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LARGE sections of the newly upgraded Melbourne-Albury rail line have been declared unsafe, forcing trains to slow down and prompting claims that the $500 million project has been bungled.
The train drivers union says speed restrictions have had to be enforced along 58 kilometres of the line where hundreds of large, mud-filled potholes have formed under the newly installed sleepers and rails.
The union says the holes under the tracks have caused carriages to separate and train drivers to almost bounce out of their seats. And it says resulting speed restrictions are adding an hour to the supposedly high-speed Melbourne-Sydney XPT passenger service.
''There's a possibility of derailment for a train which hits these holes,'' said Brian Hill, secretary of the locomotive division of the Rail, Tram and Bus Union.
One driver called the work an ''engineering blunder the ARTC [Australian Rail Track Corporation] was advised against''. He said there were more than 700 mud holes between Melbourne and Albury, ranging from three metres to 500 metres long.
He said the lateral and horizontal movement caused by the holes forced drivers ''to hold on to something'' so they weren't bounced out of their seats.
V/Line services have been suspended between Melbourne and Albury while the Rail Track Corporation completes the upgrades, which involve replacing wooden sleepers with concrete ones and converting rail lines from broad gauge to national standard gauge.
Mr Hill said last week there were four instances of trains coming apart when carriages dipped over mud holes, causing couplings to fail.
The Age has seen an email from one CountryLink train engineer who claimed testers from the ARTC were shocked by the state of the tracks.
Two observers were ''very astounded'' by the track conditions and experienced ''extreme difficulty keeping their equipment secured throughout the journey at line speed'', he wrote.
The Age has also obtained a memo by Greg McLeod, general manager of CountryLink, operator of the Melbourne-Sydney XPT service, sent to drivers on July 16 warning them of sections of track where ''mud is almost continuous''.
''Although ballast fouling is the principal cause, inadequate drainage alongside the track is a major contributory factor,'' he wrote. Ballast in this case refers to rocks between rail sleepers.
ARTC spokesman Brian Dale agreed that poor drainage was a problem on the line. There were no figures on how many trains had broken apart as a result of the mud holes, but ''it was not an everyday occurrence''.
''In fixing the track you fix one problem, but you can create another problem,'' he said. ''At times it can be the track and at times it can be the train itself.''
Mr Dale said the mud holes were caused by dust settling after sleepers were installed. Rain had turned them into mud and the holes had grown as trains passed over them.
The ARTC has begun work on fixing the mud holes.
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