Last week the doors of Melbourne’s Comeng trains received another mention in the news, when it was revealed that a 17-year-old boy had jumped out of moving train at Watergardens station after forcing the doors open.
Melbourne’s Comeng trains are currently the oldest in the suburban fleet as well as the most numerous. Having entered service between 1981 and 1988, they received their current interior look and feel during a mid-life refurbishment program completed between 2000 and 2003.
On first entering service the Comeng trains were operated by a two-person crew – a driver up front to make the train stop and go, and a guard at the rear to watch the doors and tell the driver when to depart – but the second person was removed during the Kennett-era reforms of the 1990s, when single person operation of suburban trains was introduced.
Since entering service, very little has changed with the Comeng train doors: on arriving at a station they are released by the driver and manually opened by passengers as required, then prior to departure the door close button is pushed, triggering the pneumatic actuators that hold the doors closed, which then illuminates a light once all the doors have been detected as closed.
Melbourne’s newer trains follow the same general process, but with one important difference – once the doors close a locking mechanism holds them shut, with the only way to unlocking being to use the door open button, or to engage the emergency release lever.
By comparison the Comeng train doors have two flaws: they can be forced open by applying as little as 20.5 kilograms of force applied to the handle, and as soon as the train loses power, the doors become unlocked. This causes many problems – at the Craigieburn depot they had to retrofit their brand new train wash so that Comeng train doors don’t get pushed opened by the cleaning brushes, and if your train loses power in the middle of peak hour atop a bridge, there is nothing to stop you falling out.
The start of safety concerns
In October 2009 a fatality occurred at Melbourne Central station, when a passenger forced the doors open and leapt from a departing Comeng train.
The Office of the Chief Investigator investigated the incident, releasing their final report in January 2011. They found the following factors contributed to the incident:
- The victim forced open a powered door and attempted to alight from the moving train.
- Due to a faulty component preventing the correct operation of a safety circuit, the train driver was unaware of a door having been forced open.
- Although the existence of this fault condition on any train would not be evident to any casual observation, the train operator was aware that these trains were susceptible to developing this defect. There was no daily pre-service procedure to check for such a fault condition.
The ‘faulty component’ was incredibly small – a simple electrical connection between the two 3-carriage units of the train had shorted out, resulting in the ‘door closed’ lamp in the cab giving a false indication to the drivers, even though the doors in the rear half of the train had been forced open.
As a result Metro changed their procedures to ensure that the integrity of the door monitoring system is checked every time a new driver takes over a train.
However this was not the end of concerns around Comeng train doors, with Transport Safety Victoria issuing a safety notice to the Department of Transport in September 2011 regarding them:
Regulator concerned about train door safety
22 September 2011
Transport Safety Victoria (TSV) has issued a safety notice to the Department of Transport in relation to its concerns about the safety of passenger doors on Comeng trains.
TSV’s Safety Director, Alan Osborne, says the doors of these trains do not comply with modern passenger train design standards and have been associated with a number of incidents.
“Unlike other Victorian trains, the passenger doors of Comeng trains are able to be forced open,” said Mr Osborne.
“Being able to force the doors open of a moving train, or a train stopped between stations, increases the risk of fatal accidents occurring. Passengers should never do this, but the fact is they can because of the way the Comeng train doors are designed.”
A fatal accident occurred at Melbourne Central station in 2009, when a passenger forced open the doors of a train in motion. The passenger attempted to jump to a platform, but was caught and dragged by the moving train.
Mr Osborne has confirmed that the safety notice has been issued to require the Department of Transport to address the safety issues associated with the Comeng doors.
“There has been extensive consultation with the Department and Metro Trains about this issue and we still do not have any committed plans to address the safety risks,” said Mr Osborne.
“It is time to begin planning to address the risks of being able to force the train doors open, particularly as the Comeng trains could remain in operation for the next decade or two.’
In addition to recommending that the planning process start, the notice is intended to ensure statutory safety obligations are met.
Some of the actions referenced in the notice include removing the external and internal passenger door handles, installing a more sensitive door closing control on the doors, and installing a traction interlock system to prevent trains from departing stations until all doors are confirmed locked.
Mr Osborne has asked that these actions are undertaken at the next major overhaul of the fleet, in order to reduce the disruption to passenger services.
The actions will bring the Comeng trains to a similar standard of other passenger train door design standards currently in place on X’trapolis and Siemens trains, which are used on the metropolitan rail system.
The notice requires the Department of Transport to provide a response to the proposed actions once it has formally considered the issues. Part of this formal consideration requires the Director of Public Transport to consult with the Victorian Treasurer and Premier.
At the time of the notice being issued, Alan Osborne from Transport Safety Victoria said that the rectification works should only cost $10 million, but:
“I’m not getting good noises from the Department of Transport that this is going to be funded in the next major overhaul,” he said.
“I’m not saying there’s a massive risk that has to be dealt with right now, but what I do want to see is some committed plans put in place for the future so that we know that these things are going to get upgraded at the next major overhaul of the Comeng fleet.”
Transport minister Terry Mulder had the following to say:
“It’s a concern. We face that situation and we’re going to deal with it,” he said.
I’ll have further discussions with Metro. As I say, these trains are due for a mid-life overhaul and throughout the course of that, we may well be able to do that work.”
As with anything that politicians can’t cut the ribbon on, the issue of the Comeng train doors stayed on the backburner. Transport Safety Victoria complained again in October 2012, but upped the ante:
Transport Safety Victoria has placed a condition on train operator Metro’s accreditation: repair the doors on 96 Comeng trains from 2017 when the first train reaches the 35-year life expectancy or replace them.
It comes after TSV issued a safety notice to the Transport Department in September last year requiring the doors be fixed as they can be opened while the train is moving.
TSV acting director rail safety Andrew Doery said the regulator wanted a “funded, committed plan” to fix the problem, estimated by Metro to cost $12.9 million. “We’ve seen no program to rectify the doors,” Mr Doery said.
We now arrive at March 2014, three years out from the supposed retirement of the Comeng fleet, when Metro finally decides to pull their finger out and started trialling changes recommended all the way back in September 2011.
Deceptively simple, the modification has only been made to a single Comeng carriage (numbered 1097T) and consists of a new style of door handle, which is presumably harder for scrotes to force open with their foot.
Unfortunately the new design also makes it harder for people with frail hands to open the doors – instead of pushing at an exposed handle, one now needs to grip the insides of it with one’s fingers.
So why don’t we just retrofit the Comeng trains with power operated doors, identical to the newer trains in the Melbourne suburban fleet?
Adelaide leads the way
Turns out Adelaide had exactly the same problem as Melbourne with their 3000 class diesel railcars. Built in Victoria between 1987 and 1996, these trains used the same body shells and doors as Melbourne’s Comeng trains, just with a diesel engine underneath the floor for propulsion instead of electric motors powered from overhead wires.
In 2009 TransAdelaide commenced a mid-life refurbishment program for their fleet of trains, which include the following features:
- Emergency call buttons next to doors to allow passengers to speak to the drivers.
- New passenger information display panels at each end of the railcar and automated audio announcements.
- Improved hand straps, seat grips and new bike stow areas with attachment rails.
- A new digital public address system with better audio.
Nothing new there, except for this last item:
- Push-button automated doors to prevent them being forced open while the train is in motion.
This is what the original doors on Adelaide’s 3000 class trains look like:
And a refurbished train, retrofitted with push-button operated lockable doors.
It makes you wonder – if Adelaide can do a job properly, why can’t we?
Rail Safety Investigation Report No 2009/14 has more details of how the Comeng door mechanisms currently work.