Inaugural ambassador leads Rail Safety Week activities

Rail Safety Week will this year involve the work of a National Rail Safety Ambassador.

In a first for the yearly awareness-raising week which in 2020 runs from August 10 to 16, Paralympian Vanessa Low will be the face of rail safety around Australia.

In her role as the National Rail Safety Ambassador Low, who was injured in a rail incident, will lead rail safety programs and is highlighting the rail safety pledge that TrackSAFE is encouraging rail staff and organisations as well as members of the general public to take. In 2019, Low was the ACT Rail Safety Week ambassador.

Heather Neil, executive director of TrackSAFE said that being rail safe is not only individually significant.

“Being rail SAFE means Staying off the tracks, Avoiding distractions, Following safety instructions and Encouraging others to be SAFE,” Neil said.

“If each one of us is RailSAFE we will also ensure train drivers and rail staff don’t have to face traumatic events involving fatalities, injuries and near misses.”

Now in its 15th year, Rail Safety Week is being marked by events around Australia and in New Zealand. Caroline Wilkie, CEO of the ARA, said that there was an added dimension this year.

“Rail safety is no longer just about staying off the tracks and keeping free of distractions – it is also about wearing masks in states where it is recommended and supporting the rail workers that support us by keeping COVIDsafe,” she said.

Sue McCarrey, ONRSR chief executive and national rail safety regulator, said that as routines may have changed, which necessitated a greater focus on being railSAFE.

“Rail Safety Week falls at a really important time, we have some people returning to work or starting to travel a bit more, and others who will be getting out of routine as their time in lockdown continues. What we are hoping to do is to just remind people of their safety responsibilities,” she said.

“If you work in the rail industry, are interacting with a rail network when traveling or just using a crossing when you are out and about exercising remember the processes, procedures or those daily habits that have kept you safe.”

NZ Transport Minister Phil Twyford said that his government has been installing additional safety infrastructure.

“Since the start of 2018, in Auckland 23 high-risk pedestrian crossings have had barrier gates installed, with 15 more planned. Wellington is seeing upgrades to 12 pedestrian crossings, with improvements planned for at least 27 road crossings in the Wairarapa,” said Twyford.

“On top of that, KiwiRail and Waka Kotahi have also completed upgrades to 17 level crossings around the country, with another 20 to be completed before the middle of next year. They are also looking ahead to what could be in the next phase of upgrades.”

ACT Minister for Transport Chris Steel said that individuals needed to be alert when around the rail corridor.

“Remember, stay behind the yellow line at our light rail stops, wait for the green light and look both ways before you cross tracks or the road, and limit your distractions from devices such as mobile phones when near the light rail tracks.”

NSW Minister for Transport Andrew Constance said that trespassing was a particular issue.

“It’s really concerning to see people getting hurt and risking their lives to chase social media likes. We’ve seen 2,689 incidents of trespassing in the last 12 months, many of them reckless acts for selfie stunts.”

As part of Rail Safety Week activities, Wilkie will be leading a discussion with safety leaders from organisations including Sydney Trains and the Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC) on Wednesday, August 12.

Low said that she hoped working as an ambassador throughout this week would lead into ongoing programs.

“While Rail Safety Week is celebrated in August each year, rail safety is a year-round, unquestioned commitment.”

Rail Safety Week

A national face for rail safety

Introducing a new mode of transport to the city takes time, planning, and requires a skilled delivery team. But even with all these in place, how the general public will react and learn to live with the transport mode remains an unknown until the day of opening.

This was the case in Canberra, as the city prepared for the introduction of the new light rail line. While the city is served by a train service to Sydney, for many Canberrans, having a rail corridor through the northern spine of the city was a new experience, and one that would take some time to adjust to.

Paralympian Vanessa Low, who moved to Canberra after growing up in Germany, could see what this would mean for the city.

“When I saw that the light rail is getting introduced I realised pretty quickly that this is something new to Canberrans and that there’s probably going to be some problems around people understanding that this is a change that they have to be aware of.”

Low’s concern was safety. With light rail interfacing with drivers along Northbourne Avenue and pedestrians at crossings and stations, Canberrans needed to be alert to the risks and hazards associated with such a transport system. Low got in contact with staff from the Canberra Metro operations team and began working on a plan to keep Canberrans safe.

“We talked about, instead of waiting for something to happen, how we can put in some measures for raising awareness around the safety issues and raising awareness about what the consequences may be if you don’t pay attention.”

Like any rail transport mode, the Canberra light rail came with warning signs about crossing the tracks, and lines on the platform which passengers should not cross while waiting for their service. However, beyond the physical infrastructure, Low saw the need to connect with future passengers.

“It’s not just about the rules on a piece of paper or officials saying, ‘You shouldn’t do this.’ or ‘You should do that.’ It is connecting the everyday situation to feeling because, in a way, people easily forget what you said but they never forget how you make them feel,” said Low.

More than most, Low knows what it rail safety feels like. When she was 15 years old, Low fell from a train station platform in her hometown of Ratzeburg and was struck by an oncoming train. Following the accident, doctors had to amputate both of Low’s legs.

“I really realised that it’s not just about the loss of the legs, it was the impact on my family and friends and their families and how a lot of people suffered through the situation and a lot of people never really realised that this was ever going to happen to themselves or to someone they knew,” said Low. “That’s when I realised that a lot of people aren’t quite aware of the issues that arise in all sorts of traffic and that it’s really up to us to make the conscious decision to change that and not let it become a problem. I really wanted to get involved in helping people understand these things before something happens to them or someone they knew.”

In 2019, Low was the ACT Rail Safety Week ambassador and conducted workshops and seminars with school students and the commuting public about staying safe around the new light rail. Low’s experience enabled her to share with Canberrans the importance of staying safe around rail.

“It’s about raising awareness and then naturally people understand what they need to do. Crucial to that is to encourage others to be rail safe, pay attention and have an awareness of not just yourself but understanding what impact this action or non-action may have on everyone around you.”

This year, Low will take on the role of the inaugural national rail safety ambassador, with a particular focus during Rail Safety Week. Just as rail might be novel to Canberra, Low also notes that around Australia, more people are coming into contact with rail environment.

“I grew up in Europe where being around trains is very normal, everyone takes the public transport to go to work and it’s ingrained from being young, but in Australia because cars are the main transport and everything is quite far away it’s quite unusual to be crossing train tracks, a lot of people don’t do that on a daily basis.”

Low sees a role for awareness in encouraging those who may come into contact with rail less frequently to still understand the risks involved.

“All of a sudden they’re exposed to a situation that they aren’t familiar with and they aren’t aware of the dangers. That’s why these safety programs are needed because people aren’t quite that used to being around trains as much.”

While being safe around trains is an individual responsibility, it is also important for people to be aware of others. Being alert to one’s surroundings is therefore key.

“My biggest slogan is just pay attention if you participate in traffic, whether you’re a pedestrian or on a bike, or in a car, there are other participants in traffic and unfortunately trains do not have the option to merge out of the way. They take a very long time to stop because they are so heavy.”

Giving a face to the rail safety message will be a new and important initiative for Rail Safety Week 2020, said Low.

“I really hope that we can make this a very personal message so that people can feel like it’s up to each one of us to take action and be aware.”