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ON THE outside wall of the blasting workshop, someone has written ''Death road'' and ''Welcome to the underworld'' in the dust with their finger.
Inside the workshop, the carbon steel shell of a rail carriage that will soon run around the Melbourne City Loop is being blasted with sand made from grains of corundum, the second-hardest mineral after diamond.
''We're not working in a bakery here,'' says Tomasz Penkala, who is in charge of the blasting and painting of the shells at the Alstom plant in Katowice, Poland. ''Of course it's dangerous work. The guys holding the blasting hoses have to be very strong. But I don't know why somebody wrote that.''
As late as 1990, Melbourne's trains were made in Melbourne, but today rail manufacturing is a global business.
Here, 80 kilometres west of Krakow, in the central European industrial heartland, Mr Penkala's blasting crew - and the joker with his graffiti - form one step in an assembly line spanning half the world that will eventually add 38 much-needed X'Trapolis trains to Melbourne's strained network.
On Thursday, the 14th X'Trapolis train was put into service in Melbourne by operator Metro. These new trains, ordered in 2008 by the state government, have been welded together from parts delivered by a network of Polish suppliers, using steel supplied by firms in Luxembourg, Sweden and Finland.
Half of the trains have had their wheel chassis installed in Italy. The corundum used for blasting was quarried in China, and there are countless contributions from other countries before the shells are wrapped to protect them against sea corrosion, taken to Hamburg and shipped to Melbourne.
From there they are taken to Ballarat where, under the Victorian government's local-content deal with Alstom, the French engineering giant making the trains, some components are fitted.
While this final work is done in Ballarat, the reality is that Victorian manufacturers and workers keen to expand their roles in the rail industry are competing on a massive worldwide scale with places such as Poland, which has a cheap but skilled workforce.
''Of course, we're a low-cost country in Europe,'' says process and manufacturing engineering director Jozef Rapacz during a tour of the Polish site this week. ''It's about 50 per cent cheaper here compared to Alstom's La Rochelle plant in France. But a lot of factories in Poland specialise in complex welding. We have a good tradition and skilled workers.''
Alstom's Katowice plant employs 500 people, covers about 10 times the area of the MCG and even has a 700-metre railway track on which trains can reach speeds of 50km/h for testing. It has supplied rolling stock to France, Germany and Italy.
The 228 carriage shells being assembled for Melbourne make up about 5 to 10 per cent of the workload at Alstom's Katowice plant, Mr Rapacz estimates. They are also working on carriages for underground rail systems in Budapest and Amsterdam, trams for Istanbul and freight trains for Germany.
The plant's managing director, Teresa Klusek, evidently eager to dispel any suggestion that central Europe is simply a cheap manufacturing option, stresses that the Katowice site follows the ''same golden rules'' as Alstom's other plants in Europe.
She points to the plant's safety record. Alstom Poland received a company award two years ago for going 329 straight working days without an accident. She says the rate of accidents has fallen more than 70 per cent in the past six years to fewer than four injuries for each million hours worked - a figure acknowledged by Melbourne rail industry workers yesterday as very good.
The plant management in Katowice acknowledged there had been concerns raised by Metro in Melbourne about some of the trains already delivered. These included ''localised deformations on the roof'', though the problem was fixed and the ''customer acknowledged the problem solution'', Alstom management said in a statement to The Age.
One train suffered rusting on the wheel chassis, known as the bogie, because of salt contamination caused by road de-icing while it was being hauled from Katowice to Germany for shipping. The bogie was being refurbished in Australia, Alstom said. Another had minor issues with its motors that were repaired in Melbourne.
''With this kind of manufacturing, you can't rule out some mistakes,'' X'Trapolis project co-ordinator Halina Dachowska says. ''There is always a human factor. But in my opinion, by comparison with other projects, the problems [with X'Trapolis] are not great.''
Ms Klusek stresses there is strict quality control on the welding work and points out that the Katowice plant has been accredited by the International Railway Industry Standard for seven years. ''We have to make sure the components are right here because the safety of the passengers depends on it,'' she says.
To demonstrate, they took The Age on a tour of the cavernous building nicknamed ''the cathedral'', where the X'Trapolis shells are welded together.
In what one manager describes as ''kind of like Lego'', kits supplied by Polish subcontractors are assembled by Alstom welders in the cathedral.
Welder Krzysztof Krawiec's fearsome multi-pronged blowtorch looks like a flaming pitchfork - more like something from hell than a house of God. Mr Krawiec is heating up the inside walls of a carriage while a huge magnetic plate on the outside straightens the metal. To check that the joints are tight, a pinkish-red paint is poured over the roof. ''Don't worry. It's not workers' blood,'' quips project industrial manager Jacek Smorczewski.
There is plenty left to do at Katowice. Workers are about halfway through the order of 38 trains for Melbourne, with the last one being made in the workshops scheduled to leave Poland in early 2012. It will make its first run around the City Loop in June that year.
With CLAY LUCAS
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