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The most critical infrastructure that keeps Melbourne's trains running - the tracks, signals and overhead equipment - is so fault-ridden and obsolete that it would need a fourfold increase in government funding to fix and replace it all, Metro Trains has calculated.
A 2014 assessment of Melbourne's rail infrastructure by the company identified an overwhelming 13,000 faults that needed repair or renewal, with no prospect of fixing them all in the near future based on current funding levels.
Infrastructure faults have a direct impact on commuters, causing frequent train delays, cancellations and in the worst cases, system-wide meltdowns.
The chronic funding gap has led Metro to overhaul the way it spends public money finding and fixing faults and introduce a more rigorous system for identifying the infrastructure in most urgent need of repair.
Metro Trains is allocated hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayers' money each year for the maintenance and renewal of the rail network, and has responsibility for prioritising where it is spent.
It puts the value of that infrastructure at an estimated $30 billion.
This financial year, it received about $250 million from the Andrews government for repair and renewal works.
At a national rail conference in Melbourne this week, Metro's manager of asset performance and portfolio investment, Michael Hetherington, said faulty and life-expired tracks, signals and overhead wires were chewing up about three quarters of that funding.
"Track consumes a lot more of our renewal funding than we would probably desire, OCS [overhead equipment] consumes more of our maintenance funding than we desire and there's some good reasons for that," Mr Hetherington said.
"Track is significantly life-expired and has had probably less investment than the other systems over the years, and OCS is predominantly obsolete."
The 2014 assessment also calculated what it would cost to fix the problems, Mr Hetherington said.
"As expected, we found the investment value nominated far exceeded the remaining budget, exceeded it by about four to one."
He said the funding gap had prompted Metro to make better use of the huge amount of data it has on system faults, to target the maintenance and renewal work that would do most to reduce commuter disruptions.
"We're continuing to embed asset management across the system, people are finding it harder and harder to make decisions without evidence," Mr Hetherington said.
Mr Hetherington spoke at the Core2016 Conference on Railway Excellence at Melbourne's Exhibition and Convention Centre.
Tony Morton, the Public Transport Users Association president, said it was clear the rail system needed more funding for maintenance, just to keep pace with current demand let alone improve for the future.
"The rail system has a lot of catch-up to do to deal with 50 years of neglect and systematic under-investment in maintenance. It's a long-standing issue, not something that has happened since privatisation as such," he said.
He called for a more transparent way to allocate maintenance and renewal funds, so the public could see where the money goes.
This article first appeared on www.theage.com.au
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