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Deadly consequences of taking train drivers’ sleep

May 18, 2012News

By Bob Nanva

Despite incredible advances in medical knowledge over the past century, our need to sleep largely remains a mystery. What we do know for certain, however, is that without it people die.

A complete absence of sleep will eventually kill you directly. A partial absence of sleep will lead to fatigue, which will create heightened safety risks and may kill you indirectly.

If you are operating a private vehicle, you run the risk of killing others as well. If you are operating public transport like a bus or plane or a train, then fatigue can claim many, many lives.

Managing the fatigue of the men and women who drive our trains, therefore, is hugely important.

New South Wales unfortunately received a huge wake-up call with the Waterfall disaster of 2003, in which a train derailed, killing seven on board, including the driver.

The subsequent McInerney Inquiry into the accident recommended that stricter controls around fatigue be developed. As a result, the NSW Parliament legislated to introduce maximum shift lengths of 12 hours for freight train drivers and nine hours for passenger train drivers.

At the time, people were rightly surprised that these caps were not already in place.

Although our understanding of fatigue is still littered with mystery and inconsistencies, most have little trouble grasping that you do no want train drivers to be working longer than nine hours for passengers and 12 hours for freight.

So the measure was introduced to a sigh of relief from the public, who wished to ensure that such an avoidable tragedy was not repeated.

This is why I am certain that most would be shocked to learn that moves are currently underway to scrap these maximum shift limits.

The National Transport Commission has recently released a report with recommendations for the harmonisation of rail safety laws across Australia.

Now, national harmonisation is a fine and worthy goal for a country the size of ours. It is unnecessary to have different standards applying in different states. Yet everyone who read and understood the findings of the McInerney Inquiry has been stunned by what the NTC has recommended.

It has advised that Australia’s first National Rail Safety Regulator should bring the entire country down to the lowest current state standards and scrap maximum shift limits for train drivers and other rail workers across the nation.

Instead of allowing other states to learn from New South Wales’s tragedy, New South Wales has instead been told to forget its lesson.

The move to scrap shift limits is an incredibly audacious one. After all, the US Federal Railroad administration, the European Union, Transport Canada, and countless other authorities across the globe regulate work hour limits in the name of safety.

So you would think that in making such a left-field call, the NTC would have some pretty rigorous evidence to back it.

Yet this is perhaps the most galling and baffling thing about the recommendation: the NTC does not even attempt to justify its position on a scientific basis.

It simply claims, without reference, that there is “little evidence to support differing fatigue related safety outcomes” if maximum work hours are placed in legislation, dusts its hands, and walks away.

That there is little evidence to support the safety benefits of maximum shift lengths would come as news to just about every fatigue expert on the planet.

To take just one example, a recent report compiled jointly by fatigue experts from Monash and Sydney Universities found that:

hours of service limits should be a central part of fatigue risk management within the rail industry, with additional fatigue risk management strategies incorporated within these limits.

The report goes on to explicitly point out that:

Recent studies capturing accident data spanning ample years/personnel/accident reports reveal unequivocal increases in accident risk with increased shift duration.

It seems a shame that the NTC would fail to check with these fatigue experts before making its incredible claim.

Of course, the commission points out that efficiencies can be achieved by allowing operators to regulate themselves when it comes to shift limits.

I am sure the NTC is right on this one. If you allow a train driver to work for more than 12 hours straight, the operation will inevitably become slightly cheaper – until there is an accident, that is.

What governments across Australia have to decide is whether they are willing to spin the wheel on safety to achieve these minor efficiencies for operators.

The Australia’s Transport Ministers is meeting on Thursday at the newly-formed Standing Council on Transport and Infrastructure (SCOTI) to assess the recommendations. They have the power to ensure that the NTC’s mistake remains an academic one.

First published on the The Drum ABC

You can comment on the original article here to show your support for maintaining NSW safety standards.