been joined by Dr Brett Hughes – an engineer and independent road and rail safety researcher, with more than 40 years industry experience in transport, policy, regulation, and safety including rail, road and aviation transport. Brett was a member of the National Transport Commission’s (NTC) industry reference group to draft the Model National Rail Safety Law (RSNL) and was the WA and Queensland representative on the Government’s policy working group for the National Rail Safety Law NRSL. Later, Brett oversaw the drafting and passing of the WA legislation for RSNL. Most recently Brett has been assisting our families’ campaign to improve regional level crossing safety and has engaged with government, railways, ONRSR, affected groups, industry and others.

We are completely baffled by the industry and government stonewalling. For instance, in the regional city nearest my family’s pastoral station, I see Aurizon four-wheel-drives around town with rotating beacons on their roofs and track machines conducting rail maintenance fitted with the same. Yet the rail companies don’t put the same lights on their trains. Cars can stop reasonably quickly. Trains cannot. Their impact is devastating.

Increasing train visibility is critical to level crossing safety. The dogged resistance by the rail industry not to do so is symptomatic of a much broader culture whereby shifting the blame for rail crashes squarely on the motorist has become accepted practice.

To give a recent example, following the tragic deaths of two Pacific National train drivers on New Years Eve at Bindarrah on the NSW border a series of knee-jerk reactions quickly followed.

The police promptly blamed and charged the driver before any forensic examination of the accident scene had taken place. The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) and the Office of the National Rail Safety Regulator remained completely silent. This accident closely mirrored the circumstances of the Kerang crash in 2008 where the driver was charged but two years later found to be not guilty.

Kerang driver not guilty (smh.com.au) (https://www.smh.com.au/national/kerang-driver-not-guilty-20090613-c6j6.html)

In relation to the recent Bindarrrah accident, no information has been forthcoming as to whether the advance warning signals were working correctly, or the signs, lines and signals were up to standard or if the train driver sounded the train horn.

Furthermore, the crossing where the accident took place is on a major arterial highway and has around 600 vehicle movements per day, 38% of which are heavy vehicles but there were no boom gates (the highest level of protection in place) at this crossing.

Immediately after the Bindarrah crash, Pacific National CEO Paul Scurrah called for a national rail safety summit.

We don’t need another summit. There was a National Level Crossing Safety Forum held in August last year dominated by the rail industry and government agencies and so predictably nothing new was raised and no new innovations resulted.
This summit is an admission of failure by Pacific National. It is not about safety.

Newspaper advertisements linked to their campaign (see full page ad in Australian Financial Review 3/2/2024) predictably shift blame and avoid taking any responsibility whatsoever.

Another summit will just delay corrective actions pointed out by coroners, safety investigators and committees that we already know work and should have been implemented years ago.

The sheer volume of agencies involved in the rail industry from governments, rail operators, infrastructure managers, track owners and regulators has made the handballing of responsibility even easier.

The last two decades have been marked by a complete failure to improve level crossing safety. Rail operators have done nothing in the face of clear evidence, the national rail regulator ONRSR has done nothing to ensure they act on the evidence, and Transport Ministers have not been actively engaged or taken their responsibilities seriously.

A recent example of this is the release of the National Level Crossing Safety Strategy (NLCSS) that was finalised without any public consultation. Following our complaints, it was withdrawn, and limited consultation occurred thereafter. The NLCSS Committee was heavily stacked with bureaucrats, government departments and agencies aligned with the rail industry like TrackSAFE, the Australasian Railway Industry (ARA) and ONRSR. And despite the strategy stating that ‘heavy vehicles are over-represented in level crossing incidents, especially at passive level crossings’ there was no peak trucking industry body representation on the committee.

If Coroner Hope’s recommendations had been acted upon, I firmly believe many lives over the past 20 years could have been saved including my brother.”

Please drive safely on the roads and keep an eye out for trains as you approach level crossings.

Community Affairs Legislation Committee
15/02/2024
Estimates
HEALTH AND AGED CARE PORTFOLIO
Department of Health and Aged Care

Senator RENNICK: Okay. Professor Skerritt has now moved on to work for Medicines Australia. Is there an issue with regard to a bureaucrat moving into the private sector so quickly after effectively being paid by big pharma through the TGA? Is there also a conflict with the TGA approving medicines/drugs and then also being responsible for looking at the injuries of those medicines/drugs, given that they might not want to acknowledge that they might have missed something in the actual approval process?

Prof. Lawler : Thanks for the question.

Senator RENNICK: It’s not really a question for you, because you work for the TGA, so you’re clearly conflicted as it is.

Prof. Lawler : I work for the department.

Senator RENNICK: TGA is later tonight. TGA report to the health department, so it’s a question for the health department.

CHAIR: Professor Lawler, please respond.

Prof. Lawler : If I could just be clear on the last point: I don’t work for the TGA. I’m a deputy secretary of the Department of Health and Aged Care. The TGA is one of the areas under my responsibility.

Senator RENNICK: Okay, fine. I apologise.

CHAIR: I need to rotate the call.

Senator RENNICK: Are we going to answer that question first?

Mr Comley : I think we’ve covered this issue of the conflict of interest or lack of conflict of interest of Professor Skerritt. There are guidelines about what a former public servant can do in a lobbying capacity. There is no prohibition on a public servant moving into an area in which they have expertise in the private sector.

Senator RENNICK: What about the conflict of interest?

CHAIR: Senator Roberts covered this before.

Senator RENNICK: I’ll pick up where Senator Roberts was corrected before.

CHAIR: This is your last question, Senator Rennick.

Senator RENNICK: Professor Skerritt clearly said in this room that the lipids in the vaccines were the same as the lipids in a steak. That is not true. In their own TGA report, they say that these lipids are novel lipids. They are positively charged lipids. I’m happy to table this document. Positively charged lipids are toxic to the body. That was never made clear by Professor Skerritt two years ago, when I raised that issue. There were comments made before about not being able to comment on his performance. As senators, we are in a house of review and we are able to comment on the performance of bureaucrats. I’ll leave that as a comment.

CHAIR: This isn’t really the forum for comments, Senator Rennick, so I do ask that next time you have the call you direct things as questions to witnesses at the table—

Senator RENNICK: I’m more than happy to, Chair.

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