Catastrophic’ fire threat on trains


Catastrophic’ fire threat on trains

March 4, 2013

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Jacob Saulwick
Transport Reporter

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Commuters passing through Town Hall Station, Sydney. 27th August 2011. Photo by Tamara Dean

Sydney commuters vulnerable: Installing a smoke ventilation system in train tunnels is estimated to cost operators $1 billion. Photo: Tamara Dean

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.

Operators have refused to install ventilation shafts or fans in train tunnels and underground stations despite being warned more than 15 years ago that the system was needed to provide fresh air to people in case of a terrorist, accidental fire or chemical emergency.

The prospect of a big fire in tunnels was highlighted on Friday when a cable twice short-circuited and ignited, sending smoke through the tunnel and into Wynyard station.

And now a key adviser on fire safety has reversed his recommendation that the government should not install a ventilation system. The adviser, international fire expert Arnold Dix, says the ventilation system is needed.

Investigations into safety in the underground reveal rail operators are years away from allowing train doors to be opened from the inside as recommended by safety experts, and still have no detailed plans to manage the growth in commuters using underground rail.

The need for a ventilation system was identified after a disastrous exercise in 1997 into what would happen if a bomb went off on a train between Wynyard and Town Hall. Because smoke could not leave the tunnels, all passengers would have died, as would the

emergency services officers. By 2001, the government was preparing tenders to install a ”smoke management” system to allow fresh air into tunnels if there was a big train fire, bomb or chemical release.

But months from issuing tenders, the operator commissioned reports into whether a system was necessary. The then operators – State Rail, the Rail Infrastructure Corporation and Rail Access Corporation – decided against the system that only months earlier they believed was needed.

This decision was based on a report by Professor Dix, who said the operators could increase safety through cheaper measures such as better cleaning of the underground and improving walkways, communication and exit ramps.

Professor Dix has now changed his recommendation on the system that was expected to cost about $150 million in 2001. ”That was one of the things I probably did wrong,” he said last week.

”Years ago I argued against the retrofitting of an emergency ventilation system. In my opinion then it was premature [and] … not good value. But I think looking back they accepted my prioritisation … because it was cheaper and, unfortunately, now we have lost the money to do the ventilation system. It’s time for more to be done.”

The public has never been made aware of the proposed smoke management system, nor the rail operator’s rejection of it.

Fairfax has independently obtained numerous consultants’ reports and briefing notes that reveal divided expert opinion on whether the system was needed.

If a train was stuck between stations, a ventilation system could provide air to at least one end of the train, potentially giving passengers an escape, as well as an entry point for rescuers.

A briefing paper prepared for the December 2001 Rail Infrastructure Corporation board meeting, when it decided not to build the system, said: ”It is not disputed that if a major fire occurred in the city underground [or detonation of an incendiary device as tested in the 1997 … exercise] the consequences are potentially catastrophic. In addition, the provision of a smoke management system would not eliminate this risk but only [probably] alter the consequences.”

Professor Dix praised RailCorp for numerous safety improvements to the stations and tunnels but they remain dangerously overcrowded and there are other hazards – for instance wooden escalator stairs at Wynyard station.

”It’s not best practice to have wooden staircases,” Professor Dix said. ”We learnt that lesson from Kings Cross,” he said, referring to the 1987 station fire in London that killed 31 people.

RailCorp is also years away from allowing passengers on most trains to open doors from the inside in an emergency. Multiple reports have argued for this. New Waratah trains allow it but older ones do not.

Transport for NSW said Millennium trains would be upgraded within months, and Oscar trains in two to three years.

The department did not say if it would consider a smoke management system. It said RailCorp performed general fire safety inspections every six months, and an internal audit in 2011 reviewed access and egress, signage and light fittings in tunnels.

Asked about the wooden escalators at Wynyard, the department said they were steel steps with hardwood cleats on the treads and they were treated with a fire retardant coating.

Upgrades of Wynyard and Town Hall stations are at least five years away according to the government’s master plan.

Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian said: “Safety is paramount on all aspects of public safety
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One thought on “Catastrophic’ fire threat on trains

  1. Neville

    4 March, 2013

    There must be provision for passengers to open train doors
    in emergency situations. The signalling setup in ihe
    underground allows trains to advance right up to the train
    ahead, otherwise the volume of traffic could not be
    maintained. There have been many instances where passengers
    have needed to alight and walk through tunnels yo the closest
    stations in breakdowns and emergency situations.
    Ventilation should ne mandatory.

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