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An emergency braking system on Melbourne's trains that should activate if a driver loses consciousness is unreliable and should be replaced, an independent report says.
The need for a dependable safety system has also been underlined by a survey of Melbourne train drivers in which more than 60 per cent admitted having been in charge of a train while drowsy or inattentive.
The findings, to be released today, have added urgency to calls for the replacement of the "dead man" emergency braking system, which has been implicated in two crashes on the suburban network in recent years.
The report was commissioned after the Australian Transport Safety Bureau criticised the device's failure in train crashes at Epping in 2002 and Footscray in 2001.
The dead man system is activated by drivers in two ways - by a pressure pad under the feet or by twisting the accelerator stick while driving. If pressure is removed from the pad or the twisted stick is released, an alarm is supposed to sound and the train is supposed to brake automatically.
Of more than 110 train drivers surveyed for the report, 52 per cent said the pressure pad could remain activated by light force applied with "no muscular effort" by one foot. "This reinforces the limitation of the dead man device as a safeguard against driver incapacitation," the report says.
The handle was rated as an unpopular alternative by drivers, with 75 per cent saying that keeping it twisted caused discomfort and 28 per cent saying they suffered lasting pain afterwards. The report also warns that this method could be an occupational health and safety problem.
In other findings, 62 per cent of drivers surveyed said they had driven while drowsy or inattentive, and 29 per cent said they had done so 10 or more times during the past decade. Of those who reported being tired or inattentive, 67 per cent said the dead man system had not triggered under such circumstances.
"Episodes of driver inattention and drowsiness are sufficiently frequent to warrant the need for a driver safety system that monitors and supports driver behaviour . . . at best the dead man system simply monitors the presence of a driver," the report says.
In the 2002 Epping crash, a city-bound Connex service smashed into another train. The Transport Safety Bureau later found that the driver had failed to obey a stop signal because he was incapacitated by a migraine and may have blacked out. In the 2001 Footscray crash, an empty Newport-bound train hit a stationary train, also after the driver ignored a stop signal. Investigators concluded that the driver had been on prescription medication and may have fallen asleep.
In both the Epping and Footscray cases, the dead man system did not activate.
The system has also been criticised in NSW, where it was named as a contributing factor in the Waterfall train crash that killed seven people in January 2003 after a train driver suffered a heart attack.
The Victorian study was commissioned by the Department of Infrastructure's director of public transport safety, Graham Edkins, and conducted by Andrew McIntosh of the University of NSW school of safety science.
The Victorian Government is preparing to conduct trials of a new safety system that will operate alongside, rather than replace, the dead man. The "Task Linked" system requires drivers to perform a task - such as sounding the horn - at regular intervals. If the task is not performed, a warning flashes and the train will stop.
The new system will be tested on six Connex Comeng trains for three months from January. If the trial is deemed a success, it will be installed on all trains across the suburban network within a year.
Opposition transport spokesman Terry Mulder said yesterday that if dead man emergency braking systems were ineffective, a replacement needed to be tested and installed urgently.
"Two suburban trains can carry up to 1600 passengers in total," Mr Mulder said. "Accidents like Footscray, where one train ran into another, can have extremely serious consequences and safety devices must be proven to be effec-tive."
A Connex spokesman said the rail operator supported the introduction of the Task Linked system.
The spokesman said recent changes introduced to improve driver health included more intensive medical examination of drivers and training about the dangers and warning signs of fatigue.
"Safety is our highest priority and we are committed to learning from incidents here, interstate and overseas to improve even further our high safety standards," he said.
TRAIN CRASHES: RECENT HISTORY
· JUNE 2001: FOOTSCRAY
Two passengers injured when Newport-bound Connex train runs stop signal and hit a stationary train at Footscray station. Bureau of Transport Safety finds the driver was on medication and may have fallen asleep. Driver says he does not remember the incident. Dead-man system did not activate.
· JUNE 2002 - EPPING
Six injured when two trains collide at Epping, above. Driver ran stop signal while suffering a migraine. Dead-man system did not deploy.
· JAN 2003 - WATERFALL, NSW
Sydney - Wollongong train crashes, killing 7. Driver had heart attack and inquiry finds dead-man system was causal factor.
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