A sorry history of Victorian level crossing failures

In the past week V/Line has been in the news due to their VLocity trains failing to activate level crossings. While a concerning revelation, it isn’t exactly a new issue in Victoria – let us step back in time a little.

Yarra Street level crossing, South Geelong

1995 – Sprinter trains

V/Line ordered single car 22 Sprinter railcars, which entered serivce in 1993-95. Soon after they had to be pulled from service because they were not activating level crossings, with a device known as a track circuit assister having to be installed on each train to address the issue.

2008 – VLocity trains to Bendigo

January 2008: it was discovered that VLocity trains were not activating level crossings on the Bendigo line, so they were replaced with Sprinter trains.

2011 – VLocity train at Sunshine

On December 11, 2011 a V/Line VLocity train was about to pass through the Anderson Road level crossing in Sunshine when the boom gates opened to road traffic.

2013 – Bairnsdale line

Thirty-two level crossings on the line between Traralgon and Sale were failing to consistently detect trains, so from March 2013 all Bairnsdale train services were replaced by buses. A milling machine worth $13 million was imported from Europe to reprofile the rails on the approach to each affected level crossing, and $8.3 million was spent to replace the track circuits train detectors with axle counters.

2014 – Sprinter trains to Stony Point

In August 2014 it was discovered that Sprinter trains were failing to activate level crossings on the Stony Point line, resulting in a ban on single carriage Sprinter train consists. More failures occurred in April 2015, with the line being closed indefinitely, until the track circuits were replaced with axle counters at 19 level crossings.

And now

The current round of issues relate to a VLocity train failing to activate a level crossing outside Dandenong. The fallout from this event resulted in it being made public that similar events occurred in 2011 and 2012, but no work was done to address the root cause.

Level crossings removals and car parking

As the Level Crossing Removal Project ramps up across Melbourne, there is one interesting requirement that comes up at every site – “no net loss of car parking”.

New car park on the eastern side of Thomastown station

Just take a look at the projects currently underway or in planning.

Heatherdale Road, Mitcham (Heatherdale station)

optimising the car parking to ensure there is no net loss of parking spaces.

Mountain Highway and Scoresby Road, Bayswater (Bayswater station)

Reconstructing the station car park with no net loss of spaces across the line

Blackburn Road, Blackburn (Blackburn station)

There are currently 112 car parking spaces at Blackburn Station. Detailed plans for car parking will be finalised when a contractor has been selected. It is expected that there will no net loss of parking at/near the station.

Furlong Road, St Albans (Ginifer station)

relocating the car park to the east of the rail line, maintaining at least the same number of spaces.

Main Road, St Albans (St Albans station)

reconstructing the station car park providing the same number of spaces as a minimum

North Road, McKinnon Road and Centre Road (Ormond, McKinnon and Bentleigh stations)

reconstructing the station car parks providing the same number of spaces across the three sites.

Burke Road, Glen Iris (Gardiner station)

There are currently 220 car parking spaces in addition to disabled parking spaces at. Gardiner Station. Although the location of the car park will change, there will be no net loss of car parking numbers.

Gardiner station is a real standout to me – 220 car parking spaces is the equivalent of a single carriage of passengers, and the area surrounding the station now has apartment blocks so tall they require a tower crane to build. So why is precious open space being wasted on ground level car parking?

X'Trapolis 198M and 961M cross the tram square at Gardiner station

Meanwhile in a different part of the State Government, VicTrack used surplus railway land at Glen Waverley to build apartments, and plans to do the same at Jewell, Hampton, Essendon, Windsor, West Footscray, Victoria Park, East Richmond, Ringwood and Watsonia stations.

You’ve got to love how Melbourne does transport planning, don’t you?

Behind the names

Notice anything about the names of the grade separation projects? They all feature the name and suburb of the road being removed, but don’t mention the railway station at all! it just goes to show – these projects are all improvements to the road network, with any benefits to rail being accidental.

A historical footnote

Back in 2006 a $4 billion proposal titled ‘Operation Double Fault‘ hit the news – it would have created 100,000 square metres of new land for 1500 apartments by grade separating the Glenferrie, Toorak, Tooronga and Burke Roads level crossings, and rebuilding the railway stations at Heyington, Gardiner, Kooyong and Tooronga.

Contactless payment and myki machines

Contactless payment with credit and debit cards is a technology that scores of retailers across Australia have supported for a number of years – and in December 2015 Public Transport Victoria announced that they would play catch-up and upgrade myki ticket machines to support the same:

PTV is upgrading myki machines to be EMV (Europay Visa Mastercard) compliant.

myki machines will be upgraded to feature new pin pads with contactless payment capability and EMV compliance for enhanced security.

The upgrade will take place on a rolling basis over early 2016 and will be conducted during off-peak to minimise any possible disruption to customers.

Contactless payment capability will ensure an improved customer experience when using myki machines.

As originally deployed, the payment terminal fitted to myki CVMs looks like this – large metal button buttons flush with the keypad, and the entire unit recessed deeply into the machine.

One style of EFTPOS payment terminal fitted to a myki CVM - deeply recessed into the machine

The new readers can’t be considered any more user friendly – the screen has shrunk in size, as has the buttons on the keypad, and the whole shebang is still deeply recessed from the rest of the machine.

New EFTPOS payment terminal fitted to a myki machine, now featuring support for contactless transactions

However in my travels I’ve spotted a different way of mounting the payment terminal into the machine – at a slight angle, and almost flush with the front of the machine.

Second style of EFTPOS payment terminal fitted to a myki CVM - almost flush with the front of the machine

So why the difference?

The above machine was found at a railway station rebuilt as part of the Regional Rail Link project, so is newer than my earlier examples of ticket machines found at tram stops in the Melbourne CBD.

In the years since the rollout of myki was first planned, the amount of equipment deployed across the network has grown for two reasons – patronage growth, and woeful system performance.

I’m assuming that the deeply recessed reader was the original design, and when additional ticket machines were ordered, the design was revised to address the previous shortcomings.

Filthy trains and Frankston line pork barrelling

When it comes to public transport, politicians love making promises that they never intend to follow through with – but in the case of the Bayside Rail Project on the Frankston line, the decision to actually pursue the upgrades has led to an unexpected bonus – clean trains.

'Service to Frankston stopping all stations' displayed on the PIDS of a X'Trapolis train

In May 2013 Premier Denis Napthine announced the $100 million ‘Bayside Rail Project’ with the following headline:

$100 million Bayside rail upgrade brings newest trains to Frankston line

Then elaborated further:

“Since the November 2010 election, the Coalition Government has announced orders for 15 new X’Trapolis trains, but these trains could only carry passengers on the Alamein, Glen Waverley, Belgrave, Lilydale, Hurstbridge and South Morang lines due to the different position in which the driver sits in the cab, affecting the ability to see some signals.

“This $100 million will mean the Frankston line will also be able to accommodate the X’Trapolis trains, giving passengers the fastest, most reliable and most comfortable commute to and from the city,” Dr Napthine said.

Turns out letting politicians control the transport planning agenda doesn’t work, as new issues kept on appearing:

  • May 2013: because trains on the Frankston line run through to Williamstown and Werribee, the scope of the upgrade works had to be increased to cover these additional lines.
  • October 2014: a token X’Trapolis train services was added to the Franskton line before the 2014 State Election, but had to be speed restricted due to level crossing issues.
  • September 2015: due to the modifications made to level crossings to enable the operation of X’Trapolis trains, boom gates on the Frankston line will stay down for longer.

But one that slipped through to the keeper was the promise that the X’Trapolis trains being “new” was a good thing. Here is a typical X’Trapolis train.

Graffiti covered bulkhead wall onboard an X'Trapolis train

And another.

Graffiti covered bulkhead wall onboard an X'Trapolis train

And one more.

Graffiti covered bulkhead wall onboard an X'Trapolis train

Notice how downright filthy and graffiti covered the passenger saloon is?

For politicians, assuming that a “new” train provides a clean and comfortable travelling experience for passengers is an easy mistake to make. However in the real world of Melbourne’s rail network, anything “new” is going to be completely trashed in next to no time, and stay that way thanks to a lack of regular maintenance.

It appears that somebody pulling the strings also realised how filthy the X’Trapolis trains were, as in August 2015 Public Transport Victoria announced a $2 million project to refurbishment the entire fleet of X’Trapolis trains.

The X’Trapolis train fleet will undergo a major internal refurbishment and graffiti removal program to help deliver a cleaner and more reliable service for customers.

The interior of the 80 X’Trapolis trains will be refurbished to remove all remnants of graffiti. From 14 August 2015, one refurbished train will be delivered to the network each day.

The refurbishment of each X’Trapolis train will take one full day to complete and includes:

  • a buff and polish of all internal wall panels (to remove graffiti shadowing);
  • application of a new anti-graffiti coating to wall panels;
  • replacement of window protective films; and
  • an upgrade of internal lighting (brighter lighting).

To keep the trains clean after they’ve been refurbished, there will be more regular checks and monitoring of CCTV to remove any new graffiti as quickly as possible.

The end result is a train that actually meets the expectations of the average commuter.

Freshly repainted bulkhead wall onboard an X'Trapolis train

So why not roll out the deep clean to the rest of the network? The Age had this to say:

The clean-up will not extend at this time to the Siemens and older Comeng trains.

It takes some skill, but the politicians of Victoria have managed to link clean trains to marginal seats.

Photos from ten years ago: December 2005

Another instalment in my photos from ten years ago series – this time December 2005.

Southern Cross Station was still a construction site, with platforms yet to be finished.

Platform 7/8 still under construction

However the Collins Street concourse was virtually complete – and a lot cleaner looking than it is today!

Collins Street concourse virtually complete

December 22 saw the launch of the Regional Fast Rail project, with brand new VLocity trains entering service at 160 km/h on the upgraded Ballarat line.

VLocity units VL18 and VL23 at Southern Cross

I travelled out to Ballarat that day and found a shunting locomotive sitting in the goods yard – since then freight trains no longer stop at Ballarat.

Local shunter Y119 stabled in the Ballarat goods yard

The same month I also visited Swan Hill, where I found a number of boxvans sitting at the freight terminal beside the station. Again, Swan Hill is another location where freight trains no longer run.

Freightgate shed with stabled RT and VLCX louvred vans

I also headed down to the Breakwater in Geelong, and captured a V/Line service on the way to Warrnambool crossing the Barwon River bridge.

N451 crossing the Barwon River, with power van PCO2 in the consist

And finally – the beginning of the end for manually operated doors on V/Line trains, when a prototype power operated door system was fitted to a set of N type carriages.

First version of the N set power door system, as fitted to set FN19

Once the door motors and locks were proven in service, the system was rolled out to the rest of the V/Line fleet that featured ‘swing’ doors, with the last train with manual doors running in March 2009.

Further reading

The full photos from ten years ago series.