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Australian Transport Safety Bureau

Estimates & Committees
Scott Ludlam 25 May 2012

Senator LUDLAM: I have a couple of questions on derailments on the Central Australia railway line. I understand this is something that the ATSB has had a fair bit to do with in the last two years or so. You investigated a derailment on the central line on Thursday, 25 November 2010. Your report indicates that issues were identified and brought to the attention of the company, by which we mean the company that has a 50-year lease on that track. I have had a quick look at the photos on your site. It looked like a very long train that had been double stacked with mostly empty containers, so it was relatively light. When the wind hit it, it pushed it over and trashed the train. Can you tell us what has been done to monitor what has happened since your agency identified and brought it to the attention of the company?
Mr Foley : The incident you are referring to occurred at Cadney Park. It was the last in a string of these investigations that we have looked at. We have had three where there were double stacked containers, empty, loaded on wagons which have actually been blown over in a thunderstorm. In terms of Cadney Park, the operators are certainly now much more aware of the mechanism, if you like, for these sorts of derailments. It was something of a first. We identified it. We did some wind tunnel testing with the first of these that we investigated.
Senator LUDLAM: When was that first one?
Mr Foley : From memory, the first one was at Loongana. Once again, it was in the Nullarbor and it was a blow-over derailment as a result of a thunderstorm. What occurs is that there is a downburst of air. The train enters, they get a sudden shift of air from one side of the train to the other, and it actually blows the wagon or lifts the wagon off the tracks. We did some wind tunnel testing and ascertained what the derailment mechanism was. People then started to believe us. There was a fair bit of disbelief prior to that time. Operators are now looking at the way they load the containers to make sure that they have a low centre of gravity, and they are bringing to the attention of their train drivers the fact that there are things they can do to minimise the risk of derailment in those circumstances, like slow the train.
Senator LUDLAM: I do not know if you have this with you or on your website. Could you provide us with the dates and places of the three events that you referred to?
Mr Foley : By all means.
Senator LUDLAM: Was the one that I am raising now the second in the series of three or the last?
Mr Foley : I cannot tell you off the top of my head. I will have to go back and have a look at our records. We have now had three very similar sorts of derailments.
Senator LUDLAM: So it is not the track so much; the first one across the Nullarbor presumably was on the tracks?
Mr Foley : No. It is related to the dynamics of the actual roll vehicle itself.
Senator LUDLAM: Has the operator, particularly in the instance of the Central Australian railway line, heeded the advice of the regulator? What can they do apart from loading the trains up?
Mr Foley : As I said, there are things that they can do in terms of informing their drivers of the risk when they do get into these sorts of circumstances. If they experience or see a thunderstorm ahead when they are driving, they can slow the train, which will minimise the risk of a derailment. That sort of education process has gone on as a result of this. There have also been some procedural changes as a result of this. We have brought it to the attention of some of the international players. We presented a paper at the last International Rail Safety Conference on this theme, so we are making industry aware that there is a risk.
Senator LUDLAM: Who is responsible for maintaining weather reporting or weather stations along those lines?
Mr Foley : The Bureau of Meteorology has the majority of the weather stations along the line. There are large sections where there are no automatic weather stations or weather stations. The Australian Rail Track Corporation, I understand, also has a couple of weather monitoring stations on that line. Once again, it is a very long piece of track. These events tend to be very localised.
Senator LUDLAM: It is not something that the rail company or the haulage company could see coming over the horizon and warn their drivers not to run their trains into?
Mr Foley : No. I think the best defence that the Bureau of Meteorology has is probably weather radar. Obviously there is no weather radar in some of these places.
Senator LUDLAM: There was another derailment on the same line, I guess from a different cause because this one was fully loaded. On 27 December 2011, this time north of Katherine, an OZ Minerals shipment of copper concentrate got chucked into the Edith River. The entry on the side indicates that it was Cyclone Grant that caused that derailment. Could you give us an update on that investigation?
Mr Foley : We released an interim or preliminary factual report on that about a month after the occurrence. It was at Edith River. The circumstances were basically that there was a lot of rain in the catchment area and it washed away the embankment in the approaches to the rail bridge. The previous train safely negotiated the bridge as the river level was still relatively low. The train that derailed actually negotiated it some hours later and derailed as a result of water that had overtopped and washed away the embankments on the bridge. That report at this stage is not finalised. At the moment it is out for comment from interested parties. We anticipate that it is probably about two months away from being published.
Senator LUDLAM: That will be a public document, won't it?
Mr Foley : Yes, it will.
Senator LUDLAM: Unlike the kind of downdraft conditions or however you described it a moment ago that would push an empty train over, which are localised and probably move fairly quickly, you can see cyclones coming a fair way off. Should the operator have done anything differently rather than just ploughing the train into that situation?
Mr Foley : I do not want to pre-empt the final report; it is not public and we are still in the process. Essentially every operator has a series of mechanisms in place to manage those sorts of risks. As part of that investigation we had a close look at the mechanisms that this particular operator had. Indeed the final report examines what procedures were in place and potentially what may have been improved at that time.
Senator LUDLAM: What kind of containers was the copper concentrate in and how much of that concentrate ended up spilling into the river?
Mr Foley : Once again, the numbers are in our preliminary report. It was about 1,200 tonnes, from memory, of copper concentrate. The containers that it was in at the time were canvas covered containers. The shipper of the minerals, which was Oz Minerals, I believe, had a dispensation to operate that type of container until, from memory, 31 December. The derailment, as you know, occurred on 27 December. The rules have now changed for the carriage of copper concentrate. It must be in a fully enclosed container.
Senator LUDLAM: So the whole 1,200 tonnes went over the side, in other words. If it had been in a steel drum perhaps they would have lost a lot less?
Mr Foley : Potentially, yes. It is hard to speculate. The steel drums, they fill a fair way up. The drums may have ruptured too, which would have released the copper concentrate.
Senator LUDLAM: As of December they are not able to ship in a canvas topped container?
Mr Foley : The rules have changed. Whether or not the relevant authority has issued a further dispensation for carriage of copper concentrate in the containers they were using at the time, I do not know.
Senator LUDLAM: Once there has been an accident you are then responsible for working out why and how to prevent a future one. Do you have any further involvement in the clean-up?
Mr Foley : No. We have no further involvement.
Senator LUDLAM: We learn from what has occurred but now look toward what might happen in the future. What are you doing or are you likely to do to safeguard against similar incidents involving, for example, manganese coming out of the Bootu Creek Mine, which will transit up that same line, or the approximately 2,000 tonnes of radioactive copper concentrate that will be coming up that line every day if BHP gets its way at Roxby?
Mr Foley : We have no role in respect of regulating the carriage of those products. That is left to the appropriate state based authorities. Our role is in the event of an accident. We have a look at what may have been better, which may have limited, if you like, the consequences-in this case, the derailment at Edith River. We have a look at those things in the context of a safety investigation. We have no role in regulating or potentially administering, if you like, the carriage of dangerous goods
Senator LUDLAM: I am not trying to split hairs here. You have an interesting case study of a shipment of copper concentrate that fortunately was not radioactive that went into the drink last year. You will learn things and the company will learn things from the incident reporting and the analysis that you do. Do you then have any role in making sure that the regulators do end up getting to see that report, and will it make recommendations about prevention?
Mr Foley : We do not recommend in that way. We identify a safety issue and we allow people to, if you like, provide their own fix. We identify it. We say, 'This is an issue; go away and have a think about it.' In terms of the regulator for that particular shipment, yes, they are an interested party or an involved party. So they will get a copy of the draft report. We have been having an ongoing dialogue with them in the course of the investigation as well. They are aware of the issues, and anything we identify in the course of the investigation they will be made aware of
Mr Dolan : Excuse me, can I add something for context there? As I was saying in answer to, I think, Senator Xenophon, when we have identified a safety issue we subject it to a risk assessment. We look at future likelihood, future consequence of these sorts of events, to give it a weighting in terms of the significance of the issue. The sorts of examples you have cited are the sorts of things that will help us understand how you give a risk rating to the issue that is involved in this particular event.
Senator LUDLAM: Presumably you do not have to wait for an accident to occur before you can do that kind of analysis, though?
Mr Dolan : That is correct. We have to do the analysis based on the facts and other information available to us and make sure it is reliable. The final report is where that will all come together.
Senator LUDLAM: Even though the latter one I am talking about, Edith River, occurred in the Northern Territory-and the company will be responsible for shifting something in the order of three-quarters of a million tonnes of radioactive copper concentrate over that same bridge, over that same watershed, every year-will you be advising South Australian regulators of what you have learned as a consequence of the Edith River spill?
Mr Foley : They will get a copy of our draft and final reports. If there is a recommendation to be made we will make it at that time. We will identify any safety issues within that report.
Senator LUDLAM: I am still not altogether clear about the degree to which you can be pre-emptive or highlight issues you might have noticed. For example, and I am not trying to pull you into a hypothetical here, the shipment that went over the side at Edith River was not radioactive copper concentrate. What can you tell us about if it had been, or what can you tell regulators, or what can you tell the company?
Mr Foley : Obviously the standards of carriage for radioactive materials are quite different to the standards of carriage for the copper concentrate that was being carried. We would examine, if you like, the mechanism and derailment, the consequences of the derailment in that context. If we saw that there was a clear safety issue as a result of the method of containment or the way in which the product was being carried, then we would make some observations and potentially examine a range of safety issues.
Mr Dolan : If it would give you additional comfort, and I hope it does, the other thing we do, where appropriate, having completed an investigation and a report, is determine whether there are any other broader safety measures that we think should be promulgated. We do not just focus on what is relevant to the circumstance of an individual case. If there is a broader message we will make sure that is promulgated, and that is part of the way we approach our business.
Senator LUDLAM: If I ask you about the Roxby shipment of uranium concentrates coming all the way from Wiluna in WA, which is an awfully long transport corridor, because they are hypothetical and they have not happened, do you get to get in front of that? You hold a pretty important store of knowledge and learning about these kinds of accidents.
Mr Dolan : It is speculative at two levels; so I am not sure there is much we can usefully say at this point. It is speculative because we have not completed our investigation for Edith River, and it is speculative because it is for a different type of transport operation and it is not clear to me at this point the extent to which there is a connection, as Mr Foley said. The standards for transport of radioactive material are different to the standards for transport of concentrate.
Senator LUDLAM: What I do not want to happen is to be having this conversation with you gentlemen, who do hold the database and the knowledge, in the aftermath of a spill and you have depopulated and had to evacuate an area like the Edith River watershed and everything downstream of it, and then be asking you, 'What the hell happened? Could this have been avoided?' I do not want to hear you guys say, 'If we had six months to do some preparatory work and been invited to contribute we could have prevented this occurring at all.' Do you see where I am getting to? We do not just need your expertise in retrospect.
Mr Dolan : I understand that. There is a limit to what is available to us, given that our whole job is to look in retrospect and then try to project for the future. We can only draw the lessons from what we have direct evidence of, from our investigations, and then try to say, 'Here is a future safety message.' If we have a safety message and we need to draw the attention of other regulators to assessing the risk and dealing with consequences, we will do that.
Senator LUDLAM: My final question-I guess it is in a similar vein-is on road rather than rail. You might have seen reporting earlier in the press about Toro's proposal to truck uranium concentrates from Wiluna in Western Australia through Central Australia and export them out of either Adelaide or Darwin. Have you assessed the long transport routes arising from yellowcake shipments from Western Australian uranium mines?
Mr Dolan : We have no legislative authority in road transport.
Senator LUDLAM: If the minister asked you to do that, you could do that?
Mr Dolan : No. At this stage the legislation limits us to aviation, rail and marine.
Senator LUDLAM: Not road?
Mr Dolan : Not road.
Senator LUDLAM: Thanks.
CHAIR: Thank you, Senator Ludlam.

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