Australia: Rail Reforms - Rail Safety National Law - Automation


  • Organisations involved in rail automation development, design and potential operations in Queensland.


  • From 1 July 2017 the new Rail Safety National Law will apply in Queensland.


  • Be aware of the format of the Rail Safety National Law as a framework and how it may apply to rail automation technologies.

Recently we have provided a brief overview of the Rail Safety National Law (Queensland) Act 2017 (Qld) (Act) which will apply the Rail Safety National Law (RSNL), with minor modifications, as a law of Queensland. To view this update please click here. We have also outlined some of the changes and transitional provisions of this Act. This update is available here.


In light of advancing technologies we now look at the possible implications the Act may have on the future of rail automation.

RSNL as a framework

The RSNL's format as a framework for safety management, rather than a set of prescriptive rules, should not directly impede the progression of the emerging technologies such as rail automation and robotics. Due to this approach the RSNL does not detail specific and separate requirements for rail vehicle automation, which is governed by the same general principles as other rail operations.

In a 2016 report, the National Transport Commission came to the conclusion that the current RSNL (as implemented in other States at that time) and associated regulatory framework should not create any significant barriers to the implementation of automated trains in Australia.1 The Commission's website states that its regulatory analysis on automated vehicles in the future will instead focus on road vehicles.2

In addition, those moving automated machinery of any kind (or having that automated machinery itself move rolling stock) may trigger particular considerations under the RSNL. Rail Infrastructure Managers, who are not also accredited as Rolling Stock Operators, or are relying on particular delegations of operations or exemptions, will need to remain vigilant to ensure that any automated operations being carried out on the below rail infrastructure are not in breach of the RSNL.

Duties under the RSNL

The RSNL places a duty on relevant persons (amongst other duties) to eliminate risks to safety as far as is reasonably practicable (or to minimise if not reasonably practicable to eliminate)3 and to develop safe systems of operations.4 The flexible description of responsibilities under the RSNL should allow automation issues to be dealt with progressively through the adoption of new, or changes to existing, codes of practice as the technologies themselves evolve.5

This would allow for relevant parties such as rail transport operators, rail safety workers, designers and manufacturers to be regulated under a code without the need to overhaul the RSNL.

While automation of rail vehicles is within the ambit of the current framework of the RSNL, there is currently no code of practice specific to the automation of rail vehicles. As such, any future codes of practice will need to be carefully developed in order to ensure the objectives of the RSNL can be met and at the same time, can be adapted to address any material challenges arising out of the development of new automation technologies.

Effective Management and Control

The question of who has 'effective management and control' of any automated trains (or traditional rolling stock moved by an automated process, such as a loader or unloader) is something which needs to considered closely by operators and infrastructure owners, given it may be the operator, utilising remote controls, rather than anyone physically on the train (e.g. the driver) who has 'effective management and control' for the purposes of the RSNL at any given time.

Those operators and infrastructure owners also need to look at their interface agreements, including any road and rail interfaces, to understand how risks in relation to automated trains (along with any automated vehicles using the roads), will be assessed, investigated and managed.


The harmonisation of rail safety laws, through the RSNL, could also be seen as an opportunity to improve the interoperability across jurisdictional rail networks which may assist in creating innovative outcomes in relation to the development of rail automation, and the applicable safety requirements which will go hand in hand.6

When announcing the introduction of the RSNL in Queensland, the Minister for Transport, Jackie Trad, stated that 'by implementing these reforms in Queensland, we are cutting red tape for industry and making our railways safer.'7 The industry will no doubt hope this approach will also be applied to rail automation developments, as well as traditional rail operations.


1 NTC Australia, 'Regulatory barriers to more automated road and rail vehicles Issues paper – February 2016' (Issues paper, February 2016) 12.
2 NTC Australia, Preparing for more automated road and rail vehicles (13 February 2017) National Transport Commission
3 Rail Safety National Law s46.
4 For example Rail Safety National Law s52(2)(a).
5 Rail Safety National Law s249.
6 NTC Australia, 'National Transport Commission Issues Paper on Regulatory Barriers to more automated road and rail vehicles' (Transport Cluster Submission, March 2016)
7 The Honourable Jackie Trad, 'National reforms to improve rail safety' (Media Release, 28 February 2017).

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