Emergency services personnel working to help passengers injured in a train accident in Pretoria. Picture: SUPPLIED
Emergency services personnel working to help passengers injured in a train accident in Pretoria. Picture: SUPPLIED

Amid an increase in communication-related incidents on SA’s tracks, railway authorities have proposed a regulated standard for verbal communication between train operators.

SA has seen numerous serious train incidents in recent years, most recently a fatal crash in Pretoria in January, which a preliminary investigation by the Railway Safety Regulator (RSR) found was caused by miscommunication.

Despite this, train operators are not required to follow specific communication protocols and can still determine their own practices. It also means that different operators, when necessary, are unable to effectively communicate with each other.

This is where the draft Protocol for Verbal Safety-Critical Communication (VSCC) is crucial to ensuring safe railway operations.

“Non adherence to VSCC has contributed to numerous railway occurrences, including collisions and signals passed at danger,” the regulator said in the Government Gazette on Friday.

The uniform signals will include, among others, the use of the phonetic alphabet, “alpha” (A), “bravo” (B), and “charlie” (C), and standard radio terms such as “over”, “out” and “loud and clear”. It also includes a uniquely South African “hokaai”, which will be used to request a train driver to stop.

Gautrain operator Bombela makes use of the phonetic alphabet while the Passenger Rail Agency of SA (Prasa) does not. At the same time, Prasa said Metrorail uses ‘hokaai’ to instruct a driver to “stop during shunting movements”, a word the Gautrain considers unacceptable.

The RSR said once it is implemented, all operators, including Gautrain, Metrorail and Transnet, will use it.

“It has to apply across the board in order to also address risks associated with railway interfaces,” the RSR’s spokesperson Madelein Williams said.

The protocol further specifies a range of instructions or checks when VSCC is used on the tracks.

All safety communications, either by wireless radio or cellphone, will have to be recorded. Personnel will not be allowed to have “chats” as “safety critical communication is formal communication”, and officials need to speak clearly and at an acceptable pace and not be interrupted.

The protocol also includes emergency procedures, identified by “Emergency, emergency, emergency” on the communication channels. The official will then have to identify themselves , identify the nature of the emergency, the nature of the assistance they require, as well as their location. An immediate response is also required.

“The VSCC protocol will enhance or improve safety communication messages by reducing current or existing risks,” Prasa spokesperson Nana Zenani said.

She added the introduction of the phonetic alphabet to Metrorail’s instructions will eliminate miscommunication during manual authorisation.

“It will guide safety-critical employees in exchanging safety messages and standardise VSCC across all railways,” Zenani said.

In its most recent safety report, the RSR raised communication between train control officers and train drivers as a matter of concern and a factor in collisions. While the report does not specify in how many incidents miscommunication played a role, the 2017/2018 financial year saw over 4, 400 ‘operational occurrences’, which include collisions, electrocution, level crossing incidents, and fires.

However, uniform communication terminology and practices alone will not eliminate communication-related incidents entirely. In its investigation into a collision at the Buttskop level crossing in the Western Cape, in which seven occupants of a bakkie were killed, the RSR highlighted communication problems several times. Nowhere does the investigation mention that the officials misunderstood each other, but rather, the report recommended that “[Prasa] must ensure that trunk radios and recorders are working at all times”.

Communication was hindered between the level crossing and traffic control due to a cable theft incident. But when officials needed to use alternative methods of communication, the RSR found the truck radios and recorders “were reported faulty on the day of the occurrence”.

In July 2018, researchers at the CSIR raised similar concerns specifically relating to Metrorail.

“The Prasa passenger rail network is in a poor condition owing to faulty signalling, telecommunication and electrical related infrastructure conditions,” the review of rail infrastructure concluded. 

“Operators sharing the same network shall ensure interoperability between the various communication networks which they use,” the draft protocol stated, adding, “This will mitigate any barriers that might arise from incompatible communications systems being used by different operators sharing the same network.”

The protocol also highlights environment and linguistic challenges that operators need to take into account.

The protocol is currently open for public comment.