I thought I ordered standard brakes and air conditioners with my new trains and trams…

In our modern day and age where technology advances as quickly as the bullet train flies, you would think that working brakes and functional air conditioning systems would be the norm on any new vehicles being delivered on our public transport systems.

Not so.

As Australia’s public transport systems and associated infrastructure undergo their biggest investment in many decades, the largest number of new trains and trams have entered service in the past decade than in any decade previously. With more vehicles entering service, it seems that an increasing number of them have technical difficulties or faults. Sydney’s Millennium trains were plagued with electrical and mechanical difficulties for several years following their introduction in 2002. Melbourne’s Siemens trains, also delivered in 2002, continue to have braking problems while Adelaide’s Flexity trams (2006) have inadequate air conditioning systems.

Sydney's energy thirsty Millennium trains.

Siemens train overshoots the end of the line at Sandringham, Melbourne. (Source: Herald Sun)

Getting quality trams on Australia’s light rail systems has been an issue since we stopped manufacturing trams after World War II. All of the new trams operating in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney are European built, and have been built to European standards rather than Australian standards as a result. Adelaide’s Flexity trams are built with the same air conditioning systems as those built for Frankfurt, which has a colder and milder climate than Adelaide does, clearly not the same operating conditions!

It seems that Australia has lost its ability to manufacture rail vehicles of a decent standard.

Actually, that’s not completely true. The Millennium trains were manufactured in Australia. They function properly now, but only after many years of causing frustration to Sydney commuters. The narrow gauge systems in Brisbane and Perth are supplied by mostly trouble-free trains built in Maryborough, Queensland. However, the notorious Siemens trains were manufactured in Austria while the Flexity trams were built as a piggyback order along with new trams in Frankfurt, Germany which have the exact same design specifications. The issue relates more to the lack of proper due diligence in the design of the vehicles rather than poor quality construction. Of course, when politics comes into the picture getting brand new glamorous looking vehicles on to the system as quickly as possible takes precedence over getting the important basics in the vehicle design right.

The other problem is that the quality of Australia’s rail infrastructure is still substandard due to the lack of proper maintenance and investment in the systems between World War II and the turn of the 21st century. Some Melbourne train drivers have described the Siemens trains operating on Melbourne’s rail network as “space-age technology on caveman infrastructure”. They continue to face speed restrictions while a growing number of them overshoot the end of train lines such as the incident at Sandringham on Wednesday the 9th of March where a Siemens set crashed into a Bendigo Bank branch. In Sydney, the new Millennium trains continued to break down as the existing electrical systems could not cope with the high electrical demand of the trains and eventually needed to be upgraded. With lagging investment from decades of neglect and growing passenger demands, upgrading rail infrastructure in Australia to meet the needs of today and tomorrow has become a game of catch up.

And so we as travelling commuters continue pay the price for unreliable vehicles in the form of delays, cancellations and uncomfortable trips, time that could have been used more productively but we cannot gain back. As great as it is to have governments investing in new trains and trams, more attention needs to be paid beyond simply dumping shiny new multi-million dollar chunks of metal on our tracks to other things that are expected by commuters. We need to demand that our governments give us more than just new vehicles, but vehicles that are adapted and suitable for the conditions that they will operate in and the infrastructure that will support the reliable operation of these vehicles.

Sources:

Herald Sun – Spaceships on Chariot Wheels

The Age – Metro Train Crashes Off Rails into Bendigo Bank

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