The Australian Transport Safety Bureau has signalled serious concerns about the safety of the main Melbourne-Sydney rail line less than two months after launching a systemic inquiry into its operations at the direction of  the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, Anthony Albanese.

It says in a preliminary factual report, that:

“The condition of the track on sections of the Melbourne to Sydney line has been subject to significant adverse comment, largely in relation to the existence and remediation of ‘mud-holes’.  There have also been a number of recent incidents on the corridor, including the parting of an interstate passenger train near Broadmeadows, Victoria on 11 August 2011, which is currently under investigation by the ATSB and the routing of a train onto the wrong railway track near Seymour, Victoria on 25 July 2011, currently under investigation by the Chief Investigator, Transport Safety Victoria.”

Let’s put this in plain English with a little more detail.

The ATSB has learnt of serious safety concerns expressed by train drivers, rail workers, freight customers and even passengers about the state of line, and that the focus of these concerns is the competency of the Australian Rail Track Corporation in finding and repairing faults known a mud holes and mud geysers.

A detailed and very alarming ABC TV 7.30 report into the state of the line in April raised grave doubts as to whether or not the ARTC was following the right engineering steps to correct these problems, or actually making them worse.

The ARTC came across as its worst enemy in that program, and it sowed seeds of doubts within Infrastructure and Transport that led on August 16 to Albanese “requesting” the investigation.

The government-owned corporation has dismissed the concerns about its competency and chosen method of replacing wooden sleepers with concrete sleepers as hype and blamed a significant increase in incidents along the line particularly in southern NSW as hype and due to unseasonally high rains.

However, railways are supposed to be impervious, literally, to heavy rain, and the idea that ARTC would seriously argue that its rail technology was compromised by the weather when other rail organisations worldwide have mastered reliable operations in high rainfall for more than 100 years did nothing for its credibility.

The Melbourne-Sydney line had red flags all over it, and it isn’t surprising  that the minister saw the obvious dangers and decided to resolve the issues once and for all.

At a time when serious consideration is being given to high-speed rail in Australia, the last thing the government needs is a low-speed rail disaster on a line that, by world standards, is already a laughing stock.

Peter Fray

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