See also: 2015 update

Just so we’re clear here about which type of train is which, here’s a quick guide…

Firstly, this is the train that’s in the news today: the Siemens. Their brakes have problems. (Update 2012: The brake problems have apparently been fixed.)
Siemens train at Glenhuntly

Whereas this is the Comeng. Their air-conditioners tend to konk out above 35 degrees. (Update 2012: The air-con has been fixed.)
Comeng train at Glenhuntly

This is the X’Trapolis, about which the Rail Tram and Bus Union recently said: ”You get what you pay for, and they did: these trains are cheap and nasty overseas shit and drivers aren’t happy with them.”
X'trapolis train at Richmond

And finally, this is a Hitachi, from the 70s. They don’t have any air-con, and they also don’t have CCTV or passenger intercoms. The good news is they are known for being very reliable. The bad news is most of them got scrapped, so there’s only half-a-dozen left, which is why we’ve got such a shortage of trains now. (Update 2014: These trains are now out of service.)
Hitachi train at Bentleigh

See also: 2015 update

By Daniel Bowen

Transport blogger / campaigner and spokesperson for the Public Transport Users Association / professional geek.
Bunurong land, Melbourne, Australia.
Opinions on this blog are all mine.

32 replies on “Trainspotting”

More X’traps. Not sure exactly what’s wrong with them – I think there’s some concern that they’re rust prone, amongst other things.

I haven’t found anything wrong with the X’Trapolis trains (as a passenger) other than that they’ve obviously been specified a bit cheaper than overseas equivalents. For example, they have electric doors but those doors can’t be closed by a passenger pushing a button. So on a very hot or cold day, once the door is open and the train is sitting for several minutes at a station, you need to wait for the door to eventually close itself. During that time you have to endure the elements.

I place little value on the union’s suggestion that trains made overseas would be lesser quality than what we need.

Having said that, I always prefer the Hitachis on any day under about 30 degrees because they have the best seats and seating layout and their windows can be opened. They also have dark tinted glass to reduce radiant heat gain, but that’s appearing on the Comengs now too.

Hey Philip! How many windows will actually OPEN in an Hitachi? If I can get more than one to open in a whole carriage, I run out and buy a Tattslotto ticket!!

The problems with the X’Trapolis trains are numerous. None of them is a knockout on its own but add them all together and they are just really sucky trains.

They are made from mild steel and thus are rust prone, unlike all the other trains.

Their suspension is on springs instead of airbags/cushions, so they are rough as guts over 80km/h and could easily do peoples backs in after an hour (let alone a driver’s after 8 hours). As such they are limited to routes that are entirely 80km/h or less (Epping, Hurstbridge, Belgrave, Lilydale, Alamein, Glen Waverley, Showgrounds).

They have a centre driving position and thus are incompatible with the CCTV equipment and mirrors on half of the network (originally all of the network but they only bothered to assess and add more mirrors/cameras/CCTV displays on the lines the trains can run on (see 2).

They are not electrically or mechanically able to be coupled with any other class of train when in service (emergency autocoupler only).

They use non-standard brakes and thus when the emergency coupler is in use, the locomotive/other train has no control over the brakes, which causes a minor safety risk and a serious wear and tear problem if it happens too often (and remember, heavy maintenance on these trains is done at Ballarat, where a locomotive is required for the transfer).

They have serious wheel slip issues, having been designed overseas as an underground metro train not an aboveground suburban train.

Dare I go on?

@ #3 (Phillip) – In this case the Union have a point. The Siemens are a different kind of overseas train but they are nowhere near as shitty as the X’Trapolis. All the Siemens trains need is to have standard air brakes fitted and they would be perfectly OK for what they are asked to do. The X’Trapolis need standard air brakes too, but so much more.

I hate the Comeng trains. I hate the EDI Comeng because they have the route board coverd in rust and I cant see where it is going to. I hate the Alstom Comeng because the route board is on the drivers window and I cant see where the train is going. I hate the siemens trains because the interior is not wide enough and the speaker is so soft. I live in Craigieburn and I have only been on an x trapolis train for once in my life when I was going to the commonwealth games in 2006. I went to Epping and so it would be easier to get to the MCG and when we got back from the MCG I went on the X Trapolis and I loved it.

I don’t like the way this Government run’s this system. They scrap Hitachi trains, and the older Z Class trams faster than they can replace them.
When you buy a house, do you sell your old one first, or after you find a house? I think the latter, otherwise you might end up selling your house, and not replacing it in time, leaving you homeless for that time.
Hitachi’s IMHO are one of the best trains. I’ve never heard them breaking down or having issues, they have a good seat layout like any other country which has a high patronage (lots of standing room, not many seats – only on the side) and they have some windows. I can’t understand why no other train on the network was built with windows.
The windows aren’t too hard to open either – if you can’t do it yourself, get some help.
If only new trains had the sort of windows you get on a bus – the pull out sort.

Wow, sucks to hear that the X’Trapolis trains are so compromised. From a passenger-only perspective, I’ve found them to be the most comfortable, attractive, and enjoyable train to ride on.

And haven’t the new trains been ordered to be X’Trapolis as well? Do we expect a fix up of all the issues?

I have to say the Siemens trains are fundamentally unsuitable for Melbourne. The four-car sets take up about two thirds of a platform – what a waste! But they can’t run eight-car sets, because that would be two long for the platforms. The 2+2 seating layout may be more comfortable, but it reduces the trains’ capacity. Also, the whine from the cores in the motors gets annoying very quickly – why doesn’t it sweep the inverter frequency?

In the words of a train designer friend of mine (John Dunn, for those who care), the X’Trapolis is “a cheap box on wheels from China.” Besides their other problems, they seem to spit out a lot of EM noise, and their horns sound obnoxious. But at least they have 3+2 seating, and use the full platform length.

The Comeng trains are good for what they are. I just don’t understand why someone thought it would be a good idea to spec the aircon for 35°C, when Melbourne routinely gets above 40°C in Summer. It’s not like the cold winter days cancel it out. (Same thing applies to that stupid Southern Star hamster wheel.)

The Hitachi trains do have the most sensible seating layout, if only because it gives more standing room. Let’s face it – during the peak period, there are nowhere near enough seats for everyone, and in the middle of the day, there are lots of empty seats. To reduce the crush, they need to reduce the space consumed by seats – standing people pack better. Japan and Singapore have it right – just put bench seats down the sides of the carriages. There’s still enough space for everyone to sit in the middle of the day, and there’s more room to stand during the morning and evening peak periods.

It’s interesting, though, that everyone seems to think their rail network sucks the most. I’ve moved back to Sydney, and the trains here definitely suck less than in Melbourne. There’s no equivalent to the crush at North Melbourne station here, and the trains come at five minute intervals on my line during peak periods. A smaller proportion of trains are air conditioned, but the ones that are air conditioned don’t break down every hot day. They showed a lot of foresight by building platforms for eight-car trains in the 1920s – it pays off now. The dwell time (time stopped at a station) does have to be longer to allow everyone to get off the double-deck carriages at busy stations like Town Hall, but IMO the additional capacity makes up for it. I think having guards and platform staff makes it safer – less chance of getting caught in a door, and someone to ask questions when things don’t seem to be running properly. But everyone complains about how awful it is.

But really, I only think it’s good here because I’ve just come from Melbourne. Someone coming from Adelaide or LA might think the Melbourne trains are a dream. If I’d just come back from Tokyo, I’d probably think Sydney trains suck, too.

Personally Xtrapolis seem fine, though on hot days I think the aircon on those tends not to run particularly well. Much rather a Hitachi with some windows open so you at least get some fresh air, even if it’s warm. At least when the aircon works on Comeng, it works well.

I’ve noticed that sometimes when it’s wet the Xtrapolis tend to skid and slid about and the wheels spin (though this may have been fixed by that rail profiler thing that’s been doing the rounds, have seen it at Hawthorn a few times and then magically the tracks were MUCH quieter!)

The Xtrapolis reminds me of the Citadis Trams on the 109 route… in my house the Citadis is known as the “wobbley tram” and the xtrapolis seems similarly “wobbley”, which would seem to match with what Perer is saying with the trains having issues over 80kmh.

Vaughan, drivers complain that XTraps don’t have suspension suited to Melbourne, and they get back problems. And yes, there’s the rust issue. And as noted the central driver’s position – see my earlier post on that

Philip, I think the Siemens and XTraps both have doors that close after 60 seconds, but yes, if there’s driving rain or whatever, you can’t close them earlier.

Perer (Peter?), the other problem with Siemens is the two doors per carriage probably makes load times longer, even though the doors are wider.

Ronnie, the X’Traps and Siemens replaced Hitachis one-for-one. So perhaps a better analogy is buying a new house the same size as the old one, despite everyone telling you your family was about to expand.

MK, yes the new trains are X’Traps, though slightly modified.

Vas, you’ve been back in Sydney too long! All Melb trains come in sets of 3/6, not 4/8! Siemens do run as 6-cars, which pretty much fill the platform. Aren’t Sydney’s carriages shorter?

Nathan, try a Siemens some time. For all their faults, the aircon is VERY effective.

OK, I’ll take your word for it that they run 3/6 now, but every Siemens train I ever got on Craigieburn or Upfield line was a four-car set. I’ve only been back here about four months.

As for length, a Melbourne X’trapolis 100 set has three or six 24.4m cars for a seated capacity of 264/528. A Sydney Millennium Train set has four or eight 20.5m cars for a seated capacity of 452/904 (an OSCAR has a slightly lower seated capacity of 432/864 because of the toilets). The numbers are skewed because Melbourne trains have a single deck, while Sydney trains have two. The Melbourne carriages are about 4m longer. The platforms here are about 20m longer, though.

They’ve actually talked about changing the western line to use single deck, three-door sets to reduce dwell time and allow them to run trains closer together. They’ve even started rearranging to signalling to support this. I don’t think it will ever amount to more than talk, though – it’s hard to convince the voting public that they’d be better off with single deck trains.

Sorry to contradict you, but Siemens trains do not, and have never, run as 4 car sets. They are semi-permanently linked as 3-cars, and run as 3 or 6. (In practice 6 since 2007 when the brake problem came to the fore.)

Yeah I’m sure the question of designs/doors and dwell time is a science in and of itself. In Melbourne they’ve pretty much ruled out double deckers for this reason, though as you say, individual trains have a greater capacity.

The recent profiling and tensioning of the rails has provided a smoother, quieter ride in most instances. The rails now ‘sing’!

However, something needs to be done to the suspension/brakes systems of the Alstom Comeng – generally they rattle worse than a Salvation Army Tambourine Convention! One can hear them coming.
What’s worse is the ride on some Alstom Comeng trailer cars on the Dandenong up track from Caulfield > Loop portal. Even after rail grinding, at regular speeds of 60-70 kmh, some trailer cars whip around and shake from side to side and vibrate enough to stop one doing the crossword/sudoku. Car 1151T [in the set 601m etc] is a prime example.

EDI Comeng seem to be much better – smoother, quieter, with none of the above problems.

Re the A/C on hot days in the Comeng – it seems that if the A/C is kept running from morning shift all through the day, the re-circulatory A/C copes reasonable well. However, park them with the A/C turned off for a few off-peak hours in an open yard and the heat will build up and cause the A/C to trip out on restart. What to do? – Park under cover in shade? Open the doors while parked? Leave the A/C running via a by-pass switch? Set the trip temp higher?

How about drive for a few km with the doors open (and nobody on board) to purge the hot air, then turn on the air conditioning.

Despite the often much dirtier seats I find the ride on the Seimens trains to be very smooth and quiet and as mentioned the A/C is nice and cold too. While I don’t expect the upholstery on a train or tram to be as clean as a chair in my house it should not be so dirty that I might wind up with chewing gum or sombody’s spilled food or drink on my cloths. The Comeng and Hitachi trains do seem to me to be a bit more ruggedly built. They usually have cleaner seats and seem wider with larger windows but the ride is not as smooth. Today one car of the Comeng train I rode in had a very loud high pitched whine from some electrical equipment under the car (not from the drive motor). It was so loud and annoying that it actually hurt my ears. Their air compressors for the brakes also seem noisy and can vibrate quite a bit too. I haven’t ridden many trips on the X’Traps but I did notice that the motor controllers on them seem to make lots of different sounds from a low pitch to several higher ones as the train speeds up almost as if it is revving up and shifting gears. It kind of reminds me of the sound a jet plane makes revving up for takeoff.

Ditto Jed… the seats and material/upholstery on Siemens are all disgusting. I travel on them from time to time and they are just generally much dirtier. In our house we call them the “Eastern Block trains” because of the square design they just look like something from an Eastern Block Country (which I guess coming from Germany they are, kind of!)

Also could never stand the recorded voice annoucements, particularly the way that woman would say “Cranbourne” as “Cranborne” and also “Prahran”. Whoever she is she’s obviously not from Melbourne. Is she gone now that the new Metro annoucements have taken over? I haven’t been on a Siemens lately to find out.

Daniel you are right, the aircon on Siemens is great. Now, if only we could take bits from all four trains and put them together to make the ultimate train :)

Just spent the weekend in Syd-en-ey and nearly fell off my reversible bench seat when I saw Cityrail STILL have staff on board who step off and wave a flag and/or blow a whistle to alert the driver when it’s clear to depart each station.

I used public transport in four continents last year and the only other place I saw this occur was at Domodossola on a Eurail train from Geneva to Milan.

What I don’t understand is why there is a need to do this in Sydney and not Melbourne………. got any thoughts??

I think the reason they still have guards is more to do with the arrogance of the union and wanting to protect jobs than any actual remaining need.

Even the RER in Paris with it’s big double deckers (and more passengers than anything here) doesn’t have them.

“Just spent the weekend in Syd-en-ey and nearly fell off my reversible bench seat when I saw Cityrail STILL have staff on board who step off and wave a flag and/or blow a whistle to alert the driver when it’s clear to depart each station.”

Not sure what you are talking about here. Each train has a guard who uses neither a flag nor a whistle, they use a bell to signal the driver. The only station where I ever see a person on the platform with a flag, as at Town Hall. There may be another one somewhere, but certainly not “each station”.

Busier Sydney stations (including Redfern, Central, Town Hall, Bondi Junction, Kings Cross and Martin Place, as well as many others) have platform staff. They have a flag and whistle, but they’re not primarily for signalling the driver: once the guy/gal blows their whistle and holds out their flag, you can be fined for rushing towards the train – it’s an unambiguous indication of the point when you’re no longer permitted to attempt to board. Platform staff are also responsible for assisting “less mobile” passengers in boarding, and answering passengers’ questions about service status, delays, how to get to their intended destination, etc.

The trains have a guard, who travels in the centre of the train on 8-car sets or the rear of the train on 4-car sets. S/he is responsible for making announcements (on trains without automated announcements, or when the automated system fails), opening and closing doors, taking calls on the emergency intercom, monitoring CCTV, and also assisting “less mobile” passengers and answering passenger questions at stations with no platform staff. They have a whistle, which is, once again, for the benefit of passengers. They can communicate with the driver via an intercom and bell (which is actually electronic – they hit a button, and it plays a bell sound over the intercom).

The Sydney rail network doesn’t have the large mirrors and video displays used to allow drivers to see the length of the train in Melbourne, so the drivers can’t safely open and close the doors. Although from my experience, Melbourne drivers can’t safely close doors, either. My friend’s wife had the driver close the door on her pram on Upfield line once, and I saw the same thing happening at Mooroolbark and had to force the door open.

Shell, the flag-waving is done by station staff in Sydney. We could do with that at Melbourne’s busier stations where drivers may not be able to see all the way down the platform due to crowding.

Vas, yeah, the mirrors and CCTV in Melbourne were mostly specifically installed (in the 90s) to allow for the abolition of guards.

I cringe when I see pram users get on the train at the back, especially when they’ve walked down specifically. It’s really much safer using the first or second carriage. (Oh, and you should push the pram on, but pull it off backwards to get over the gap.)

Thanks all. Yes Vas, there were ‘guards’ in the middle carriage and I didn’t see the flags wave at all stations. That’s obviously a station staff function as described by Daniel above. I think I only saw it at Central and Town Hall, now that I reflect on it.

I was interested to see that the station closest to where I was staying (Lewisham) was similar to Hawthorn or Auburn on my line here, in that it was not a primary stop on express routes. But, in contrast to Melbourne, there were 3 lines that bypassed Lewisham station and two that serviced it.

That allows for heaps more capacity that the Belgrave/Lilydale line… and thats one of Melbournes better lines!
Another note of interest was that I was much less likely to get an air-conditioned train when I travelled but much more likely to get a seat! I’ve missed the two levels!



And another thing!…..

Daniel, I agree with your comments on prams. In Sydney, they had some posters up about prams that reminded me of that incident late last year in Melbourne. The ads basically advised parents to keep prams safe on platforms – use the brakes and don’t put them in a position where they can roll towards the tracks…. god I hate that that stuff needs to be spelled out!

My wife’s been involved in two pram incidents, both at Strathmore station. I was there the first time, and despite being a regular at the station, I was unaware of just how bad the gap was until we had a pram we needed to get onboard.

We were at the back of a 6-carriage train, because that is where the shelter is on the platform. I pushed the pram with the baby on, while she lifted the toddler on (who was on foot), and the doors started closing before she was on herself. It was a nightmare, we both panicked and I let the pram go and rushed back to try to hold the doors open while she hopped on. If she was on her own it could have been terrible.

The second time was a couple of weeks later, and wiser to the incident she went to the far end of the platform in order to get into the front carriage, where the driver would presumably see her. (The platform curves at Strathmore, so on the city-bound side the driver’s mirror probably doesn’t have line-of-sight to the back carriage). She was completely ready to board when the train arrived, but wrangling a pram and a toddler means boarding takes a little longer than boarding alone. She had hoped that the driver would see her and wait fer her to get on, but instead the doors started closing before she had loaded the pram. She forced them back which seem to have activated some sort of manual override and they stayed open while she loaded the pram on, but still it was pretty distressing.

She wrote a letter to Connex to complain and they said that their station CCTV didn’t show that end of the platform, and the on-board CCTV showed her taking her time to board and using too much force with the doors so they snapped back themselves. She disputes this but when we were planning to respond, it was announced that Connex got the boot so we didn’t chase it up any further.

Shell, Lewisham is on the Inner West line, but the Western and Northern lines go straight past it – hence the extra tracks (kind of like East Richmond’s extra tracks in the centre for Lilydale/Belgrave while Glen Waverly uses the tracks with platforms).

There were a couple of incidents here last year involving prams rolling off platforms (luckily no-one was hurt). That’s what prompted them to put up those posters. In one of them, the pram rolled off the platform, the father jumped down onto the tracks and put the pram back on the platform, saw the oncoming train and hid under the platform’s overhang while it passed. I can’t remember exactly what happened the other time – something about wind blowing the pram. I think the prams’ brakes weren’t engaged in either case.

BTW, nice train shot – that’s an OSCAR (H set) heading out on the Western line, and a V set coming in from the Newcastle/Central Coast line. The V-sets were very impressive machines when they were built – a symbol of Comeng’s technical prowess. The cabs look really dated now, with a confusing array of tersely labelled switches. It saddens me that Melbourne doesn’t see fit to buy Australian rolling stock any more – the Millenium Trains are built by EDI and the OSCARs by UGL. The local heavy rail industry will die like the tram industry if we don’t feed it.

The main resion that the Siemens train brakes have problems. Is because Siemens used brakes designed for lower speed and underground operations. The state Goverment should not be blamed for the braking failures but M>train in ordering the trains.

Comments are closed.