Tech-savvy safety: rail transport’s saviour?

Tech-savvy safety: rail transport’s saviour?

Hosted under the theme “Embracing the new normal through innovative and sustainable rail safety solutions”, 2021’s annual Rail Safety Conference was held virtually. It featured compelling presentations from local and international rail experts from various disciplines on topics ranging from technology and sustainability to theft, vandalism and the impact of Covid-19.

If the safe operation of passenger rail transport is given the attention and priority it deserves, it can be a catalyst for economic development; if not, it will become a catalyst for an economic depression, unproductivity and unemployment. This was the assertion of Professor John Maluleke in an address at the 2021 Rail Safety Conference, hosted by South Africa’s Railway Safety Regulator. Maluleke is a renowned transport economist who has over 44 years of experience in logistics and transportation.

Expanding on rail transport’s impact on the economy, he said: “When an accident occurs, the disruption disturbs the ‘Just in Time’ movement of people, goods and services, and thus negatively impacts employment and the economy.”

In his powerful presentation, he shared the findings of an analysis into the root cause of a series of accidents in the Gauteng province. The scope of the investigation was to establish whether the accidents were the result of deliberate deviations from prescribed standard operating procedures, and to explore the extent to which human error contributes to fatal accidents, injury to the commuting public and loss to the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA).

“The intention of this research was not to expose or blame any of the rail operating companies, but rather to advance recommendations that are aligned with the principles of efficient rail operations with the safety quality requirement viewed as the first consideration,” he stressed.

Maluleke told Rail Safety Conference delegates that his research paper concluded that the collisions investigated occurred because of human error and non-compliance with the communication procedures during train operations. His recommendations to address this and make passenger rail transport in South Africa safer included more advanced automatic identification systems. “This would serve as a new technological intervention to assist drivers in their daily operations,” he said.

Safety should be prioritised and demonstrated throughout all organisational human work, and should not be confined to safety critical and safety related grades only. “Effective communication within and across departments would stimulate the development of a safety culture across the entire organisation,” he said. “A safety culture must be instilled and engineered among the total workforce to improve the passenger rail transport industry in South Africa.”

He recommended the development of safer machines and equipment, and an enhanced focus on strategic recruitment, adding that employees’ technical skills should also be developed, and there should be more focus on improving employees’ quality of work-life.

The Deputy Minister of Transport, Sindisiwe Chikunga, agreed that technology has a role to play. “To improve safe railway operations, we must use the latest rail technologies and innovative solutions that will have preventive measures. We must also remember that every occurrence and
accident is a lesson. The accident investigations that we have conducted should be used as a backdrop of what has to be done and put into place to avoid future accidents or occurrences.”

Johny Smith, chief executive officer of TransNamib in Namibia, shared his insights on the challenges experienced by TransNamib, highlighting lessons learned and the way forward for the organisation. The impact of Covid-19 on operations and the economy in general, public perceptions, locomotive capacity, the external procurement process, short-term cash flow, infrastructure development, operational efficiency, and maintenance backlogs were among the challenges he explored.

He told the delegates that TransNamib’s future success would be determined by several critical factors. “These include the implementation of our business plan, increasing business, upgrading rail infrastructure, increasing rolling stock, optimising our property portfolio, improving corporate governance control, systems and processes and the visibility of operations, as well as achieving a balanced scorecard.”

The changing railway environment and the need to balance safety and performance management in a public-private partnership environment was the topic of a presentation by Tshepo Kgobe, chief operating officer of the Gautrain Management Agency. He noted that the global pandemic has had a significant impact on passenger rail transport. “Average service levels fell globally to below 65%. More than 70% of passengers have changed their reasons for travel, and globally, around 15% of customers will not return to public transport. Globally, 80% of the rail operators are changing their business model,” he told the delegates.

Kgobe said that it was critical to adapt to the “new normal”. Technology, like an overcrowding app, enhanced cleaning, and Covid-19-focused marketing and communications are among the adaptation strategies being employed by the Gautrain Management Agency and rail operators around the world. “We must understand that rail services will not return to normal in the immediate future. Overcrowding management is a long-term endeavour, so it must be undertaken with strategic intent. Enhanced cleaning will become a permanent feature of transit operations,” he said.

Boy Johannes Nobunga, chairperson of South Africa’s Railway Safety Regulator, commended the partners and speakers who contributed to the success of the 2021 Rail Safety Conference. “Thank you to our partners for hosting informative exhibitions, the speakers for their thought-provoking inputs that invigorated networking opportunities during the conference, and the delegates who participated with zeal in the discussions over the last three days. We are looking forward to hosting you again in 2022,” he said.

He also recognised the event’s partners: organisers Smart Procurement World Online, Lucchini SA, Smart Ergonomics, Traxtion, Aria (African Rail Industry Association) and SAPICS (The Professional Body for Supply Chain Management).

The event received rave reviews from delegates. “This was a highly coordinated online event. Well done to the Rail Safety Regulator. It felt so real,” said Dinah Lenkokile, acting operational safety manager at PRASA.

“Thank you for the information shared in the educational presentations on transport and logistics. This was a very well organised event,” commented Joy Selowa, rail coordinator at Exxaro Resources.

Chikunga also added her praises. “This conference serves as an engine of change in the railway industry in a time of global crisis. The annual railway safety conference is an imperative platform for rail stakeholders to engage and collaborate on safe, efficient and reliable solutions addressing the emerging risk across Africa and beyond.”

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