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$2.3 billion goof: New commuter trains too wide for tunnels

Sydney lite rail (Source Transport of New South Wales)

Sydney lite rail (Source Transport of New South Wales)

No one disputes this Australian state’s need to upgrade its rail-transit fleet after 40 years of service.

The New South Wales regional train system in and around Sydney operates with a variety of trains, the oldest rolling stock – called V-sets – and newer XPT longer-distance carriers. After four decades, purchasing 512 new carriages at a cost of $2.3 billion had become a necessity. And with the purchase, commuters can look forward to mobile-phone charging stations, accessible toilets and more space for bike racks and luggage.

All good … except for one rather major problem.

The new trains are too wide for existing tunnels, reports News.com.au.

Whereas Transport for NSW’s current trains are 114.17 inches wide, the replacement trains on order are 122.05 inches in width. Because trains sway and tilt, particularly when rounding curves, TfNSW set a minimum clearance, or “kinematic envelope,” of 7.88 inches around the current rolling stock. That, coincidentally, is only one-hundreth of an inch wider than the increased width of the new trains. New trains tilting inside tunnels are expected to experience scraping on portions of the roof and base as they make contact with the rock walls.

“It takes a special type of incompetence to buy trains that don’t fit through the tunnels,” said state opposition leader Luke Foley.

“No, They Can’t: Why Government Fails, but Individuals Succeed (Hardcover)” debunks the notion government can solve our problems.

Foley is demanding TfNSW show how it will guarantee rider safety when the trains come online next year.

Foley’s concern has taken on greater weight since TfNSW officials announced their solution to the oversight is basically to simply relax safety standards.

“There are parts of the network where it is not possible to fully comply with the modern standards due to physical constraints, and in these circumstances, additional measures such as speed restrictions, varied track maintenance and timetabling are implemented to ensure safety,” a TfNSW spokesman said.

TfNSW’s recommended “sub-medium electric standard” relaxes rules that would normally prevent the wider trains from operating.

“This option would allow the New Intercity Fleet to operate on both lines and pass each other, and therefore ensure better longer-term operational outcomes, while also minimizing heritage impacts through reduced tunnel-lining modifications,” a TfNSW report states.

The same report notes that widening the ten tunnels in question and realigining parallel tracks to increase the margin of safety is not financially feasible.

But some tunnel modification will be unavoidable. Approxomately one-third of the system’s total tunnel length will be “notched” with a five-inch deep gouge where swaying and tilting could cause the new carriages to hit the walls or ceiling. This will add to the $2.3 billion already spent on the new trains and as much as two years to the promised operational date, with closures expected. TfNSW is saying the new trains, combined with some more modern track, will result in less swaying.

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It was only two months ago NSW Transport Minister Andrew Constance was under fire for another on-the-job debacle. Following a $100,000 campaign for the public to pick names of six new ferries on Sydney Harbor, Constance announced the people’s choice was Ferry McFerryface. But a freedom-of-information request by local media revealed the satirical name had not been chosen by the public – Constance had selected it on his own.

“Andrew Constance’s ministerial performance is a joke, but this latest bungle is no laughing matter,” said Foley. “People are right to be suspicious that Constance is going to change the safety standard to fix his bungle.”

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