South Africa’s extensive railway system is an infrastructure requirement that cannot be overlooked, says engineering and consulting firm GIBB technical executive electrical engineer Dr Willem Sprong.
The South African railway network is the largest in Africa and the tenth largest in the world, with about 25 000 km of track, according to the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA).
With various initiatives currently being undertaken by the State to ease traffic congestion and address the general state of road infrastructure, a possible intervention is needed to enhance the operating efficiency of the country’s railways, he notes.
“As seen by the government, the importance of rail transport as a viable long-term alternative to road transport is apparent, compared with other infrastructure investments,” says Sprong, describing the railway industry as one characterised by major incidents that influence operators, clients and the environment.
“For the rail industry to improve its efficiency, progress and growth, it needs a regulatory framework that gives the public assurance that the railways are safe, reliable and efficient,” says Sprong.
He highlights probability, satisfactory performance, time and specified operating conditions as some of the essential elements that define reliability, which all impact on the public’s overall dependability on the rail network.
“In South Africa, railway networks are indispensable for our transport infrastructure, which is why improvement to the capacity lines is paramount,” notes Sprong.
He highlights that resources are “extremely limited” in South Africa and that, to be efficient, an industry needs to achieve high levels of productivity with a minimum level of wasted effort and expense.
“In other words, effort must be affordable. The drive for risk-based regulation targets, efficiency gains and effort must be targeted at the most hazardous events. To be effective, these efforts must work and risk analysis needs to focus on the product of the impact and the probability of an event occurring. Regulators must align their priorities and regulatory activity with the highest risk and potential for improvement,” advises Sprong.
He adds that, in terms of predicting failure in the railway system and accepting that risk can never be reduced to zero, the effect of any failure must be mitigated to an acceptable level.
With this in mind, Sprong says the approach of predicting failure rests largely on the ability to analyse trends and not to focus on individual events. “In the rail safety environment, it is important to understand which occurrences must be investigated to achieve an improvement in safety.”
However, not all investigations will lead to improved safety, and risk-based investigations and analyses must be efficient and effective. “The basic rule still remains that more must be done with less. It is not good practice to invest money on maintenance only and not to use the opportunity to improve the overall condition of the assets. There must be a change in the thinking and method of working towards a more effective and efficient result,” he says.
Safety is a key quality requirement expected by railway transport customers, passengers, freight companies and society. Sprong notes that the public has a vested interest in the railway industry and requires that it be operated and maintained responsibly. He adds that the minimum requirement is to at least maintain the existing level of safety. “This is done through compliance-based management with an increase expected when reasonably practical.”
He states that the risk-based approach combines checking legal compliance with proactively pushing for excellence in management. “The one cannot be implemented without the other; the two strategies complement each other.”
Sprong further notes that encouragement is required for excellence in management by businesses, as good management improves the likelihood of daily safety compliance and effective risk control. “Excellence in management is important because managers control risks, and it is known that managers’ performance varies over time.”
“It is clear that risk-based and compliance-based regulatory activities cannot stand alone. Compliance-based, also referred to as conformance-based activities must provide the base for at least maintaining the current safety status. Risk-based, or performance-based, activities will enable the achievement of excellence, providing the vehicle to improve safety,” he adds.
Linking resources to the identified risk and the response to the score calculated makes risk-based activities efficient and effective.
Sprong further notes that the idea of risk-based regulation replacing compliance-based regulation is incorrect. He adds that conformance to standards and regulations are required to maintain the current safety status. “This must at least be a minimum acceptable level.”
Sprong says that risk-based regulatory activities complement compliance-based activities and that, while regulations stay the same, the management of the activities change. Through a process, such as the failure mode, effect and criticality analysis, risk identification and assessment will assist in the re-deployment of resources.
Sprong says the focus should be on the risks that can be addressed and will make a difference in the reliable operation of railways. Not all risk can be averted, but they should be mitigated to an acceptable tolerance, he concludes.