Widespread disruption for Wellington rail users looks set to ease, but questions remain about whether it is a symptom of wider industry dysfunction or caused by KiwiRail incompetence
The Government has laid the blame squarely with KiwiRail for a disruptive breakdown in the capital this week, but others in the industry say the failure stems from competing and disorganised roles and responsibilities within the rail sector.
For most of the week, trains will be running at half the usual capacity after KiwiRail’s only specialist rail track evaluation car broke down.
The tracks were overdue for safety inspections, so without them were deemed non-compliant and temporary speed restrictions were enforced.
The Government has ordered a rapid review into what went wrong.
The terms of reference have not yet been released but Greater Wellington chair Daran Ponter said it needed to be understood whether there were deeper systemic issues at play.
“We need to understand is this just simple incompetence? Or is this a fundamental systemic issue that is going to be visited on us time and time again, because we just don’t have the systems and processes in place to address things adequately.”
A 2021 report into the Auckland Metro Rail Network described it as “fragmented” and “disaggregated” with no asset management plan and a passive safety regulator.
The report by Deloitte was commissioned by Transport Minister Michael Wood after the network suffered massive disruption in 2019 and 2020 due to rolling contact fatigue – a form of wear and tear on the tracks.
“For the regulator, simply adding resources in response to growing demand is not the answer.”
– Abbott Risk Consulting report
Eight recommendations, including around simplifying and clarifying the governance model, were given.
And in September last year Waka Kotahi commissioned risk consultancy group Abbott to help it develop a better framework for regulating rail safety.
“The current rail safety regulatory approach is not fit for purpose,” the report from Abbott begins with.
“There is confusion about who holds those duties and how the obligation to reduce risk, so far as is reasonably practicable, can be demonstrated and agreed between the risk owner and the regulator.
“For the regulator, simply adding resources in response to growing demand is not the answer. There is a need for a shift to risk and evidenced-based regulatory practice. There is also a need for a more nuanced understanding of industry’s accountability for effectively managing risk.”
After hosting a workshop with a range of rail industry workers, Abbott Risk Consulting found there was a need for stronger governance in relation to the development of national rail safety standards, and that the current organisational structure was complicated and cumbersome.
It recommended Waka Kotahi and the Ministry of Transport undertake analysis to figure out which entities were accountable to what key rail functions, including legislation, and codes of practice and guidelines.
It found the “complex array of regulatory agencies” made it difficult for the industry to be nimble when it came to risk management.
“The workshop supported collaboration between regulatory authorities to work to reduce inconsistency, duplications, or confusion regarding their respective regulatory requirements,” the report said.
Ponter agreed it was an issue that needed to be tackled.
“I think that we, for too long in New Zealand, we’ve sort of fudged those issues. It’s interesting to note, for example, that KiwiRail is the owner and the maintainer of the rail asset. They’re also the surveyor of the asset – that’s their maintenance vehicle that’s faltered in this particular instance.
“And then they’re also the operator of freight services on the asset and so I think there are questions to be raised about whether we have the right separation of functions and duties across our system.”
Rail Advocacy Collective national coordinator Niall Robertson said KiwiRail had been lumbered with too many responsibilities.
“They are essentially a trading company that moves freight and some passengers. The state highways are the responsibility of the NZ government who set up Waka Kotahi to administer these assets. The same should apply to the rail network.
The collective has advocated for a long time to have the below wheel infrastructure removed from KiwiRail’s control and responsibility.
“The Rail Advocacy Collective believes that the track evaluation car should be owned by an organisation similar to Waka Kotahi, but who have the responsibility to administer and maintain the entire railway network on behalf of the government… the railway network should not be pegged to the fortunes of KiwiRail.”
“The failure to address and act on this issue sooner is primarily an internal capability issue for KiwiRail, which changes to the wider regulatory framework would not resolve.
– Gini Welch, Waka Kotahi
A rail engineer Newsroom spoke to said the failure was due to KiwiRail being left to self-regulate.
“As Waka Kotahi lacks the resources and rail-specific experience to take an active regulatory role, KiwiRail’s dual role managing above and below rail leads to a lack of oversight. In general, KiwiRail has lost a lot of customer focus and is not motivated to deliver results for all rail users.”
But Waka Kotahi Rail Safety Regulation national manager Gini Welch said changes to the wider regulatory framework would not have prevented what went wrong.
“The cause of these disruptions is due to the mechanical breakdown of a crucial piece of equipment, and the failure by KiwiRail to communicate their identification of the equipment failure and the impact on users of the rail network in a timely manner.
“While Waka Kotahi shares the frustration of Greater Wellington Regional Council, Metlink and commuters with the disruption this is causing for Wellingtonians, the failure to address and act on this issue sooner is primarily an internal capability issue for KiwiRail.”
She said as the safety regulator, Waka Kotahi had overseen KiwiRail’s plan for managing the risks caused by the non-compliant tracks.