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!

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3 Responses to “Cracked rails across Melbourne’s railway tracks”

  1. Beren Scott says:

    One needs to also realise that these issues are due to the government using Metro as a scapegoat. Government needs to be placed in the firing line over these issues. Metro is merely the lowest bidder in this government designed wankfest. I use that word very strongly.

    • Marcus Wong says:

      Metro is getting paid more by the government than Connex used to received:

      The government claimed that the increase was to pay for more maintenance.

      • Beren Scott says:

        If it’s not enough, it’s not enough, do remember that there are more trains and more staff today then during Connex. This is the problem with this privatisation, rather then a discussion about safety, we will end up discussing the finer points of $. The buck stops with the government. This is a government service, with parts contracted out in order to push the blame away from the government, and reduce government jobs which cost a lot more then private, but the end result is this wankfest. It’s the governments job to protect the community from dangers.

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