OFF THE RAILS: Australian ONRSR’s Dr. Natalie Pelham

Posted: 29 February 2024 | | No comments yet

In this week’s installment of ‘Off the Rails’, I spoke to the Australian Office of the National Rail Safety Regulator’s Dr. Natalie Pelham.

natalie pelham

Natalie has more than 25 years in the public service, leading significant safety regulation, policy, strategy and reform at both state and national levels. She is passionate about rail safety and is a strong advocate for safety improvement.

The third National Rail Safety Regulator and ONRSR Chief Executive, Natalie has strong problem-solving and strategic thinking skills with an evidence-based focus. She has extensive experience leading challenging projects and reforms involving solving multiple and conflicting issues while engaging with diverse stakeholders.

When was ONRSR formed and how does it regulate?

The Office of the National Rail Safety Regulator (ONRSR) was an initiative of the Australian Government which, in 2009, flagged its intention to bring the seven state-based rail safety regulators together to form a single national regulator. Following the passage of Australia’s Rail Safety National Law, ONRSR commenced operations in January 2013 with jurisdiction in South Australia, Tasmania, New South Wales, and the Northern Territory, with the Australian Capital Territory (2014) Queensland (2015), Western Australia (2017) and Victoria (2019) progressively “joining” the national scheme.

At ONRSR the regulatory framework is co-regulatory in that governments do not directly prescribe the standards or rules by which railways need to operate. Rather, they set a performance requirement on railways to operate safely which in turn provides operational flexibility for operators to establish and implement standards, rules and methods necessary to meet them. As a risk-based regulator, ONRSR tailors its approach to each operator and its circumstances, while at the same time aiming to present a consistent regulatory approach across the rail industry. We also have a focus on promoting the necessary education, information and advice to rail operators to ensure the industry is as engaged and informed as possible in relation to meeting safety obligations. This approach is documented in our operational mantra – The ONRSR Way – one of our key corporate publications that is available on our website. It sets out how we regulate and gives rail operators an understanding of what to expect from us. An updated version of the document is in the works now and it will be well worth a read for those interested in the finer detail of how we regulate.

In the field, our operations are guided by the National Work Program that sets out our interactions with around 200 accredited and registered rail transport operators right across Australia. Whether they are major freight or passenger operators, or part of Australia’s extensive tourist and heritage rail sector, we map out our regulatory activities such as audits, inspections, site visits or advisory interactions, with each of them on an annual basis. Essentially, I see our role as providing really strong and effective leadership to industry on both compliance with the law and with safety improvement.

What needs to be considered to ensure ONRSR’s impartiality?

ONRSR was created, by legislation, to be and act independently from industry, political or other individual influences. So, we act without bias and in the best interests of rail safety when making decisions and applying powers and regulatory tools.

Independence is one of the core values that underpins how we work, and it is built on a foundation of agreed behaviours that our staff are aligned with. These behaviours include being impartial, conscious of perceptions and not to be unduly influenced by external sources. They also promote the need to listen and gather all relevant information and to take responsibility for our decisions. Like any regulator we need to be constantly vigilant that we are always independent and impartial in our day-to-day activities, and we are always aware of the risk of regulatory capture and over familiarity when dealing with operators and stakeholders.

What does the role of rail safety officer entail?

 Our rail safety officers work closely with rail operators and their rail safety workers right across Australia to undertake a range of functions including assessing accreditation-related applications, monitoring safety performance, responding to issues, sharing information and advising to achieve compliance and – when necessary – enforcing the law.

All of this is done with the aim of maintaining and improving rail safety.

To be effective under the co-regulatory framework our officers must gain a comprehensive understanding of the nature and scope of an operator’s railway operations, through research and familiarisation activities. This helps them to build context for their regulatory activities, interactions and decision making. It is through these activities that the rail safety officer, and by extension ONRSR, builds the overall understanding of an operator’s safety culture.

How does ONRSR engage with and educate the rail industry?

Right now we have a range of ways that we ensure that the rail industry is well informed of what is going on in relation to safety generally and the activities of ONRSR specifically. This includes using a variety of face-to-face interactions via our rail safety officers, along with printed and digital communications to provide news, rail safety data, advisory interactions and educational materials. We actively encourage our rail safety officers to use this educative approach as part of their regulatory interactions with individual rail transport operators and as an option for securing compliance and improving safety. To complement these activities our website, social media channels and industry newsletters are a great source of safety information and intelligence. In particular, our series of digital animations that re-create rail incidents to provide the lessons learned from our investigations have proven very popular and valuable. We also produce an annual Rail Safety Report – our statistical and analytical view of the Australian safety landscape over the preceding 12 months. Senior ONRSR staff also regularly attend and present at a range of safety forums, conferences and exhibitions around the country.

Having said all of that, I think there is certainly an opportunity for us to expand what we do in this space, and we are already looking into the development of a safety strategy for ONRSR that picks up some of the key rail safety issues and outlines our holistic approach to addressing them – including how we educate. Sitting alongside that will be a renewed Stakeholder Engagement and Influence Strategy that sets a framework for sharing information and safety messages and establishes the necessary strategic partnerships and projects that will help us reach new levels of engagement.

For us, educating the rail industry is about sharing the information and insights that we gain from our unique position as a national regulator to achieve compliance with the law and to promote improvements in safety management through effective engagement.

If there were a change in regulations, how would ONRSR respond and communicate that change to operators?

Ensuring that operators are aware of legislative changes, including changes to regulations is of the utmost importance and at ONRSR we have established processes for initiating, consulting and communicating reforms and revisions. A key element of any such process is consultation with the full range of stakeholders which can take the form of advisory forums, dedicated periods of time for comments or submissions on draft law and/or regulation changes, through to more detailed actions such as the development of Regulatory Impact Statements that are required to facilitate major reforms. At all times changes of this nature are supported by detailed communications plans and effective relationships with State and Federal Government Departments and we ensure our stakeholders are kept informed via our range of online and traditional communication channels.

How does ONRSR gather information and data for its audits?

 Regulatory data is collected from a variety of sources, including operator reporting, third party reports and through interactions with industry. This enables the monitoring of industry-wide and operator-specific safety management and performance to support both ONRSR’s legal requirements and those of industry. All regulatory data is captured and managed through a regulatory information system accessible to all operational staff. ONRSR’s approach to data capture and management is driven by the need to collect and analyse data at a level of detail necessary to guide decision making regarding which operators and/or issues require focused resources. There is also the expectation of ONRSR to monitor and report on high level industry wide safety performance. Additionally, we make some of this regulatory data available to regulated parties and other stakeholders through a range of safety data publications, reports and data extracts, in accordance with the confidentiality provisions of the Rail Safety National Law.

The collection and analysis of rail safety data in Australia is now vastly improved following the development of the National Rail Safety Data Strategy, a joint initiative of ONRSR and representatives of the Australian rail industry. Since 2018 a project team has been working toward a vision “to have consistent, quality and accurate national rail safety data that is readily available to stakeholders when making decisions relating to rail safety.” While the approach to data collection, reporting and analysis will continue to evolve, there is overwhelming agreement that a great outcome has been achieved. Railway operators across Australia are now better informed and can make better safety decisions following the implementation of this long term nationally significant project.

If there were a rail accident, what would the investigative process look like?

 Each year ONRSR undertakes dozens of investigations, into incidents or issues that are reported across the network. Initial enquiries are aimed at understanding the facts surrounding an issue or the sequence of events leading to an occurrence and to identify any immediate risks to safety that need to be addressed. At all times the investigation is fair, unbiased and follows a systematic process.

In the event of an incident, our investigators, who are also rail safety officers, have a range of powers designed to ensure they can preserve an accident scene and secure any and all evidence. This might involve issuing a Non-Disturbance Notice on the site – a legal direction that requires the cooperation of operators to follow instructions from ONRSR at the scene. They can also compel information and documents including records of any dangerous goods that might be on a train and will often secure technical or digital evidence. At times ONRSR investigators may seek to conduct a voluntary or formal interview – requests that must be complied with under law.  

Investigations play an integral role in the effective functioning of the co-regulatory model. They are a very important part of ensuring that all of us with a stake in rail safety, work to prevent unsafe practices reoccurring.

In carrying out their role, ONRSR investigators collect information and data from operators and rail safety workers, and having established exactly what happened and why, ONRSR can then work with a rail transport operator in a range of ways to deliver the best possible safety outcome.

Of course, sometimes an investigation is a precursor to more serious regulatory activities necessary to enforce compliance with the law, including prosecutions.

How can operators receive safety advice or guidance from ONRSR?

The national work program maps out our regulatory activities and sees us conduct a variety of interactions with around 200 accredited operators across Australia over a given year.

In the event of us identifying threats to the safety of rail operations, ONRSR Safety Alerts are issued immediately to both key and accountable contacts of each accredited operator and published on our website and through other communication channels.

We have a range of educational and guidance materials available on our website, which is a wealth of information for operators, rail safety stakeholders and the general public. Here you will find all of our corporate publications, including The ONRSR Way and our latest ONRSR Rail Safety Report. We also issue a monthly e-newsletter, ONRSR Engauge to all accredited and registered operators and a host of additional subscribers. Each issue is headlined with the latest ONRSR safety message along with links to the latest updates on the ONRSR website. All the details of how to get in touch with us and stay informed are at – including links to our social media accounts and all the contact details for our various offices around Australia. I’d encourage anyone interested to log on, have a look and get a really good understanding of ONRSR’s role and responsibilities and the work that we do to achieve compliance and promote safety improvement.

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