The role and value-adding model of Transport Canada / Rail Safety in technology-based innovation

  • As part of the 2017-18 Railway Safety Act Review

Prepared by: John Coleman

This paper was commissioned to assist the 2017-18 Railway Safety Act Review (Review)in assessing the regulatory framework enabling the deployment of safety-enhancing technology, and its pace of acceptance. It is the product of:

  • desk research;
  • an analysis of Review submissions;
  • a technology work­shop;
  • personal experience; and
  • interviews with Transport Canada, industry representatives (e.g., railways, technology suppliers), and researchers.

Two main purposes are identified (leading to three recommendations): industry and Rail Safety’s role in the safe, timely and efficient advancement of research and technology; and a value-adding model to help Rail Safety assume such a role.

This paper covers six parts:

  1. Technology innovation principles, and rail sec­tor progress;
  2. The theoretical framework for understanding how techno­logy reduces failure probability;
  3. Rail technology case histories and the regulatory framework’s effect on adoption;
  4. Reasons for railways’ exasperation with perceived regulatory impediments;
  5. Technology’s future, and how railways will perceive it; and
  6. A role and value-adding model for Rail Safety.
  1. Scientific discovery launches technological innovation, which matures through a sequence of “Technology Readiness Levels”. Regulatory impediments pre­vent maturation by adding delays to adoption and dis-incenting de­vel­op­ers from pursuing progress. Railway accident reductions of the past two decades are mainly attributable to the railways’ ability to work outside the regulatory framework to evaluate physical asset performance and detect its impending failure. Of 24 technologies sampled, over 80 percent (by num­ber) are not recognized within the existing regulatory framework. When technology can monitor safety beyond regulatory requirements, rail­ways experience limited success petitioning govern­ment for updated regulations. Today, railways argue that regulatory stasis impedes safety-enhancing technologies, as no regulatory framework changes since 2010 appear to have ac­celer­ated their adop­tion.
  2. Without defining their meaning or setting numerical targets, the Railway Safety Act (Act) uses the terms “safe” and “safety” and speaks vaguely about achieving “the highest levels of safety”. To address this vagueness, regulations de-construct the end-state—“be safe” into sub­ord­inate indicat­ors (proxies). Technology’s role is to make safety proxies actionable, although railway critics will argue that dispensations sought from existing meth­ods (proxies) are motivated solely by economic savings.  After all, the regulator does not prevent railways from using new technologies. It just superimposes existing methods. 
  3. Eight presented case histories illustrate the variety of situations where techno­lo­gies get adopt­ed, delayed, or dis-incented. In most cases, the baseline technology is nominally 10 to 20 years old, although refine­ments contin­ue to be made.
  4. When the regulator superimposes existing methods over technology-enabled ones, the disproportionate cost increases in return for limited incremental safety benefits exasperate railways. Although not pre­vent­ing safety improvements, superimposing methods by the regulator could infer dissatisfaction with the pro­gress offered by railways for a proposed technology-upgrade. 
  5. The future lies with rail­ways maint­aining declining accident rates, and the regulator providing public assurance that governance mechanisms equally address the public and railways’ safety expectations. While most recent innovations in rail safety technologies have come from the high-tech sector, future pro­gress will likely draw from fields such as mathematics, data analyt­ics, and obsolescence management.  Additionally, cyber-security technology will shift safety man­age­­ment priorities from mechan­ical to communications-network robust­ness. As industry adapts to changing technology, so too must the regulatory framework. 
  6. Challenging new technology and demonstrating to public satis­faction that the system is safe, are the value-added to the regulator’s traditional role of conducting on-site inspections and audits. To be effective, this role should cover six areas:
    • pursuing actionable higher-level proxies;
    • establishing safety equivalence criteria;
    • championing experiments and pilot projects;
    • adjudicating technology for regulatory acceptance;
    • sponsoring technology initiatives; and
    • updating rules and regulations.

In conclusion, Rail Safety’s cultural characteristics and core capabilities need to empha­size science and technology for more rapid adoption of rail safety-enabling tech­­nologies to occur. Rail Safety needs to shift from a predomin­antly “Guard­ian” value system to a “Trader” one to avoid a footprint of shrink­­ing relevance. Three recommendations are made to achieve this shift:

  • Establish quantitative safety targets in the Act (i.e., percentage-reductions, or maximum-allowable failure rates);
  • Build Rail Safety’s organizational culture and core capabilities in science and technology; and
  • Create a research and experimentation-friendly framework.
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