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Inadequate inspections and maintenance of rail tracks have been "systemic" across the Sydney Trains network, transport safety investigators have warned.
The blunt assessment is contained in a just-released report by the Office of Transport Safety Investigations into the failure of fasteners on a section of track that runs through a 140-metre tunnel near the Hawkesbury River, north of Sydney.
The main north line through the tunnel carries thousands of commuters each day between Sydney and the Central Coast and Newcastle. More than 350 passenger and freight trains travel in each direction every week.
While corrosion was first found in 2011, the report said the inspection regime over the following three years had "not adequately identified the deterioration of the track fastenings".
"OTSI reviewed other similar incidents and Sydney Trains' internal audits, and found that inadequate track inspection and inadequate maintenance were systemic," it said.
It cited the derailment of a freight train at Sefton in western Sydney in October 2015 on a section of track that also carries suburban trains.
"The track was found to be in a state of disrepair with known defects," the report said.
The state's transport safety watchdog said in many cases Sydney Trains' maintenance staff did not "address all inspection criteria" and it cited "deficiencies in the training and competence of inspectors".
It also found "insufficient management oversight" to ensure inspections of rail tracks were "performed to the required standard across the Sydney Trains network".
However, Sydney Trains' executive director of engineering and maintenance, Stewart Mills, said its rail network was "safe and our customers can feel confident using it".
"It is important to note that the report relates to maintenance problems that happened more than three years ago and all of the recommendations made by OTSI have already been implemented, or are close to completion," he said in a statement.
Mr Mills also said the OTSI report noted that the "embedded problems" pre-dated the reorganisation of RailCorp into Sydney Trains in 2013, and the latter had "addressed numerous legacy issues".
"To make it even safer, we have spent around $1.1 billion a year on maintenance since 2014 to ensure the safe and reliable operation of our network," he said.
The safety regulator initially focused on the track defects found in "Boronia No.3" – one of four tunnels located between Cowan and the Hawkesbury River – in 2014 but its investigation widened after "evidence of systemic maintenance issues" emerged.
OTSI found Sydney Trains's own audits had "consistently, over time", reported "significant systemic issues" with the way inspections and maintenance of rail tracks had been conducted and managed.
Yet the watchdog said there was "no evidence that these reports translated into meaningful action".
It made a raft of recommendations to Sydney Trains, including the need for it to deal with issues detected in audits or inspections "in an appropriate and timely manner".
The safety regulator also urged the operator of the state's trains to improve the standard of track inspector training.
Transport Minister Andrew Constance said he took these investigations "very seriously" and had been advised that Sydney Trains had a "stringent approach to track inspection and maintenance".
Sydney Trains also told OTSI that it had completed most actions – such as cleaning tunnels across the rail network – proposed in internal reports in the wake of the defects found in the Boronia tunnel.
This article first appeared on www.smh.com.au
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