Rail 796: Melbourne’s familiar problems on the tracks

Spending a week in Melbourne ended up being a trip in to the past. Melbourne has a very British feel, unlike its brasher and more American rival Sydney, and is a far more pleasant city, not least because it has a superb public transport system, based on trams and heavy rail. Meeting rail bosses in the city, I ended up talking about the difficulties of franchising, gauge corner cracking (which caused the Hatfield crash but has been a recent problem here) and the need for increased capacity.

Melbourne has two large contrasting stations, the historic Flinders Street, the city’s first station and now used solely for suburban services, and the futuristic Southern Cross, a couple of minutes away on the track, which is an elegant and very open structure built in the noughties. It is by no means perfect, with some much criticised aspects such as the need to go up and down so many stairs, poor lighting, an open plan that allows the wind to whistle in during winter and a roof that traps diesel fumes, but it is a clear statement that rail is important in Melbourne.

Despite the excellent public Melbourne’s citizens do not make sufficient use of their extensive network of trains and trams – how many cities have a 96 tram route on which I travelled several times, and even if that doesn’t mean there are 95 others, it does show intent! Both trams and trains have a modal share of around10 percent, partly because the city is very spread out – several suburban lines stretch 40 miles into the outlying ‘villages’ but also because Aussies are very wedded to their cars. In many respects Australia is far more like the US than any European country.

Nevertheless train use on Melbourne’s extensive suburban rail network is growing and just as in the UK, the operators and the government, which pays for investment, are struggling to cope.  And also like in the UK, there are issues caused by the complex structure resulting from government creating a semi-privatised structure.

The man running the system is none other than Andrew Lezala, a controversial figure in the UK as he ran Metronet, one of the two ‘infracos’ that were the core of the Public Private Partnership on the London Underground which collapsed after massive overspending. Lezala says the key lesson he learnt from that experience was the importance of politicians and politics when it comes to running a transport system. The PPP was intensely political and with Ken Livingstone, an opponent of the concept, running London at the time, the situation was, to say the least, fraught. That said, Metronet did make key mistakes, and the National Audit Office found that it had wasted some £410m of public money, and that most of that ‘was the fault of the consortium’. The work was taken back in house by Transport for London and Lezala left under a cloud – but with a handy pay off – but has bounced back Down Under and was delighted to show me round the system for an afternoon.

It is not an easy network to run and the system that it operates under is just as complex as our franchising operations, with the extra complexity that Australia has three layers of politicians – federal, state and local – who all want to play trains. Moreover, it has been hit by technical issues reminiscent of the aftermath of the Hatfield train crash, leading to a large number of cancellations on the longer distance VLine services.

The Metro network was developed around a loop in the centre into which all 16 lines converge with, at the peak, some 130 services an hour arriving or leaving the centre. This places enormous stress on the system as the knock on effects of even one train running late can last a long time. This has led to controversy as one way for trains to get back on time has been to skip a few stops. Lezala points to the fact that except in the early days of the eight year contract which his consortium won, punctuality has been higher than target and currently runs at around 92 per cent. However, critics point not only  to the skipping of station stops, but also to a reorganisation of the timetable to allow far more time which means that at times trains are held at a station because they arrive too early. As usual with such arrangements, there is a tendency to play to the contract, irrespective of whether that is best for passengers, though Lezala points to an increase in customer satisfaction of around 73 per cent, up 10 per cent since the contract started in November 2009.

Just as in the UK franchising has had a chequered history. Originally, the whole transport system was franchised out and National Express won the contract. However, its bid was based on a much too optimistic view of revenue, particularly on cutting down on ticketless travel, and just three years into the 15 year contract that, the company threw the towel in (a rather familiar story for those of us who remember National Express’s similar action on the East Coast). Another company with a poor record in the UK, Connex, took over but the arrangement was reorganised with only the Metro train network being refranchised out. The contract was won by a consortium led by MTR, the Hong Kong metro operator with 60 per cent and two minor shareholders, one of which, John Holland, has recently been taken over by the Chinese government. Lezala’s Metro gets its income from the farebox, a sum for maintenance from the government, another sum for new projects and franchise payments. The financial incentives in such a structure are clearly difficult to disentangle and just as in the UK, privatisation has brought with it a number of unintended consequences. There is a complex structure concerning the tracks actual rand rolling stock which are owned byVicTrack on behalf of the State Government, and leased to Public Transport Victoria which then sub-leases them to Metro Trains Melbourne. Makes out system looks simple.

And it has caused issues. There is a curve in the central area where the lack of lubrication on a tight curve has led to the wheels on the regional VLine trains deteriorating. It is a matter of dispute about whose fault this is but it has resulted in thousands of wheels needing replacement and the track being replaced after just 18 months. Elsewhere, too, there was extensive gauge corner cracking on the track, due allegedly to poor maintenance, and this caused delays and a speeded up replacement programme.

The third issue is even more complex. For some unexplained reason, some – but not all even of the same manufacture of the trainsets operated by VLine do not get detected by the track circuits around level crossings. This led to a ‘wrong side’ failure with fortunately no consequences but as a result Lezala banned these particular trains from using his tracks, until axle counters to ensure detection. The problem is that the fault is intermittent and inexplicably only occurs on some DMU sets, and not others. Consequently, VLine has had to cancel up to 30 per cent of its trains, and run a massive coach replacement service with full normal service not returning until July. Not surprisingly passengers are up in arms and politicians are on the warpath.

This does seem to highlight a lack of local expertise in terms of railway management and the rail companies in Australia seem to have made the same mistake as Network Rail in not having enough rail-experienced senior staff. It is noticeable that several people like Andrew Lezala, such as Jeroen Weimar ex of TfL and Howard Collins, ex London Underground, have been imported from the UK.

Nevertheless, despite these difficulties, Lezala defends the system arguing it is a good partnership between the state and the public sector. He says he has learnt about the importance of the politicians and says: ‘Under this system, we run an integrated railway, and that is crucial’. He tells the story of how some years ago, when the system was disaggregated, there was thought to be a problem with the brakes on Siemens trains but it turned out to be an adhesion problem, but since the track, rolling stock and operations were in separate hands, the issue was not properly sorted. That is a useful insight and a lesson to railway managers here. Integration is, ultimately, a more important issue than ownership but the two are often confused.



Time to sort out bridge bashing


When I travelled round the Indian rail network in February, it was noticeable that at many of the bridges under the tracks, there was a simple construction of three girders to prevent overheight vehicles hitting the bridge. Now India is not exactly known for its health and safety culture, though accidents on the rail network have been reduced sharply by greater attention to this issue, but clearly it seems to have solved the issue of bridge bashing.

Yet, here, not much seems to have changed since I wrote about this some twenty years ago when I was on The Independent. I remember a clever PR stunt by Railtrack which deliberately smashed an old bus into a much bashed bridge In Swindon to show the effects and give the TV news a spectacular clip.

However, earlier this month, Network Rail was bemoaning a series of bridge bashes over the space of a few days which had caused thousands of delay minutes and disrupted services far and wide. I know that there are difficult issues to solve over who is responsible – the road authority or the railway- and that some bridges are in difficult sites, but come on guys, if India can do it, surely we can. It needs a national programme of assessment at all the commonly bashed sites, with the installation of girders or bells (or whistles!) to prevent this completely preventable source of hassle for rail passengers. It would also be a way for Network Rail to chalk up a few easy Brownie points at a time when it is not exactly impressing ministers.

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