#Trainageddon: What can be done to reduce and better deal with disruptions?

First I knew of last night’s Trainageddon was when my son Isaac rang at 7pm. He and his friends were at South Yarra — stuck. I said No problem! Catch a Sandringham line train, I’ll meet you at Brighton… oh, that line’s out too.

Yes, a trackside fire at Richmond affected signalling, knocking out the Sandringham line between the city and Elsternwick, and the Cranbourne/Pakenham/Frankston lines as far out as Caulfield, as well as causing major delays on other lines through Richmond.

Rather than wait an age for replacement buses to arrive, I directed them to Commercial Road onto a bus to Elsternwick, and met them there in the car. (See? It pays to know your alternative routes.)

Massive line waiting for trams and trains at Flinders after multiple train lines suspended due to #Richmond fire

— Brendan Casey (@BrendoHeraldSun) April 29, 2014

A little later my mum and stepdad reported in to say they too were stuck, in the city, in Swanston Street. A tram might get them most of the way home, but the obvious problem was huge demand for southbound trams, totally swamped by displaced train passengers.

Their strategy ended up being to catch an inbound tram towards the university, then stay on it when it reversed back, to be assured fitting on board. This took less time than expected as their tram, delayed, reversed at Latrobe Street. When they finally got to East Brighton, I gave them a lift home — I wasn’t the only one; the tram was way more crowded than you usually see at the terminus at 9:30pm (it’s usually deserted), and it was met by about half-a-dozen other cars picking people up.

It’s good to know that at least some people think about their alternative routes home.

This morning, numerous trains were cancelled on the lines affected last night, including about half of all Frankston line peak services.

#Trainageddon continues: roughly every second Frankston line AM peak train cancelled (in red) #metrotrains #SpringSt

— Daniel Bowen (@danielbowen) April 29, 2014

This resulted in predictable scenes: packed trains, and many passengers left behind on platforms — during my trip in, I just squeezed onto a train at Bentleigh. Others were left behind at every station from Mckinnon into the city, and it was a very slow run from Richmond into Flinders Street, with the train hitting numerous automatic signal stops along the way.

Tonight things were a little better, but there were still problems, including the Caulfield Loop closed, and many cancellations, plus an unrelated incident saw the Northern Loop also closed for a short time.

Clearly, while the Federal and State Governments are busy pouring money into motorways (now they’re saying they’ll build BOTH sections of the East West Link), the rail network (you know, the one that won the Coalition the last election) is still suffering through neglect.

Prevention is better than cure

Obviously they need to look at how quickly trackside fires are responded to, and what can be done to prevent them.

Would better preventative maintenance stopped this from happening? If it’s true that it was rats biting through the cables, can different cabling covers help?

And why is the equipment designed in such a way that a relatively small fire knocks out four lines?

We’ve seen big changes in the form of concrete sleepers and upgraded air-conditioning over the last few years. What other changes can be made to the infrastructure to make it more resilient to faults?

Fixing #Trainageddon. Perhaps when finished they'll leave some rat traps.

Is the train network ready for major disruptions?

And here’s something that rarely seems to get raised: a big part of the problem is that the network isn’t designed to handle disruptions well, and particularly not in the inner-suburbs. There are very few places to reverse trains, meaning that partial suspensions often end up covering a long section of railway lines.

Replacement buses (once they are found, which can take some time) end up crawling through traffic to get into position, then crawling for many kilometres to get people to where trains are running. It’s like no thought has been given to how these will work — no consideration has been given to how the surrounding road network functions.

In this case, buses were tasked with getting people from the City to Caulfield or Elsternwick — a near impossible job given the normal road traffic levels just after peak hour, and the huge number of people involved. It was a similar case on Monday night when the South Morang and Hurstbridge lines were suspended between the City and Clifton Hill due to a trespasser being hit. Trams were also swamped then as well.

Metro contacts have told me they can theoretically reverse trains in the Loop portals, but I don’t know if that ever happens in practice. It probably wouldn’t have helped last night, given the location of the fire.

Targeted infrastructure upgrades (points and signals), to add reversing facilities at, say, Jolimont, South Yarra, Burnley (if it can’t handle them already), along with the ability to isolate those parts of the network, would be a big help for planned and unplanned disruptions, by shortening the lengths that need to be filled by buses — reducing travel times, and allowing the substitute bus fleet to run more services.

On the western side it isn’t too bad, as Footscray can be used, but the Craigieburn and Upfield lines probably also need looking at (the latter is frequently suspended between the City and Coburg). And further out it’s not so bad, as on most lines there are numerous stations where it can be done — and of course the road network is less clogged, and passenger demand is lower.

Across the network many things need fixing of course, but given the frequency of major disruptions, the ability to minimise the effect of disruptions when they occur should be near the top of the list, to reduce the impact on passengers when the inevitable next problem occurs.

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.

18 replies on “#Trainageddon: What can be done to reduce and better deal with disruptions?”

One question i would like to ask, Why does train signalling cost so much?

These days more and more cars come with so many sensors: radar, lane departure warning system, rain sensing wiper blades, blindspot sensors, reversing camera, ABS, Traction Control, Stability Control, countless Airbags, automatically-calling 000 in a serious accident. The equipment on board Google’s driverless car is said to cost $75,000.

Ditto mobile phones, 1080p screens, 4G LTE chips, multi-megapixel cameras, multiple microphones, ever faster processors, etc.

Solar Panels, MRI machines, etc have been steadily falling in price over the years.

So maybe metro trains should look at wireless signalling and retrofit the trains with radar in order to have a less vulnerable signalling system.

I was waiting all day for Daniel to post this article. Knew this post it was coming.

I also agree with much of what Daniel said this morning on 3AW too. Yes I am a regular listener to Neil Mitchel.

*** Seeking more information ***
What portion of the signal network was directly impacted by this fire?

What train line sections where directly blocked by this issue?

Nothing was said in any media about V/Line trains to Gippsland. Although I would trust they would have been suspended perhaps between Dandenong and the city??

I totally agree with the issue of needing turnback locations. A simple setup of single crossover at each of these locations, in much the same way as are seen all over the tram network.

Having Bi-directional signaling should have also been some help, where you can take a train as far as you want, and just turn around and head back. The ability to run a train from Caulfield to say South Yarra and back, that would have eased much of the issues too.

There is a clear need to have turnback facilities at each major junctions such as in this case Richmond and South Yarra too.

*** Other train solutions ***

Could the ‘Eddington subway’ have eased the problem by providing an alternate railway route into the city?

The one major issue with the rail network in Melbourne is, there are no ‘alternate routes’ of which a train can take. The irony is often that when a section of line is broken, we often have ample ‘spare trains’ as a result of the incident. Pity we could not find a way of making use of those trains in some way during these blockages!

Pity we could not have emergency railway tracks down the carriageway of Dandenong and St Kilda roads. Even if we had to run the trains at a reduced speed of say 30kms per hour, that would have been a great help anyway. Or in some way, made use of the tram tracks. Pity about the track gauge issue. And the power supply issue too.


Would it not be great if they could have used the E class trams on say an express City to Caulfield service.

Trams do a better job than what a bus can do, and we had access to an extensive tram network, BUT, we are well and truely short of trams for what the tram network needs already.


Perhaps we need some kind of anode stick approach. Have some kind of a wire or mesh around the outside of the main wire. Should a rat start chewing on that cable, then the rat should trip that wire first, and by that alert us to there being an issue. Perhaps alert us before the rat reaches the proper part of the cable?

…build the Eddington subway
…get an order for 100 extra trams. Those 100 E class of which we have been pledged.


One matter that came to mind was, did this have some kind of a link to the vandals who attacked the train over last weekend?

I really do not trust wireless systems of any kind, and would only feel safe with the system we have today.

As for radar, a train would need to see around corners, and up to one km ahead.

Preventative maintenance may well have prevented the problem from happening, but there will always be infrastructure failures of some type. The manner in which the system deals with disruptions is very important. Have train bosses ever sat down and thought, ‘what would happen if half our lines were knocked out at Richmond. What would we do?’

By way of comparison, work been done in recent years to improve the tram network’s ability to handle disruptions. There was always some capacity (such as the ability for Collins St trams to run via La Trobe St), but the option for Swanston St trams to be diverted via La Trobe and William Sts is the result of turnouts being constructed in relatively recent times to/from Swanston to La Trobe St, and La Trobe St to William St (and v v). These are not used for regular services at all. Likewise, the link along Spring St allowing trams from Wellington Pde to travel via Collins St is quite new, although the motivation for that was to re-route the no 48 trams so the fact that it allows more flexibility is presumably a benefit on the side. I think that there may be more examples of turnouts having been constructed in recent years to enable flexibility, but I’m not sufficiently confident of them to identify them.

Slight addition/correction about using Footscray to turn back: it can turn around trains from Werribee or Williamstown, but for the Sydenham line the point of no return for an inbound train is at Sunshine.

Bit further out, but one big gap seems to be that on the Pakenham line they don’t seem to use the cross-over at Berwick anymore if there’s a disruption, and instead run buses for the whole last 25km of the line past Dandenong.

I’m just unhappy the 6:32am from Sandringham was cancelled this morning and there was no mention on MetroTrains website. Grrrrr!

Great Railway Excuses of the World. It’s amazing how animals cripple the system. A while back it was the bat on the wires at Camberwell. Now it’s the rats at Richmond. If rats really do chew through signalling cables, wouldn’t you expect this type of failure to occur more frequently?

My personal view is actually the opposite. The problem we are discussing here arose because of the complexity of the train system – and the solution isn’t to add more complexity, but rather to remove it. :)

Let’s imagine that a rat chews through a cable in the London Underground or Paris Metro (which I’m guessing happens a lot more there than it does here). It means that on the impacted line the outcome is likely to be a loss of signals for a section of the line. Policies and procedures are in place for drivers to pass defective signals (at a very slow speed, with proper authorization, etc.). But the impact is that trains can keep operating, but with reduced capacity (e.g. fewer trains per hour). This can occur because the various lines are kept relatively separate.

The problem with the core of the train network in Melbourne is that it is quite tangled. We rely on points to operate the timetable as it is currently designed. If you were designing the network now you would make it as simple and reliable as possible with all lines segregated. For example, if Sandringham Line trains had their own tracks all the ways to Flinders Street – without any points to connect them to other lines – then in the event of a signal failure they could have kept operating. I’m not saying we don’t have any points – but I’m just pointing out that simplicity of operation is a virtue. It’s a principle used by most other metro style transport systems.

Melbourne has actually done this for two of the lines: South Morang and Hurstbridge Lines. They now operate clockwise around the loop seven days a week. They don’t interact with the trains from any other lines. From Clifton Hill, into the city, around the loop and back there is now NO set of points that needs to change regularly for the service to be operated. As a regular Hurstbridge train user for many years, I lost count of the number of times that there were point failures at Jolimont – because back then the points were changing for almost every train (some going via the loop, some going direct, and in the AM, the points needed to change whenever a train from Flinders Street went through). These days, you don’t get point failures at Jolimont (touch wood) as the points aren’t used nearly as much (if at all). The result is a much more reliable system. It’s a good model for other lines.

Adding more turn backs adds more potential places that failures can occur. So you end up with the problem that by putting in something that is designed to reduce the impact of failure on the network, you actually increase the chances of failure occurring.

The other point with turn backs is that they cut the capacity of the line dramatically – so even if turn backs were installed you would only be able to operate a small proportion of the trains that will be scheduled to operate on that line.

We need to conceptually think of the tracks between Richmond and Flinders Street at separate lines that operate along the same piece of land, but are entirely separate operationally. That’s a good thing to strive for.

So I guess the point, my own view, is that the solution is actually to simplify operation, remove as many places where the network can fail as possible, design timetables and operating patterns that eliminate the need for points as much as possible. There seems to be a perception that the absence of turn backs is due to a desire to save money – where it is actually due to a desire to reduce failures on the system.

@Revenue, I see a distinction between turnbacks and other junctions that increase complexity. I agree that the system needs to be simplified, to move to dedicated, fixed routes for normal services. Andrew Lezala talks about moving from spaghetti to lasagne! It also ties in with what Connex managers used to say – that the entire system was moving towards being “straight railed”.

What I want to see is turnbacks specifically, which would not be used under normal circumstances, and certainly not to mix and match operating patterns – designed only to allow trains to turn around.

Even if these are manually operated points that simply can’t be changed remotely, and needed a crew to be deployed to get them working, that’d do the job. Having replacement buses have to fight through 10km of inner-city traffic because there’s nowhere between the City and Caulfield to turn around a train is crazy.

Turning trains around at Burnley could be of a reduced capacity because of the up-up-down-down system that operates there. There may be a restriction as to services to/from Richmond and to /from Hawthorn can be terminated, of say 24 tph. I do believe that the terminating of Glen Waverley line should be not impacted by this because there are terminating facilities between the flyover and the sidings, allowing Glen Waverley trains to terminate on platform 4.

“Even if these are manually operated points that simply can’t be changed remotely, and needed a crew to be deployed to get them working, that’d do the job. Having replacement buses have to fight through 10km of inner-city traffic because there’s nowhere between the City and Caulfield to turn around a train is crazy.”

I’m afraid I don’t agree with the concept that you can install low cost turn outs that are divorced from the signalling system that wouldn’t increase the potential for faults to occur. I think you’d simply end up with a situation that created more delays to passengers. If you simplify the operation of the train network, then there shouldn’t be a circumstance where both lines between the City and Caulfield are out if they operate independently (particularly on a section of track with no level crossing or pedestrian crossings). Have a think about all the things that delay trains in the core of the network – and a lot of them are signalling related.

Recently, Metro has been operating a number of buses cross town to assist passengers. For example, Caulfield to Elsterwick. Not possible in this case due to the scope of the problems covering Sandringham as well. Hopefully we see a lot more of this as the rainbow boards roll out across the network – when you can tell CBD passengers going to Frankston that they can catch a train to Elsternwick or East Malvern and catch a bus that will connect them with Caulfield or Murrumbeena.

I don’t think you can conclude yet it was bad maintenance, but you can say that something that takes 14 hours to repair and more time again to test is not a resilient design. Those signals should be fed by independent power (backed up by e.g. power derived from the traction supply) and use a networked, probably optical control system (backed up by e.g. 4G modems on a VPN). Such a system (i) would have continued to operate during and after the fire, and (ii) could have been repaired by replacing a single cable.

If you can’t buy this tech off the shelf, it’s probably already been developed by the mining companies up north.

In-cab signallng, as planned for the Sandringham and Dandenong lines, may or may not be more resilient. However, the resistance to it from the railways here for so long suggests we may be living with the consequences of their past unimaginative and conservative attitudes,

Crossovers were part of the system of manned signal boxes and were phased out by the VR over several decades. I recall during the ’80s, the railways ran the Weedex train to Glen Waverley and there were no crossovers so when the train reached the terminus, a light engine was attached to the end and ran the return service and the loco on the end then ran light engine after the train. The Glen Waverley line is/was essentially two tracks joined at the end.
I wondered why crossovers were removed but they were probably underused, a relic of the bricquette trains and goods sidings and cost money to maintain.
I think that some crossovers in strategic locations be considered. The tramways use them to good advantage.

@ Revenue: “For example, if Sandringham Line trains had their own tracks all the ways to Flinders Street – without any points to connect them to other lines – then in the event of a signal failure they could have kept operating”

I must be missing something here. I thought the Sandringam lines did operate separately from the Caulfield lines between Richmond and Flinders St at least on weekdays. In fact, through a quirk of the timetable (an issue that ought to be addressed), you often get an up Sandringham running parallel to an up Frankston. Yes, there are points that connect them to the other lines, but these don’t appear to be normally changed between trains for weekday operations.

The glen Waverley line has crossovers at Burnley, Darling (requires manual operation from the not usually used signal-box and is not very convenient for terminating trains using only the outer part of the line) and Glen Waverley. If there were no crossovers at Glen Waverley, then the line would have a very low capacity as it would be 2 independent single tracks.

There is however no loop to shut locomotives around trains and hence the Weedex trains` 2 locomotives.

*** RE the REVENUE point ***

I do see the point of what Revenue may be putting forward, in that points have caused the impact extent in this event.

I guess the point being made by Revenue is….
….The one set of signal equipment is needed, to control all six tracks at that location, because of the Sandringham line access into the city loop.
….Therefore, for the rats to affect the Sandringham pair, that same event can only impact the Caulfield 4 tracks as well, because of the shared signal equipment for each of those tracks.
….If those points where removed, then we would have a separate set of signal equipment for each pair of tracks as they operate through there, resulting on an impact only on the one or two tracks in particular.

My conter-agruement is,

++ Having crossovers at South Yarra, could only have been a benefit to us in this case. Because we could still operate trains between Caulfield and South Yarra.

++ A good signal system needs to have a backup. The RFR routes have two fibre optic cables, one on each side of the track. If one wire gets damaged, it has the other to take up the task.

++ As for London, they do have some turnback sidings, and simple turnback crossovers too, and in the deep tube tunnels directly under the London CDB. There are many locations where you have deep tube and sub-surface routes operating on separate tracks side by side, BUT, have plenty of crossovers that would enable one type to crossover onto the other ones tracks. Such as Piccadilly and District lines. Sorry I do not have more details at hand.

My dishwasher stopped working, a while ago. Actually, it went through all of its motions, except without water.

A rat of some kind had chewed one of the wires.

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