The death rate for Tranz Rail workers was at the upper level of an international comparison, the ministerial inquiry into the company's safety record was told yesterday.

The Land Transport Safety Authority's general manager for policy, Alan Woodside, said Tranz Rail had three workplace deaths a year from 1996 until 1998.

It was last year's total of five that pushed NZ into the upper levels of the international rankings.

A study of railways in Australia, Europe, Japan, South Africa and India showed that deaths ranged from none to six.

Although the Tranz Rail figure was near the top, the results should be interpreted cautiously as accidents sometimes happened in clusters, Mr Woodside said.

Tranz Rail also differed significantly from other rail operators in terms of freight and passenger volumes, he said.

A Wellington QC, Bill Wilson, is head of the inquiry Labour Minister Margaret Wilson ordered after a series of accidents in which four Tranz Rail workers and a rail ferry seaman were killed in 12 months.

Mr Wilson said the overseas figures were very significant. The number of Tranz Rail worker deaths (15 since 1993) was far too high, although much lower than the number of reported lost-time injury accidents (about six per 100).

Mr Woodside agreed the figures were unacceptable and the Rail and Maritime Transport Union had cause for concern about safety.

He told Mr Wilson that the authority had agreed that Tranz Rail could change aspects of its safety systems without the authority's approval, although the changes were not significant.

Mr Wilson said he found this hard to understand when the Transport Services Licensing Act required authority approval for all changes.

The Labour Department's occupational safety and health service said there was a strong case for Tranz Rail's rail operations to be covered by the Health and Safety in Employment Act's "all practicable steps" concept, which applied to all other workplaces, including ships.

This would provide a significant incentive for Tranz Rail to adopt a more positive approach to managing health and safety.

Inspectors regarded Tranz Rail as an average performer but the firm was one of the biggest employers in NZ and its record of fatal accidents was exceptionally high.

Tranz Rail had also procrastinated when asked to make information about safety systems available and had refused to provide a copy of some provisions, claiming that they were commercially sensitive, he said.

A report by rail safety expert David Rayner, which Tranz Rail commissioned and gave to the inquiry, said the fatality rate was worryingly high and appeared to be increasing in shunting yards.

"Within this very specific and exposed ... staff the five-year record of fatal accidents averages 1.75 deaths per 1000 employees per annum, well outside the company's risk acceptance criteria and approaching twice the upper limit of tolerability set by the LTSA for train staff," the report said.

The lost-time incident rate had improved substantially but remained high by international standards.

The track warrant control system of monitoring train movement also presented a small but significant risk for long-haul passenger services, but safety management organisation was generally sound and the safety management system robust. Radical changes were needed and could involve remodelling some yards to reduce shunting, abandoning box wagons for containers on flat wagons and using "state-of-the-art radios" in shunting.