Dodgy doors on Melbourne’s Comeng trains

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.

Article on Comeng train doors: The Age, March 15, 2014

Some history

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,[1] 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.

New style of door handle on trial on Comeng carriage 1097T

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.

I can't see how people with frail hands will cope with these trial door handles on the Comeng trains

So why don’t we just retrofit the Comeng trains with power operated doors, identical to the newer trains in the Melbourne suburban fleet?

Turns out penny pinching was to blame – 7000 new door handles only cost $400,000 while retrofitted a new automatic door system would have cost $10 million.

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.

Pair of 3000 class head for the city at Marino, passing a few small boats out on the water

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:

Exterior door detail of a non-refurbished 3000/3100 class railcar

And a refurbished train, retrofitted with push-button operated lockable doors.

Exterior door detail of a refurbished 3000/3100 class railcar

It makes you wonder – if Adelaide can do a job properly, why can’t we?

Further reading

Rail Safety Investigation Report No 2009/14 has more details of how the Comeng door mechanisms currently work.

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25 Responses to “Dodgy doors on Melbourne’s Comeng trains”

  1. scott says:

    Is it true those old Hitachi trains are still running?

    • Michael says:

      The Hitachi’s are still officially in the fleet, but are only used sparingly when enough of the newer EMUs are out of service for repairs/maintenance that they need to use them to fulfill the schedule.

      • Marcus Wong says:

        From the Hitachi sightings posted over on the Railpage forums, the last time the Hitachi trains ran in revenue service was back in December 2013. Since then they’ve just been sitting around in sidings around the network, rusting to the rails.

  2. Graham says:

    Many of us older readers lived with open train doors and we didn’t fall out, although some of us jumped occasionally, usually onto a train if we were running late.
    The Tait carriages had doors that could be left open while the train was running, getting a nice breeze going in summer. It didn’t seem to be problem for us.
    I assume the Hitachi sets have a similar door system to the Comeng carriages; I had a weekend job as a youth at an engineering works where the door closing mechanism was being designed and tested, all day long they hissed open and hissed closed, every day.

    • Marcus Wong says:

      You’re correct about the Hitachi trains having the same style of pneumatic mechanism to open and close the doors.

      The first trains in Melbourne with power doors were the last few Harris (‘blue’) trailer carriages delivered in 1970 – marshaled into sets with some modified classmates, they served as a trial for the Hitachi trains that followed.

    • Tom the first and best. says:

      People did fall out of train and trams in the days of open doors.

  3. Moz says:

    Hi Marcus,

    I’m interested by your comment; “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.”

    Are you able to advise what this procedure is? I’m not aware of it.

  4. mich says:

    “Kilograms of force” ?

    I am disappointed.

  5. Myrtonos says:


    • Marcus Wong says:

      Up in Sydney passenger operated doors on suburban trains aren’t popular – the guard remotely opens *every* door at *every* station, then close them on departure.

      For a comparison of what technology was available when Melbourne bought the Comeng train fleet, just look at Queensland Rail’s ‘Electric Multiple Unit’ fleet that was ordered in 1977:

      They originally had manually opened power doors, but did have air conditioning.

    • Marcus Wong says:

      As for Melbourne’s trains being backwards technologically – no arguments there.

      The Comeng trains still use the old fashioned camshaft control, where physical contacts move around to rearrange how the traction motors are wired up, enable the train to speed up and slow down.

      They did experiment with solid-state ‘chopper’ control on a few sets, but they aren’t successful:

      As for the loud hum under the train, that is the motor-alternator set that converts the 1500V DC into 415V AC for the air conditioning. Modern trains use a static inverter to do the conversion – they work the same as the inverter connected to grid connected rooftop solar panels.

  6. Myrtonos says:

    Is the camshaft control on the Comeng and Hitatchi sets similar to the ones on the Tait sets?
    Apparently Motor-Generators are also a feature of the Taits.
    So is the technology under the Comengs much the same as that under Tait sets?

    Camshaft control and motor generators are both pre-war technology. I also don’t fully understand why motor generators need to make so much noise, both electric motors and generators (even older ones) are very quiet by themselves.

    The Tait carriages had doors that could be left open while the train was running, getting a nice breeze going in summer. It didn

  7. Shaun says:

    I know personally that a fair deal of pressure is needed to force these doors open. I understand that the state has a duty of care to provide a safe environment for the travelling public and that includes the rolling stock as much as anything else but this is just another example of being obligated to “saving everybody from themselves”. A bit of responsibility is the solution.

    • Marcus Wong says:

      You’re correct about ‘forcing’ the doors – it isn’t something that you can do just by leaning on the doors, but has to be an intentional action. The bigger concern is that the doors become loose when power to the train drops out – in those circumstances it isn’t just dickheads being put in danger.

  8. […] Dodgy doors on Melbourne’s Comeng trains * […]

  9. Myrtonos says:

    If we had done the job as well as Adelaide, all our trains would have powered doors. might we want to also consider platform dynamic doors for our City Loop stations? These PSDs, unlike the ones in Hong Kong, can accommodate variations in door arrangements and stopping positions.

  10. Wally says:

    What’s happening to the handle upgrade on the Comeng trains?

    • Marcus Wong says:

      After the initial trial, the EDI Comeng fleet started to receive the new door handles from mid-2015, at the same time that the reduced seating layout was also being applied.

      Since then the seating changes have continued, but the new door handles has stopped – the rumor I heard was that ‘someone’ has complained to either PTV or the Ombudsman regarding DDA issues, so the rollout has been paused.

  11. Heihachi_73 says:

    W class trams have had fully automatic doors for how many years now?

  12. […] Manually operated doors were another thing that stood out. […]

  13. […] And going for a ride on their clapped out diesel suburban trains. […]

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