Air system risks commuters’ lives

6 March, 2013 John James Newsletter0

Air system risks commuters’ lives

March 4, 2013

Jacob Saulwick
Transport Reporter

View more articles from Jacob Saulwick

Follow Jacob on Twitter Email Jacob

Successive governments have put cost before safety, writes Jacob Saulwick.

Pin It
submit to reddit
Email article
Reprints & permissions

Ads by Google
5 Foods you must not eat:

Cut down a bit of stomach fat every day by never eating these 5 foods.
Wynyard Station: 010313: SMH News: 1st of March 2013: Image shows fire crews and City Rail staff attending a fire incident in a tunnell adjacent to Platform 4 at Sydney’s Wynyard Station which saw the line closed temporarily but re-opened before the afternoon peak hour. Photo by James Alcock

Emergency workers at Wynard station last week after a cable short-circuited and sent smoke into the station. Photo: James Alcock

What’s the value of a human life?

That’s the question RailCorp and its predecessors have been chewing over for more than 20 years as they have debated internally, but never told the public about, crucial infrastructure that would make Sydney’s underground train system safer.

The biggest project, and potentially one of the most rewarding, is a ventilation system to direct fresh air into the 80-year old rail tunnels.

But the cost, probably $1 billion now, has stopped governments installing what would be a largely unseen backstop for the hundreds of thousands of people who move through crowded, aged, inadequate stations every day.

Fairfax has obtained hundreds of pages of reports and briefing notes that reveal a behind-the-scenes debate that goes to the heart of safety in Sydney’s public transport system.

The documents reveal how close the bureaucracy was to approving a ventilation system for tunnels and underground stations more than a decade ago, before official opinion turned swiftly against ventilation.

More people than ever are using the underground stations but still the O’Farrell government has no concrete plans for big upgrades to stations such as Town Hall and Wynyard, built to meet the needs of a city 80 years younger and smaller.

If ever there was a trigger to do something about safety it was the ”Blue Rattler” exercise of 1997.

On May 23, police, ambulance and rail operators ran an overnight test acting out what would happen if a bomb went off on a train between Town Hall and Wynyard.

The procedure had little publicity, though police superintendent John Laycock told The Daily Telegraph it had been a success.

”The response times by all the emergency services were good,” he said. The exercise was, in fact, a disaster.

All 40 passengers would have died in the smoke and confusion. Had it been a real train in peak hour, more than 1000 people could have perished. Rescue officers would also have died.

”During the exercise it was found that with no smoke extraction system in place that all passengers on the train would have been asphyxiated,” the report on the exercise said.

What Blue Rattler showed was that if anything serious went wrong in the underground, what was most likely to kill people was the absence of fresh air.

The ”whole of [the] tunnel relies on the movement of trains within the tunnel to provide air,” the report said. ”If no movement of trains, no air. In the event of another train(s) being halted the occupants of the train(s) would also face a serious hazard.”

In Sydney’s underground – as with most old rail tunnels – there is no in-built method to clear smoke and provide air.

Newer tunnels, such as those built for the airport and Epping to Chatswood lines, have smoke management systems, though, in a test exercise in 2001, it took the operator of the airport line’s ventilation system 20 minutes to turn it on.

But the most heavily used part of Sydney’s train system – the CBD underground – does not.

By September 1998, rail authorities had a report by consultant Stephen Grubits saying the underground presented an intolerable level of risk. On Grubits’ measure (deaths by train accidents per 100 million passenger kilometres), the risk of travelling was 0.648. The risk in the British and French rail systems was 0.026. If Sydney installed a smoke management system the risk would fall to 0.070, Grubits said.

So a smoke management system became the unstated policy, though a debate continued about whether it was better to build it through shafts providing natural ventilation or mechanical vents.

By 1999 the board of the old Rail Access Corporation had agreed to issue tenders by 2001 for a system to be built in stages: first North Sydney, then around Circular Quay, then the eastern suburbs line from Bondi Junction to Redfern, then under the city through Town Hall and Wynyard.

By early 2001, detailed costings had been prepared into what was expected to be about a $150 million system. A report, dated April 18, even named firms expected to do a large part of the work.

But within months, the project was on the heap. The Rail Infrastructure Corporation, since folded into RailCorp, had commissioned a separate report by consultants DNV to look again at the risk.

The DNV report argued the risk of a big fire or chemical release was lower than the Grubits report said. The report said the smoke management system did ”not meet the criteria for effective use of resources”.

Confronted by the opposing reports, authorities brought in international fire expert Arnold Dix to ”resolve the contrary advice”.

Dix, a lawyer and professor of engineering, interviewed all the players. His report queried the methodology DNV used. He highlighted long-standing problems in the communication systems and the ”extreme trip hazards” that would confront passengers leaving a train in an emergency.

He said train drivers and guards were not well enough prepared to take control in an emergency. And the capacity of Town Hall and Wynyard stations even then was exceeded in the afternoon peak.

But ultimately he said the money would be better spent elsewhere. The ”risk of an incident occurring, which would require a smoke management system, is currently extremely low in the Sydney underground”, said his final report, delivered in December 2001.

That was not the end of the matter. The Rail Infrastructure Corporation, State Rail and RailCorp embarked on a series of smaller safety improvements recommended in the Dix report. And, nervous about the implications of backtracking on a safety project it had previously advocated, the board of the RIC requested a peer review of DNV’s low risk assessment.

That review, completed in May 2002 by engineering consultants R2A, criticised the DNV approach, which extrapolated the chance of a tunnel fire in Sydney from overseas fire statistics ”which occurred outside tunnels and did not result in a large number of fatalities”.

The R2A report said the risk to passengers from fires was ”undesirable” but the cost of a smoke management system could not be justified.

Now Dix, the man whose report allowed the railways to avoid building the ventilation system in 2001, has changed his mind. Interviewed last week, he expressed regret for a recommendation that might have let the authorities off the hook.

”All modern railways, full stop, have got ventilation systems that allow you to control the flow of air if something was to go wrong,” he said. ”All of them. Sydney doesn’t … at the moment it doesn’t. And it should.

”These are the most important and stressed stations in Australia and Sydney as a city needs effective safe public transport. This is at the heart of delivering effective, safe public transport.”

Correction: The original version of this story said the Dix report was delivered in 2011.
Ads by Google
5 Foods you must not eat:

Cut down a bit of stomach fat every day by never eating these 5 foods.
Top 10 Credit Cards (AUS)

Top Rewards Credit Cards. Earn Up to 3 Points per $1 Spend.
TAFE Courses Online

Advance Your Career – Study Online. Flexible Payments & Study Options.
Sydney teen abducted and sexually assaulted by gang
Sydney teen abducted and sexually assaulted by gang
Lethal heroin injection: friend admits killing mate after bucks’ party
Lethal heroin injection: friend admits killing mate after bucks’ party
Thai airline under fire over bikini calendar
Thai airline under fire over bikini calendar
A marriage made in hell
A marriage made in hell
How Much Does a Tiler Cost?
From the web
How Much Does a Tiler Cost?
Sydney teen abducted and sexually assaulted by gang
Lethal heroin injection: friend admits killing mate after bucks’ party
Thai airline under fire over bikini calendar
A marriage made in hell
How Much Does a Tiler Cost?

Pin It
submit to reddit
Email article
Reprints & permissions

Related Coverage
‘Catastrophic’ fire threat on trains

Commuters travelling to Sydney’s most overcrowded CBD train stations are vulnerable to ”catastrophic” fire and smoke from accidents or terrorist attacks because governments have baulked at the cost of safety improvements.

Advertisement Click here to find out more!

Latest Video
Selections Video More video
Mwa! KRudd feels the love in Rooty Hill

It’s a tough job being a politician, especially if you’re ‘Kevin Rudd’ trying to gather support in Western Sydney and buy a ticket to a Labor fundraising dinner.
The Phil Gould Show (Video Thumbnail)Click to play video

The Phil Gould Show
United robbed by the ref as Ronaldo’s Real rejoice (Video Thumbnail)Click to play video

Utd sees red as Ronaldo seals win
Second sinkhole in Florida (Video Thumbnail)Click to play video

Second sinkhole opens up in Florida

Featured advertisers
Sponsored links
Special offers Powered by Mozo
Recommended for you
Lies, damned lies and Labor claims
Forget the surplus, BCA tells Labor
Click to play video
Filming in public: what are your rights?
Hockey hints at tax rises under Coalition
Real Estate
Win a new Nissan Pulsar with Domain!
Win a new Nissan Pulsar with Domain!
Buy real estate
How much is my house worth?
Need an inspection report?

Search for 1000’s of jobs around Australia – It’s your move
Search for 1000’s of jobs around Australia
Sign up to the new MyCareer
Personalise your Job Alerts
Discover Skill Searching

Essential Kids
Did you grow up in the eighties?
Lunchbox ideas & recipes
Free kids’ activities and worksheets
Family recipe finder

Expedia hotel 2
Search for great deals on hotel accommodation
Short-term accommodation
Sydney holiday rentals
Search 27,000+ holiday properties

Managed Funds
InvestSMART best performing investments 2011
4.5% Term Deposit!
Best Home loan Rates!
5.00% On Savings Accounts!
Top Performing Investments!

Compare and Save

Skip to:

Best Deals
Home Loans
Credit Cards
Low Rate Cards
Rewards Cards
Savings Accts
Term Deposits

Check out today’s best deals
Zero Fee Credit Cards

Say NO to credit card fees! Compare fee-free cards

Cheap Credit Cards
UHomeLoan Discount

Apply by 14 March for 0.25% upfront rate discount

Compare Now
Time to Fix?

Fixed home loan rates are tumbling. Lock in a bargain

Fixed Rate Deals
$40 Phone Deals

Smartphones on plans for under $40 per month

Compare Phone Deals
Upgrade Deals

Including 2GB Bonus Data on iPhone 5

Bonus Data Deals
Readers’ most viewed
Most viewed articles on Brisbane Times
Top 5 NSW articles

Mother’s desperate efforts failed to save daughter
Doctor fights action over mother’s death
Model stole details about Ibrahim rival
Teen in Mardi Gras ‘excessive force’ video swore at police
Gang rape – witnesses come forward

Most viewed articles on WA Today
Top 5 NSW articles

DNA, a dead brother and a rape 20 years ago
‘There was just nothing they could do’: neighbours’ desperate attempts to rescue Tanika from blazing home
‘My wife is dead and I will be dead in two minutes’: Email apology sent to son before Sydney murder-suicide
Lethal heroin injection: friend admits killing mate after bucks’ party
Sydney conman who photoshopped pictures of himself with famous people gets 12 years’ jail

Most viewed articles on The Age
Top 5 NSW articles

Allegations of police excessive force at Mardi Gras
DNA, a dead brother and a rape 20 years ago
Five big transactions found on money trail
Ultralight plane crashes into NSW lake
Mercy killing claims by Sydney man ‘lies’

Most viewed articles on Canberra Times
Top 5 NSW articles

Too much study puts ‘life on hold’
Allegations of police excessive force at Mardi Gras
Shooters were caught drunk and on drugs
DNA, a dead brother and a rape 20 years ago
Call to reverse decision on train tunnels

Most viewed articles on The Sydney Morning Herald
Top 5 NSW articles

Teen in Mardi Gras ‘excessive force’ video swore at police
Allegations of police excessive force at Mardi Gras
Police ‘naive’ to tell public not to film arrest
Doctor fights action over mother’s death
Five big transactions found on money trail

SMH Home
Digital Life
Life & Style
Exec Style

Sydney Morning Herald
About Us
Contact Us
Advertise with Us
AM Today
Last 8 days
Text Version
Site Accessibility Guide

Mobile Site
SMH for iPad
Digital Edition

Products & Services
Manage My Subscription
My Benefits
Good Food Guide
SMH Shop
Cracka Wines

Place an Ad
Property Price Data
Real Estate
Buy and Sell
Special Reports

Fairfax Media
Member Centre
Conditions of Use
Privacy Policy
News Store Archive
Photo Sales
Purchase Front Pages
Fairfax Syndication
Fairfax Events
Fairfax Careers
Press Council

Fairfax Media
Our Sites

The Sydney Morning Herald
The Age
Essential Baby

Our Partners

Buy & Sell
Credit Cards
Hair Salons
Home Builder

Copyright © 2013 Fairfax Media
Feedback Form

Read more:

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.