• Rail-controller fatigue blamed for near-misses

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  by David Benton
 
Rail-controller fatigue blamed for near-misses
Fatigue among railway controllers has been cited in three potential train accidents, including a near-head-on.

The Transport Accident Investigation Commission says in reports released yesterday that work hours for train controllers were excessive.

In potentially the most serious incident, at Otane southwest of Hastings on January 18 last year, a head-on crash was averted only because the driver of an oncoming train noticed another train had been told it could go on the same track as his, the commission found.

A controller with 24 years' experience had told a freight train it could cross the railway line on to another section of rail.

At the time, the controller was about 10 hours into a 12-hour shift, because of a staff shortage.

And in the four weeks before the crash, he had been called in to work on four of his seven rostered days off to cover shifts.

In another incident the same day, further south at Woodville, the commission found a different train controller was probably suffering from fatigue when he told a train it could "berth" on the main line at Makotuku, when another train had already been allocated the same place.

The report said the controller's fatigue was probably "a result of the excessive number of late and night shifts he had worked in the six weeks leading up to the incidents".

In a third incident, at Kokiri on the West Coast on February 3, the commission found that a train controller's fatigue after being called in to do extra shifts had probably caused him to allow a train into an area where contractors were working on the tracks.

But Maritime and Rail Transport Union general secretary Wayne Butson said he was satisfied Government track owner Ontrack was working to rectify controller rosters and limit fatigue.

"The main problem at the moment is there is a quite acute shortage of staff."

Controllers had to cover for others who were sick, and were called in on some rostered days off, Mr Butson said.

Overseas rail operators and companies were picking up New Zealand staff, "and our wages, of course, are languishing behind".

Australian wages for controllers were 30 per cent higher than in New Zealand.

Mr Butson did not believe the public were in any danger, despite the commission finding the operators were fatigued.

The commission has told Ontrack to limit night shifts for controllers, recruit enough staff to allow them to cover for sick days without calling in staff on rostered days off, and to allow a minimum 15-minute break when controllers are required to work past eight hours.

Ontrack has agreed to the recommendations, with the exception that it has said it does not yet know if it can manage the 15-minute breaks.

- NZPA