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Waka Kotahi Wanted $6m To Address Rail Safety Concerns But Never Sent Request

Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

NZTA Waka Kotahi watered down a warning to the government about growing safety risks on the rail network, while also failing to submit a bid for more money to tackle them.

Papers released under the OIA show the transport agency wanted about $6 million for frontline staff to address areas of "immediate safety concern", but never submitted the request.

The papers show rail safety regulation was weak and being outpaced by rapid growth in passenger numbers and freight.

NZTA Waka Kotahi was working on making a case to government for more frontline staff and funding "to buy time", ahead of a concerted push to strengthen regulator powers.

This included a draft briefing from October - as well as an internal note written last month - that warned that without more funding, the agency's ability to "address safety risks will be compromised, increasing safety risks for rail participants, staff, passengers, and the public".

But neither the briefing nor the note made it to the government.

NZTA Waka Kotahi told RNZ: "The draft briefing was not finalised or sent."

Transport Minister Simeon Brown was instead given a weaker heads-up about the rising regulatory risks and funding needs, in his briefing to incoming ministers (BIM) late last year.

The agency also told RNZ it had not sent Brown papers about the funding options it began work on months ago.

"No such papers have been provided," a spokesperson said.

It had provided the BIM and "we are currently finalising a comprehensive briefing on the issue for the minister which we expect to be provided within weeks".

NZTA Waka Kotahi would not say if its financial situation and priorities around this have changed.

It also remained unclear how the rail network will have the deficiencies in how it is regulated fixed, especially under government-ordered cost cutting.

RNZ has asked Brown for comment.

'Increased safety risk'

The draft briefing from around election time in October detailed problems that were long-lasting and worsening.

"Passenger rail carries the risk of a catastrophic high impact low probability event," it said.

"The increased patronage and increased freight tonnage bring with them increased safety risk stemming from the greater scale, complexity and activity of the rail network."

Trains would get busier still under the City Rail Link.

But NZTA lacked investigation powers, and "very rarely" took enforcement action. When it did, it tended to throw the book at operators, causing "very high impact".

It had insufficient staff to move beyond just being reactive.

A chart for a board workshop in December about this showed things improved from 2016-2019, but had begun going backwards and if nothing was done, a big fall off in effectiveness was forecast.

It needed a law change to boost its powers and lack of influence over rail operators - only two out of eight types of rail operators need licensing, for instance - the papers say.

Earlier, the BIM to Brown said the risks from "interface issues" between freight and passenger services were rising, the agency was seeking additional funding, and the industry wanted better regulation. The BIM steered clear of warning of "safety risks".

NZTA had had high hopes of a "rail funding and fees review, consultation and Cabinet engagement".

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