Rail Express sits down with Heather Neil, the new CEO of TrackSAFE, to hear about her focus for the harm-prevention charity.
When Heather Neil joined TrackSAFE as its new CEO, the organisation had just coordinated the largest ever Rail R U OK?Day, despite being in the middle of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Instead of the usual barbeques and meet-ups that had been organised in previous years, rail employees were checking in with each other virtually and organisations sponsored conversation challenges.
Despite social distancing measures, over 75,000 rail-sector individuals participated in the annual mental-health awareness day. Speaking with colleagues and partners after the event, Neil said she was heartened by the positivity of the sector and the widespread engagement.
“Even though this year people did Rail R U OK?Day quite differently, there still seems to be a real interest and enthusiasm for those activities in a workplace; to check in on people and to remind them that one day in a year there’s a real focus on it but hopefully that rolls into other activities that people do as individuals and in workplaces throughout the year,” said Neil.
“Various companies have reported seeing that long term cultural change about caring for your workmates. They’re more than just your work colleagues – you might not see them outside of work, but it doesn’t mean you don’t check in on them and notice if things don’t look like they’re in a great place today.”
Neil joined rail-focused harm-prevention charity TrackSAFE with 12 years under her belt as the CEO of RSPCA Australia. Having taken a year to do consulting work after leavings the RSCPA, Neil took up the position at TrackSAFE to continue in the charity sector, however, in a very different kind of organisation.
“I was in a very privileged position to have been the CEO of RSPCA Australia and it’s an amazing organisation that’s loved by the Australian community and does such a diversity of work as well, but it’s lovely being in a small charity that can be nimble but that’s also so connected to the industry itself.”
Being part of an industry-founded and funded charity represented an opportunity to Neil to be able to proactively make change.
“One of the things that attracted me to TrackSAFE is that it was established by the industry to address issues that the industry had identified so it’s a voluntary activity that the industry is doing for society. The rail industry is still very committed to playing this important role in reducing risks of suicide and accidents on rail, so it’s really exciting to be part of an industry that takes a very positive attitude and doesn’t sit back and wait for somebody else to solve their issues. The industry itself knows that it can play an important role in addressing some of these big societal problems,” said Neil.
As a way of settling into the role, Neil has spoken with the companies and organisations that make up TrackSAFE, including rail owners and operators, manufacturers, and construction companies. Not only has this enabled Neil to get to know the industry, but to get a sense of the values and aspirations of those involved.
“It’s really interesting to hear of so much development and such positivity about the future and the opportunities in the industry,” she said.
As a geographer by training, working on strategies to enable people to move around and interact with their environment more safely has brought Neil full circle.
“I worked for Western Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils and much of my job was advocating for services in Western Sydney, be it an airport, rail links, and other services. Now I’m kind of coming back to how people interact with the environment in which they live and how do you try and make that safe as well as efficient.”
As a harm prevention charity focused on reducing suicide on the rail network as well as accidents within the corridor, Neil sees the adoption of new technology, such as platform screen doors, as one area where new developments in the rail industry can have a positive effect.
“What we know in terms of preventing suicide is that if you can restrict access to the rail network, that is the best way to prevent suicide. TrackSAFE at the moment are pulling together a lot of information on fencing in order to have a conversation with governments to put that into the mix, particularly at the moment when governments are looking for shovel ready projects.”
By taking successes that have been demonstrated overseas or interstate and applying them in new contexts, the rail sector can continually improve safety outcomes, highlighted Neil.
“I really like that attitude of ‘We don’t need to reinvent the wheel.’ If we can build on the experience that others have had, while putting it in a different context, that’s efficient and contributes to good practice all the time,” said Neil.
These attitudes are distilled into TrackSAFE’s four primary areas of focus, which Neil sees the charity as continuing to operate within. The focus areas are: preventing suicide; providing staff and organisations with trauma management tools; reducing and preventing accidents within the rail corridor, particularly at level crossings; and taking an evidence-based approach to decision making.
While larger rail operators would have their own programs in each of these areas, Neil sees TrackSAFE as playing an important role in enabling the adoption of best practices across the industry as a whole by facilitating information exchange.
“For example, we know that operators are involved in various school-based education programs, and we encourage them to share that information between them and identify what’s worked really well, what can people build on, and then to minimise duplication.”
With Rail Safety Week occurring as passengers and commuters begin to return to a somewhat altered network, due to the changes made during the COVID-19 period, the focus of messages during the week will be on getting commuters to break out of their daily routines.
“We want to remind the community that it’s your individual responsibility to be aware of the surroundings because when you’re going to and from work or school every day you go into autopilot. We are trying to give people a reminder to take out your headphones, be aware of your surroundings, hold onto the railing, and stay back from the edge of the platform.”
Although targeted at the COVID-19 era, these messages will be ones that need to be heard no matter the year.