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The list of weaknesses in Melbourne's rail network is so long that fixing it all would be unaffordable, according to an internal audit obtained by The Age, but Metro has warned the state government some of the problems are so critical they can no longer be ignored.
The internal audit has revealed the system is in such poor shape after decades of neglect that it cannot cope with expected demand unless hundreds of millions of dollars of failing infrastructure is renewed.
More than $950 million has been spent on the maintenance and renewal of the metropolitan rail network in the past four financial years, government figures show. Yet Metro's highly detailed five-year plan, reveals the repair job remains huge and damages the reliability of virtually every aspect of the network.
Metro has appealed for state government funding to rectify the many problems.
"If funding is insufficient to support the capacity enabling projects and service delivery in a timely manner, this will prevent MTM [Metro] providing sufficient services to meet patronage growth," the document states.
1: LACK OF ELECTRICAL POWER
Melbourne's rail network is seriously short of traction power trains need to accelerate, particularly in the inner city, Metro says. The performance of the newer trains suffers as a result. All trains bought this century - the Siemens and X'Trapolis trains - have been "detuned" to perform to the same specifications as the older and slower Comeng trains, which require less voltage. "The newer trains perform very poorly when confronted by this low voltage level," Metro says. The solution is a major investment in electrical substations but the operator acknowledges this would be too expensive.
2: OUTMODED SIGNALLING
Signal failures are one of the biggest sources of delay on the system. "Much of the signalling equipment on the network is antiquated and presents significant impact potential on the network's performance," Metro says. Some signals, called interlockings, are 100 years old but have a design life of 35 years. Their age makes them increasingly prone to failure and expensive to maintain, due to "the diminishing number of technicians with the relevant maintenance experience" to fix them. The signal system within this booth, pictured, at Kooyong Station, is 102 years old.
3: INVISIBLE TRAINS
Much of the rail network is so-called "dark territory" for Metro's train control centre - long stretches of suburban track where trains become invisible to signallers. Metro insists the dark territory is no danger to the public, but it is a drag on the system and limits the frequency with which trains can run. The gaps in the system risk creating a "compromise to operational performance as fragmented signal control and communications fails to cope with ever-increasing service frequencies", Metro says. A 30-year-old back-up system is more than 10 years past the end of its design life and is deteriorating due to dust contamination.
4: OUTMODED TECHNOLOGY
Melbourne's rail system is full of decrepit technology, including "over 2000 life-expired CCTV cameras". This is despite almost a decade spent replacing cameras with digital technology. A previous operator, National Express, was supposed to have replaced much of the network's CCTV by 2001 but left before any work was started. Metro notes that other "life-expired operational control systems" include public address and passenger information display systems that are so old Metro says they are "no longer supported by the supplier". The neglected Stony Point line still relies on Telstra copper cables installed long ago. Metro warns that this neglect risks the "collapse of critical systems preventing train operations".
5: COMPLEX RAIL JUNCTIONS
Metro wants to rip out interconnections between rail lines and convert Melbourne's intricate Victorian-era network into five separate and simpler railways. It says a failure or delay on one section of the network causes "cascading across the network". Metro says that the interconnections between tracks around Richmond station in particular, where several lines converge (pictured), force low speed limits of between 25 km/h and 40 km/h. The interconnections also create considerable passenger discomfort and noise. "The interdependencies are a significant contributor to the relatively poor performance during peak periods on the Melbourne network in comparison to the best performing railways throughout the world," Metro says.
6: RUN-DOWN STATIONS
Metro says Melbourne's railway stations and facilities are "sub-optimal", and that repairs are based on "a regime of periodic inspections" rather than a clear understanding of which stations need to be modernised. The report proposes a decade-long strategy of maintaining and repairing stations, coupled with an "asset condition survey" to better understand what is wrong with stations. Metro's Strategic Operations Plan singled out Williamstown Beach station as one of the worst, saying it had "experienced significant structural movement since  and requires significant underpinning or replacement". The station was repaired last year. The report also notes that, at Caulfield station, there is a 25 km/h speed restriction for trains travelling over the station subway.
Transport Minister Jacinta Allan was quick to blame the former Coalition government for failing to invest in infrastructure.
Speaking to ABC Radio on Wednesday, after The Age revealed the Andrews government had vetoed a major Metro timetable upgrade due to begin in April, Ms Allan attacked the "fundamental failure of the former Liberal government to invest in the infrastructure that's needed".
"They didn't make the necessary investment, the big decisions," she said.
But Opposition public transport spokesman Ryan Smith said the Coalition had begun focusing on maintenance - pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into it during their four years.
He said that state politicians too often fell into the trap of spending all their time on grand projects.
"The non-big ticket announceables, you spend a lot of time on that, and you get far less credit for that. I don't think everyone was cheering on the platforms for us when we started spending more on maintenance," Mr Smith said.
Gerry Glover, an organiser in the Electrical Trades Union, has been involved in Melbourne's rail industry for 14 years and said recent governments had finally accepted the need to invest in renewing the system, but the list of problems was still vast.
"From the mid-80s to 2000 little to no renewal work was done. It was mainly maintenance, Band-Aid stuff," Mr Glover said. "Then the panacea was privatisation but it was much the same for the next nine years. When MTM [Metro] came in, from that point there has been a lot more emphasis on renewals to fix the reliability of the network."
Metro said programs had been put in place to fix many of the flaws identified in its 2013 audit.
This included the removal of some life-expired signals and the renewal of electrical substations. More than 700 of 2000 life-expired analog CCTV cameras had been converted to digital and a program was in place to simplify complex rail junctions that frequently caused train delays, a Metro spokeswoman said.
This article first appeared on www.theage.com.au
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