Alarm bells rang in the Cage when a derailment occurred on the Melbourne Sydney track on February 24th 2020 due to “mud holes” on the track. The Rail Tram and Bus Union reported in 2011 that the practice of replacing sleepers without lifting the track, known as sideways replacement, was causing mudholes that could lead to derailment. As a result, then transport minister, Anthony Albanese initiated a study by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau that decided in 2013 the train line was only safe if trains were slowed down and appropriate warnings given.
Last month’s derailment was caused when a train driver travelled at 100kmh through a section of track designated to be safe at speeds of 10kmh apparently unaware of the warning.
The 2013 ATSB report concluded:
“the ATSB is satisfied that the necessary steps have been taken to address any issues that might otherwise compromise the safety of rail operations … at the expense of operational efficiencies through increased train running times.”
Industry observers at the time, predicted disaster but, as the official report stopped short of recommending that anything be done about it, everyone, including the national news services packed up and went home until the deaths this week.
The facts are that the Australian Rail Track Company put out a request for tender in 2007 to upgrade the Melbourne to Sydney rail line. The problem was that the old wooden sleepers allowed the guage of the tracks to wander. New concrete sleepers wouild ensure the tracks ran straight and true. That tender was awarded to a consortium using Harry Bilt’s Platypus technology capable of replacing the sleepers without ripping up the rails. According to the ATSB in 2013, the decision to use this controversial technology was that there was not enough money available to do the job properly.
“It is also likely that the cost associated with addressing the ballast, drainage or formation issues would have precluded completely re-sleepering the Melbourne to Sydney line with the funding available and therefore some residual safety risk associated with poor track gauge would have remained if this path had been chosen.”
The dangers of sideways sleeper replacement have long been a topic for discussion on railway discussion boards such as railpage.com.au, unions such as the Victorian Rail, Tram and Bus Union (RBTU) and international forums. The looseness of the ballast put under the sleeper when it is inserted between the rail and the ground allows water to collect and mud-holes to form. The result is known as “fouled ballast.” These concerns were raised on Radio National when the Australian Transport Safety Board reported in 2013.
The ATSB report suggested both short term and long term risk management processes would need to be employed to avoid a major incident. It spent some time outlining speed restrictions and additional monitoring of track failure as the short term measures but was deliberately vague about the methods of avoiding the risks in the long term.
“Longer term strategies ARTC implemented … are unlikely to correct the more deep-seated formation problems. … It is possible that water will continue to weaken the structure in some locations, with a corresponding requirement for an increased regime of track maintenance and the application of new or further speed restrictions.”
The final conclusion, that as long as we run the trains very slowly, we should be able to avoid deaths, is hardly a strategy for creating a safe, high speed rail network. Unfotunately, the problems of fouled ballast are not the only failure to maintain the national rail network during decades of cost-cutting. Analysis of the Wallan derailment also reveals issues with signals and possibly internal processes.
The question now is whether the unfortunate deaths of innocent workers and injury to passengers will inject enough steel into future inquiries to ensure that the national rail network is at least made safe and, ideally, brought up to something resembling international standards. 10km per hour is not an acceptable speed for the major passenger link between Australia’s two largest capital cities.