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May 27, 2011

Regulator moves to improve rail safety in SA

Department of Transport director-general George Mahlalela discusses safety in South Africa's rail sector. Editing: Shane Williams
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South Africa, which has set a goal of reducing rail accidents by 25% by 2014, continued to lag behind in rail safety standards, Department of Transport director-general George Mahlalela told Engineering News Online on Friday.

“In terms of safety, we have problems that have been solved in other countries, such as level crossing accidents. These are basics – it can be solved and we now have the determination to solve these challenges,” he added.

In the 2009/10 financial year, 400 of the 602 people struck by train were trespassing when killed, while 181 level crossing accidents resulted in 34 fatalities. Over 740 people fell between a train and a platform while disembarking from and embarking on a train.

In the space of two months, about 226 commuters were injured in a train accident in Rosslyn, north of Pretoria, and 857 in a recent accident in Soweto. Excluding these two accidents, from April 2010 to March 2011 there were eight accidents in the rail sector, but no fatalities.

Safety remained a key element of railway operations in South Africa, Mahlalela said. “For too long, we have been witness to a deteriorating state of safety. The cost, as a result of accidents in the transport system, added a tremendous burden to the economy and the fiscus. ”

In the 2009/10, the direct costs of collisions and derailments for operators Transnet Freight Rail and the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) was R314,7-million.

To ensure that the country improved the standard of its transport systems, it was necessary to prioritise rail as the “future backbone of the transport system.” But, to do this, safety remained critical.

Mahlalela said the new national standard on human factors management, which was launched on Friday, would be key to improving safety, as human error was the primary cause of accidents and incidents.

The South African Bureau of Standards on behalf of the Railway Safety Regulator (RSR) published the new human factors management standard.

The standard was developed primarily to provide railway operators with the minimum requirements to manage human factors and has been adopted by the RSR board, which has made compliance with the standard mandatory for all railway operators in South Africa.

The standard is applicable to all employees, including management, undertaking safety-related work in the railway environment.

The requirements covered in this standard have an overlap with other components such as recruitment, training, human resource issues, health and medical issues as well with occupational health and safety.

Implementation of the standard starts immediately and over 200 operators were to submit implementation plans to the RSR with applications for the renewal of their permits by the end of June, RSR acting CEO Kethabile Moya said.

Training would be rolled out throughout the country.

“This standard represents a step forward to achieve our safety goals. We will continue to beef up capacity, to enforce and to inspect. We are far behind as a country and I believe we will be able to leapfrog some of these steps if we remain focused,” Mahlalela told Engineering News Online.

Meanwhile, the RSR identified capacity challenges as a constraint, as the regulator only has ten safety inspectors under its wing countrywide. Chairperson Advocate Brenda Madumise said that in order to respond in “real-time”, the regulator needed “more soldiers”.

Mahlalela acknowledged that the RSR was underfunded and the need to increase its budget, but added that views pointed to regulators not being “impressionable entities”.

On the recent train accident in Soweto, Madumise told media that Prasa would incur penalties. “Such offences could result in the withdrawal of an operators licence. However, we are looking into the matter seriously and are waiting for a report on the accident.”

The report would be ready on May 27.

Edited by: Mariaan Webb
Creamer Media Senior Researcher and Deputy Editor Online
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