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Concern summary

Safety concern regarding staffing shortages at [Operator] Network Control.

Reporter's deidentified concern

The reporter advises that since late December 2021, [Location] Network Control has been subjected to staffing shortages due to COVID furlough requirements. As a result, the reporter states that dual boarding is becoming a common practice. That is, one controller is required to operate two separate control boards.The reporter advises that there are multiple boards at [Location]:[Location] 1 [Location] 2 [Location] 3 [Location] A [Location] B[Location] C[Location] D (Currently Daywork Only)[Location] X [Location] YThe reporter states that [Location] boards 1 & 2 and [Location] boards 2 & 3 have been setup to allow for dual boarding from one desk. The various screens can be setup to allow this control from the same desk. So while dual boarding results in a higher workload for the controller while operating these boards, it is achievable with a relatively low risk.However, dual boarding of the [Location X & Y] boards or the [Location A,B,C & D] boards requires a controller to operate the boards from two separate desks. The reporter states that it is physically impossible to monitor both boards at the same time. Not only does the workload increase, but there is limited, even minimal, opportunity to gain situational awareness of a board that is not being consistently monitored. The reporter states that in addition, dual boarding shifts are being rostered at night, when rail traffic is at its highest and the possibility of controller fatigue is also heightened.The reporter advises that controllers have been dual boarding the [Location A, B, C & D] boards, while 3 separate controllers are operating the [Location 1, 2 & 3] boards.The reporter is concerned that a critical safety incident will be overlooked if the practice continues and queries the outcomes of risk assessments that were conducted to determine dual boarding the main south boards at night was the most appropriate risk control in instances of staff shortages.

Named party's response

[Operator] provides the following response to REPCON RR2022-00005 and is open to any further discussions on our processes should you have any further questions.[Operator] takes all safety concerns raised very seriously.In response to the concerns that the person has raised [Operator] can confirm there have been staff shortage occurrences at Network Control Centre [Location] and, forming part of Business Continuity Planning (BCP) control boards have on occasion been combined allowing the continuation of critical rail freight transiting the [Operator] network.As part of the response to the pandemic [Operator] has put in place a BCP. The BCP is regularly reviewed including identification of measures to be implemented when work forces numbers are reduced. One of the measures that may be implemented is the combining of control boards.When combining boards, the risk is reviewed using a checklist which ensures that all areas are considered before combining boards and the application of additional controls to be implemented.These controls include reviewing the train plans, briefing the network controllers, cancellation of non-critical track work and additional supervision.There are also standard operating procedures that are implemented when combining boards and the manager will provide a full briefing to the network controller before approval to proceed ensuring the network controller is comfortable to continue with the additional controls in place as well as advice what to do if the workload exceeds acceptable levels. [Operator] continues to review BCP which includes regular engagement with all key stakeholders including our network controllers, this provides subject matter expertise input ensuring [Operator] business continuity planning is fit for purpose.

Regulator's response

ONRSR has received ATSB REPCON report number RR2022-00005, dated 4 February 2022, regarding staffing shortages at [Location] Network Control. ONRSR has reviewed the reporter’s concerns and the operator’s response. ONRSR has requested evidence from the operator which is being reviewed. If further follow up actions are required ONRSR will consider this in the scope of future regulatory activities as part of ONRSR’s work program.