Melbourne’s exploding Siemens trains

Last week Melbourne’s railway network almost came to a grinding halt when industrial action threatened to pull dozens of trains of service. So how did Metro Trains Melbourne find themselves in that situation?

Siemens 729M approaches South Kensington on a down Werribee service

The story starts in mid-December 2014, when a number of Siemens trains were pulled from service following explosions beneath the floor – capacitors located in the static inverter unit under the train were experiencing violent failures, resulting in the metal cabinet door being blown off.

The Age went into further detail about the problem:

An instruction notice written after Tuesday’s crisis meeting states: “As we have no capacitors on stock, we are allowed to cannibalise units where the capacitance check reveals a faulty capacitor, but we are not allowed to take any capacitors from a unit which had a reported explosion!”

Defective train units have been taken to the Newport workshop for repair.

Metro said just three of its fleet of 36 Siemens trains had been found to have an electrical fault forcing its removal, and the rest were running fine.

“We are confident the capacitors on the remainder of the Siemens fleet are operating without fault,” spokeswoman Larisa Tait said.

“We will continue to inspect and test all capacitors on Siemens trains during routine maintenance exams, which occur every six to eight weeks. We are confident we will pick up any capacitor faults before they occur and certainly before they fail.”

The article also featured CCTV footage showing a static inverter exploding beneath a parked Siemens train – presumably sent to the newspaper by a source wanting to force the hand of Metro Trains.

With each Siemens train having one static inverter located beneath the middle ‘T’ carriage, Metro installed tie-down straps to every one of the 72 trains in the Siemens fleet as a temporary fix.

Tie-down straps affixed to a static inverter beneath a Siemens train

Fast forward to close of business on 6 January 2015 and the Locomotive Division of the Rail, Tram and Bus Union (RTBU) got involved, issuing a circular to their members.

The circular read:

Siemens trains – exploding static inverters

As a result of Metro Trains failure to ensure that there is no imminent threat to drivers safety by providing a physical barrier to prevent serious injury or death by the force and flames of the exploding static inverters on Siemens trains the following will apply:

No driver is to attend a Siemens train with the pantographs raised.

This includes but is not limited to the following tasks – train preparation, stabling of trains, changing of ends at rail level, etc, etc.

Any driver that is threatened or coerced by management to place themselves in harm’s way should contact the Union immediately.

The union directive was a virtual black ban on the Siemens trains – before entering service each train has to be inspected at ground level by the train driver, and a ban on this practice effectively welded the entire fleet of 72 Siemens trains to the tracks for the foreseeable future.

Metro Trains considered the actions of the union as “unprotected industrial action” and took the RTBU to a late night Fair Work Commission hearing – chaos on the rail network as averted when the union agreed to withdraw their circular to drivers, and Metro agreed to start addressing the safety concerns.

So what was the agreed resolution to the issue of exploding capacitors?

The agreement stipulates Metro must “implement additional mitigation, such as a fire blanket or similar” to address exploding static inverters on its Siemens trains within a week from Wednesday.

Metro and the union must meet daily to monitor progress on the directives.

Said fire blankets have since started appearing in static inverter cabinets, but it does raise the question – what is the long-term fix for the issue?

'Access panel' side of a static inverter beneath a Siemens train, with fire blanket and tie down straps fitted

Spotted at Bunnings

If you are having problems at home with your static inverter exploding, you can take a leaf out of the gospel according to Metro Trains Melbourne, and pick up your own pack of ‘Grunt’ brand tie down straps.

'Grunt' brand ratchet straps - perfect for tying down exploding static inverters beneath Siemens trains

Only $24.98 from Bunnings – enough to fit out a 6-car Siemens train.

The bigger story

Metro Trains cutting corners on safety isn’t anything new – trains without working headlights, broken passenger intercoms and ‘temporary’ fixes to flawed rails are all ways that the company has tried to save money by taking shortcuts. Combine that with their station skipping to avoid fines tactics, and intimidation of injured staff, they are a company that is happy to milk the Victorian taxpayer for everything possible while screwing over both passengers and staff.

As for the relationship between Metro Trains and the RTBU Locomotive Division, I’m betting that it is going to become more explosive than the static inverters in the coming months – the current enterprise bargaining agreement comes to an end in the middle of 2015, and the union doesn’t seem to be afraid of beating Metro around the head in the court of public opinion in order to get what they want.

Footnote

The exact number of static inverter explosions is so far unknown, but on 3 December 2014 a small electrical fire broke out underneath a train during peak hour at Yarraville – a Siemens train was involved. Related?

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9 Responses to “Melbourne’s exploding Siemens trains”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I think a key point being missed by everyone, is the danger posed to the public.
    Think of what would happen if a train is going over a level crossing, school has just finished for the day, and a static inverter explodes in the faces of children, standing at the level crossing.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Marcus,

    Just noticed in the footnote, the date should be December 2014, not 2015 🙂

    Regards,

    Anon

  3. Shaun Clarke says:

    Marcus, is the Siemens fleet 36 or 72?

    The quote from the age says 36 however your writeup says 72?

    • Marcus Wong says:

      There are 36 six-car trains, or 72 three-car trains – in the decade since the Siemens trains were ordered, ‘half’ sized trains of any type are now a rare sight in Melbourne.

      • Howard Smith says:

        Well, if you ask 7News they’d say that metro are running three-car trains for extra money from the Government

        • Offtrack says:

          afaik, Siemens trains cannot be run in sets of 3, as the antilock braking system malfunctions, causing platform overrun.

          • Marcus Wong says:

            Siemens trains have been subjected to cans on 3-car running a number of times, but I’m assuming that following the fitting of sanding gear in 2011 the braking problems have been resolved.

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