Cracked rails across Melbourne’s railway tracks

Back in late 2014 the decaying state of Melbourne’s railway network hit the news again, when Channel 9 news looked into the plague of cracked rails. So how long have the railway tracks been in this state?

Temporary rail joint on the suburban tracks at Footscray

The Channel 9 piece had the following to say:

Melbourne train drivers fear poor maintenance of rail lines will lead to derailments
November 2, 2014

Transport experts have raised serious concerns over track maintenance on Melbourne’s Metro rail network.

In an exclusive investigation by 9NEWS, they claim faults on the ageing infrastructure could lead to derailments if more testing is not carried out.

On the Belgrave line, near Heathmont station, yellow markings show several faults in the track.

Cracks are graded from minor to large, the worst of which must be replaced with 72 hours.

The Age picked up the story later the same month.

Patchwork train tracks a Metro derailment waiting to happen, MP alleges
November 25, 2014
Adam Carey

Australia’s rail safety watchdog is looking into allegations raised in parliament by a federal MP that Metro’s track maintenance standards are so shoddy it is putting public safety at risk.

Western Australian Labor MP Alannah MacTiernan alleged on Monday night that Melbourne’s rail operator had let the city’s railway tracks fall into such a dangerous state of disrepair a train could run off the rails.

She told parliament she had called on the Office of the National Rail Safety Regulator to investigate, and had supplied the watchdog with images of degraded rails around the Melbourne network.

Ms MacTiernan accused Metro of “sweating” the rail infrastructure to maximise its profits, rather than spending money for necessary maintenance. Metro has leased Melbourne’s publicly owned railway network under a franchise agreement with the state and is responsible for its upkeep.

“There we have in Melbourne a classic case of a very poor privatisation which really very much allows an asset to be ‘sweated’ and safety compromised,” Ms MacTiernan said.

Fairfax Media has also spoken separately to a range of sources concerned about rail safety in Melbourne, some of them long-serving Metro staff unable to speak publicly.

They allege maintenance standards had deteriorated since Metro took over the network five years ago, with hundreds of sections of damaged rail patched up with emergency “fishplates” instead of being replaced.

Spokeswoman Larisa Tait said the company spent $75 million a year on average renewing and maintaining tracks.

Emergency fishplates could be left in place “indefinitely”, depending on the severity of the flaw, she said. Metro inspects faulty tracks every 28 days to see if the condition has deteriorated, replacing them when needed, Ms Tait said.

“Through our regular inspecting, testing and monitoring regime of the track, the chance of a derailment on the network will remain as low as reasonably practicable,” she said.

Looking for faults

The temporary fishplates mentioned in the article are painted bright yellow, and can be found all over Melbourne.

Pair of temporary fishplates bolted to a flawed rail

Pair of temporary fishplates reinforcing a rail at Watsonia station

Note that the fishplates are called “temporary” for a reason – leave them in place without regularly inspecting them, and then can break like any other section of track.

Fishplate on a siding completely broken through

Waiting on repairs

Back in November 2011 the track through my local station developed a flaw, so a pair of temporary fishplates were added to the rails so that train could keep running.

Temporary fishplates bolted to flawed rail at Ascot Vale

Metro Trains must be running quite the maintenance backlog, as the ‘temporary’ fishplates were still in place in February 2013 – over a year later!

'Temporary' fishplates applied to flawed rail at Ascot Vale

Eventually in March 2013 the flaw was fixed – the damaged section of rail was cut out, and replaced by a fresh piece.

'Temporary' fishplates over flawed rail finally replaced by a new length of rail

On close inspection of the welded join I can see “24/3/2013″ – the date that the repair was completed.

Date marked beside a fresh rail weld: 24/3/2013

What do the standards say?

How often do the rails need to be visually inspected? The former Public Transport Corporation used to manage the tracks of Melbourne, and their engineering standards have the following to say:

2.3 Suburban Passenger Lines

2.3.1 Suburban passenger lines, including each track of multiple tracks must be inspected either by train or by foot from Mondays to Saturdays inclusive, unless otherwise directed by the Manager, Metropolitan Track.

2.3.2 Foot inspections of all crossing work must be carried out weekly and the whole of the patrol section must be walked at least once every three (3) weeks.

2.3.3 All curves must be inspected in detail quarterly and curves less than 380m radius to be inspected monthly, particularly checking gauge and cant.

In addition to the visual inspections, ultrasonic testing is also used to detect any invisible flaws.

Rail on the mainline metro network is also currently reviewed on a six-monthly basis (previously annually) using ultrasonic testing. This allows the tester to detect flaws within the rail head that are not visible to the naked eye and aims to prevent these flaws from developing into large cracks and failure of the rail

As to how long until the flaws get fixed, I can’t find a copy of the Victorian standards, so here is a copy of the standards that apply to the New South Wales country rail network – ‘Rail Defects and Testing’ document CRN CM 224.

CRN Engineering Manual CM 224 - Rail Defects and Testing requirements

Note that ‘plate within’ refers to the installation of a temporary fishplate, ‘remove within’ relates to when replacement of the flawed rail should occur, and ‘TSR’ is the speed in km/h that trains have to be restricted to until the flaw is fixed.

Some statistics

Finally, how often do rails break on the Melbourne rail network? Transport Safety Victoria is required to be informed of any safety related incident, and publish incident statistics – here they are for 2009-2013.

Track and civil infrastructure irregularity – broken rail by region for the 2013 calendar year

Region 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013
Metro 41 35 46 67 67
Regional 77 103 56 57 55
Total 118 138 102 124 122

Broken rail statistics - Victoria 2009-2013

Thankfully the statistics for 2012-2014 seem to be improving.

Track and civil infrastructure irregularity – broken rail by region to 18 May 2014

Broken rail statistics - Victoria 2012-2014

The recent plague of temporary fishplates combined with a downward trend in broken rails suggests one thing – Metro have finally pulled out their wallet to make sure that any flawed rails are discovered before they break.

However it does raise more questions – how long until the flawed sections of rail are replaced, and will it be a complete replacement of worn out rail, or just a patch up job.


Regarding the photo of the snapped fishplate – thankfully it was on a disused freight siding, so no trains were running over it!

Upside down wheelchairs at Melbourne stations

Melbourne’s trains haven’t always been the most accessible for wheelchair and scooter users, but Metro Trains has made some recent changes – some of which seem a little odd.

Train driver assists a scooter user board the train via the portable ramp

Public Transport Victoria has this to say on their website:

The driver will help you board the train by placing a ramp between the platform and the first door of the front carriage.

Customers who need help boarding trains should wait on the platform near the front of the train.

When you reach your destination station, the driver will use a ramp to help you off the train.

At most stations there is a wheelchair waiting area at the end of the platform for that express purpose.

Wheelchair waiting area and rubber platform gap filling strips at the down end of Mitcham platform 2

In addition, at a number of stations the relevant section of the platform has been raised.

Wheelchair ramp added to the Parliament end of Melbourne Central platform 3

This provides ramp free access to the train.

Ramp free access for wheelchairs at the east end of Flinders Street platform 1

A more recent change is adding directional signage at station entrances, directing wheelchair users to the end of the platform.

Backwards facing directions to the wheelchair waiting area of the platform at Seddon

Unfortunately the people doing the work were given dodgy instruction – the signs face a wheelchair passenger that has fallen onto the tracks!

'No bikes in first carriage door' notice at the end of the platform

Thankfully someone in charge noticed, as more recent additions now face in the correct direction.

'Wheelchairs here / no bikes first carriage door' sign at West Footscray station


Note the addition of the ‘no bikes in first carriage door’ signs – it has been a rule for many years, but the only way passengers would know about it was if they went digging on the PTV website:

Bikes can be carried free on metropolitan trains.

You cannot board at the first door of the first carriage, as this is a priority area for mobility impaired passengers.

Make sure you keep passageways and doorways clear and try to avoid busy carriages when travelling with your bike.

How much did the City Loop cost to build?

One might think that finding out how much Melbourne’s City Loop cost to build would be a simple task, but with so much conflicting information out there, it was much harder than I expected. So where did I have to look?

Comeng arriving into Melbourne Central platform 4

I started off at Wikipedia, and they put the final cost as $500 million, citing a Metropolitan Transit Authority publication from 1985.

I then stumbled upon the annual reports of the Melbourne Underground Rail Loop Authority, the government body responsible for planning, financing and constructing the Melbourne underground rail loop. Their 1971-72 annual report had the following to say on the cost:

The engineering consortium of John Connell- Mott, Hay & Anderson, Hatch Associates Inc., and Jacobs Associates was commissioned in August 1971 to prepare a pre-design report for the construction of the Loop.

The Consultants presented their report in February 1972. The report was comprehensive and confirmed the basic concept of a four tunnel, three station system. It also included a conceptual design of the Loop and detailed cost estimates therefore, possible variations of the plan (the cost of which does not materially alter the total cost estimate) and detailed proposals for project management under the Authority’s direction.

The construction cost estimate of the basic plan adopted by the Authority is $117.23 million excluding land acquisition which may be separately financed, signalling and communications (which will largely be Victorian Railways’ matters), and administrative and service costs including consultancy fees and interest on monies borrowed. This estimate is based on prices current in the last quarter of 1971.

As early as 1974 concerns had been raised about the completion date being delayed.

In its initial 1971 planning the Authority scheduled the completion of the Loop for mid-1978 to accord with the expectation indicated by the Minister of Transport when the Authority was formed. That completion date was dependent upon the Authority’s loan allocation in each year being sufficient for its planned works programme. Limitations on the Authority’s loan allocation for 1972/3 and 1973/4 have resulted in the date for completion of the Loop being re-scheduled for the end of 1980 – with provision for the first trains to run through it by December, 1978.

The cost of the project had also started to climb.

Due largely to the increases in price of materials and labour that figure has now increased to $162.78 million based on April 1974 prices.

In each of the years that followed, the estimated cost increased and the opening date was moved further back – by mid 1977 the authority was now aiming for the first train to run in late 1979.

The Authority experienced a year of vigorous progress in all sections of the loop. The program was maintained providing for the opening of the Burnley loop and Museum Station in December 1979 and completion of all works in 1982. The estimated cost of the project rose 9% to $328 million reflecting the overall inflationary trend.

As for the cost increases, these were attributed to an increase in project scope, as the 1977-78 MURLA annual report details:

The revised construction cost estimate of the basic plan adopted by the Authority in 1972 (then estimated as $117.23 million at last quarter 1971 prices) is $252.7 million updated to June, 1978, prices. The revised basic construction cost includes the cost of technical improvements including a high quality track support system to minimise vibrations transmitted through the ground to nearby buildings.

Within the provisions of the Melbourne Underground Rail Loop Act 1970, as amended, various changes have been made progressively to the scope of the project which was adopted in 1972. The cost of these items, together with the cost of land acquisition, signalling and communications and administrative and service costs including consultancy fees, updated to June, 1978, prices, is estimated to be $114.3 million.

Both construction and other costs continued to increase in the following years – with the 1979-80 MURLA annual report pushing back the first train even further.

The loops scheduled to be ready for operation in 1980 concurrently with Museum Station are the Burnley and the Caulfield-Sandringham. The Clifton Hill loop / City Circle and Parliament Station are planned to be available for operation by the end of 1981 and the North Melbourne loop and Flagstaff Station by the end of 1982.

In their 1980-81 annual report the authority celebrated the opening of the first part of the loop, but also pushed out the completion date of the remainder of the project.

The west booking hall of Museum Station is planned to be operational in the second quarter of 1982, followed by the south booking hall of Parliament Station in the third quarter. Flagstaff Station and the north booking hall of Parliament Station are planned to be transferred to VicRail during the first quarter of 1983, and the remaining loop for the lines through North Melbourne is planned to be transferred by mid 1983.

In 1983 the new Transport Act was passed and the Melbourne Underground Rail Loop Authority was merged into the newly created Metropolitan Transit Authority, so the 1981-1982 MURLA annual report was their last – construction cost estimates being as follows:

The revised construction cost estimate of the basic plan for the construction of the Loop adopted by the Authority in 1972 (then estimated as $117.23 million at last quarter 1971 prices) is $287.20 million updated to June, 1982 prices. This estimate and the earlier estimate exclude land acquisition, signalling and communications, and administrative and service costs including consultancy fees.

Within the provisions of the Melbourne Underground Rail Loop Act, as amended, various changes have been made progressively (as previously reported) to the scope of the project which was adopted in 1972. The cost of these changes and the exclusions stated above (but not including the cost of land acquired specifically for redevelopment) is currently estimated a $178.90 million. On this basis the total estimate as updated to June, 1982, prices is $466.10 million.

The previous completion date of mid 1983 came and went, so it was the Metropolitan Transit Authority that took the credit in their 1984-85 annual report for the opening of the final stage of the City Loop – only seven years behind the initial estimates made in 1971!

Highlights this year included the opening in May 1985 of Flagstaff, the final station to be completed in the 18km of rail track in the underground Loop. The $650 million Loop project, one of the largest undertakings in Melbourne’s history,carries more than 600 trains per day.

So in the end I’ve got something resembling an answer – the City Loop cost between $500 and $650 million to build at 1985 prices, the exact figure varying if land acquisition, signalling and communications costs (funded by the Victorian Railways) and administrative and service costs (such as consultancy fees and interest on monies borrowed) are included.

A comparison

Run the construction cost figures through the Reserve Bank’s inflation calculator and the City Loop cost $1.3 to $1.7 billion to build at 2013 prices – about the same as adding a lane to the Monash – CityLink – West Gate Freeway corridor between 2007 and 2010.

However a simple indexation won’t tell us how much it would cost to build the City Loop today – construction expenses have risen much faster than inflation in the past decade, which would put the final dollar figure far higher. Alan Davies delves deeper into the issue in his blog posts “Why is infrastructure so bloody expensive?” and “Why do subways cost so much more here than elsewhere?“.

Tracking the cost increases

I have tabulated the “construction” and “total minus interest” figures from each Melbourne Underground Rail Loop Authority annual report – all figures are in $ millions, and have not been adjusted for inflation.

Year Construction only Total, minus interest
1972 117.23 ?
1974 162.78 ?
1975 192.6 255.6
1976 226 301
1977 244 328
1978 252.7 367
1979 260.7 398.4
1980 273.7 426.82
1981 279.4 446.08
1982 287.2 466.1


Protective Services Officers – towards a surveillance state?

When the promise was made to post two Protective Services Officers to every railway station in Melbourne, the intent was to make passengers feel safe at night time. So why are PSOs now turning into part of a surveillance state?

 Protective Services Officers search two scruffy looking youths at Hoppers Crossing station

The other week on Reddit a poster had this to say about their run-in with a PSO at their local station:

My finance was leaving Ashburton Railway Station yesterday evening and saw a PSO walking around the parking area’s noting down registration numbers of all of the cars parked there for the day. She was a little off-put by this so approached the officer and asked if she had anything to be concerned about.

The PSO replied that they take down all of the registration numbers and then go inside and run them through their computer. Any car that comes up with suspended registration/license will have a patrol car waiting for them to drive off when they get in their car.

Relying on random internet scuttlebutt is a good way to make yourself look stupid, so I went kept an eye out next time I caught a train after 6 PM.

You’d think Sunshine is a place where Protective Services Officers should be keeping an eye out for delinquents, yet both the station platform and concourse were empty.

No PSOs to be found on the station platform or concourse

But when I looked out over the car park, I saw the two PSOs wandering past the rows of cars, scribbling down something in their notebook.

So that's where the PSOs are - noting down the registration plates in the station carpark

I paid a visit to Footscray station at the tail end of evening peak, and saw the same thing taking place.

PSOs noting down the registration plates of parked cars at a railway station carpark

When then Opposition Leader Ted Baillieu made the promise to introduce Protective Services Officers, he had the following to say:

”We’ll turn stations from places of fear into places of safety,” Mr Baillieu said.

”We want anyone – a young girl, an elderly woman – travelling home on the train at night to do so with confidence and not with fear.”

In reality Baillieu’s promise was targeted at namby-pamby Liberal voters who are afraid of youths and anyone who isn’t white, but it does raise the question – how the hell is hunting down deadbeats with unpaid fines making the rail network safer for passengers?

On a serious note

So far I’ve only spotted PSOs jotting down the details of parked cars at the start of their shifts – possibly it is their first task of the night after clocking on, before heading to the station proper when darkness falls.

Two Protective Services Officers and a Victoria Police officer question a passenger at Footscray station

As for the dragnet being thrown over railway stations, in April 2013 The Age ran a piece on PSOs ‘asking too many questions’ – over the course of a year they took down the names and date of birth of 29,000 people, resulting in the arrest of over 500 people for outstanding warrants.

Two PSOs question a passenger, while a Victoria Police officer supervises

In the end, we are on a slippery slope towards a police state – someone with unpaid fines might be the same kind of person responsible for actual criminal activity, but in order to take them off the streets, is it worth losing our freedom to use the rail network without being needlessly questioned by the authorities?


I’ve pushed this post out earlier than planned, after The Age published a piece on the topic on February 17, in which they speak to spokespeople from Victoria Police and Liberty Victoria:

“As part of their daily duties, ​Protectives Services Officers regularly check car parks,” police spokesman Inspector Darren Cooper said.

“PSOs will be checking for stolen vehicles, outstanding warrants, outstanding whereabouts, unlicensed and unregistered drivers,” he said.

“The car park is part of a normal, designated patrol area for PSOs, and by doing these checks, it allows them to further ensure safe travel for those using the public transport system, as well as aiding in Victoria Police’s commitment to road safety.”

Liberty Victoria spokesman George Georgiou said the policy represented a significant overreach of police powers, and was an unnecessary intrusion into the privacy of Melbourne’s commuters.

“Whilst we understand that there is be a need for police to deal with persons avoiding their responsibilities to pay fines, register their cars and the like, we see this move to use PSOs in the manner described in the article as overstepping the legitimate functions of PSOs and unnecessarily encroaching upon the right to privacy and freedom of movement of all Victorian commuters,” he said.

My concerns exactly.

False economies at North Melbourne Station?

Last week I looked at the frequently failing escalators at North Melbourne Station, which raises the question – what is causing them to break down so often?

3VL32 runs through North Melbourne under the new concourse

The main concourse at the city end of North Melbourne station opened to passengers in November 2009, and with it came eight brand new escalators to provide access to the six platforms beneath.

Combined with the existing ramps at the north end of the station, the new concourse provided an additional route for passengers to change platforms, as well as aiding access for the disabled by the provision of lifts to each platform. Two escalators and a lift serve each of platform 1, platform 2/3, platform 4/5 and platform 6, with additional staircases also connecting platforms 1 and 6 to the overhead concourse.

As mentioned in my previous post, I first noticed a defective escalator in October 2012, and since then I’ve seen a broken down escalator at North Melbourne at least 16 times – about once every two months.

Escalator 1A 1B 2 3 4 5 6A 6B
Failures 1 3 0 4 0 2 1 5

I have numbered the escalators 1A to 6B – east to west, based on platform number they serve.

Ever bought an escalator?

As with everything in this world, buying the right tool is important – there is no point spending thousands of dollars on something you will only use a couple of times a year, while it is also a waste of money to buy a cheap one that will break after a few hours of heavy use.

The same applies to escalators, with escalator manufacturer Thyssenkrupp dividing their range into three categories:

Commercial applications are typically installed in department stores, shopping malls and office buildings. Commercial escalators are typically designed to move thousands of people and yet look elegant.

Heavy Duty
Heavy traffic applications are typically found in convention centres and stadiums where there is a very high traffic volume. These heavy traffic escalators have increased chain and motor sizing.

Transit applications are typically railway stations, airports and subway stations where there is a very high traffic volume. These transit escalators have a much larger, heavier truss structure, increased chain and motor sizing, heavier step track construction and a larger, heavier handrail drive system.

As you would expect, the designer of a building has to match the number and grade of escalators to the transportation task expected to be placed upon the completed structure – undersized escalators will break down, while oversized escalators are a needless cost for the client.

Back to North Melbourne

I had a closer look at the escalators at North Melbourne, which lead me to ThyssenKrupp – a major escalator manufacturer. After trawling through their data sheets I pinned them down as a ThyssenKrupp ‘Velino’.

ThyssenKrupp 'Velino' escalators at North Melbourne station

Note that the ‘Velino’ is ThyssenKrupp’s commercial grade escalator – their bottom end model which was never meant to be used in a heavy traffic location such as North Melbourne station, where thousands of commuters walk up and down the escalators each day.

In the end, this suggests that the blame for the failing escalators goes all the way back to the design of the station – the level of passenger traffic was underestimated, leaving to undersized escalators being specified, which survived for the first few years, only to progressively fail as the components wear out prematurely.

Conspiracy theory

With my tinfoil hat on, I have an alternate theory – correctly sized escalators were specified as part of the North Melbourne station redevelopment project but the beancounter objected to the cost, leading to lower-specification escalators being substituted instead.

Bonus footnote

Platforms 2-3 and 4-5 have a curious escalator arrangement, with a ‘normal’ width escalator paired with a ‘narrow’ escalator that only just allows two people to pass each other.

Escalator to platform 2/3 at North Melbourne is still out of service

The reason for this was the narrow platforms – if two normal escalators were installed on the platform, where would not have been enough room for wheelchairs to navigate between the escalators and the platform edge. Platforms 1 and 6 didn’t have have that problem, as their width was much greater.