MELBOURNE’S railway system came to a standstill last week. Excessive temperatures that caused massive service cancellations, the blame game is in full force as to who bear’s most or any responsibility for the train havoc.

Last Thursday, Connex executive chairman Jonathan Metcalfe shifted the blame from the heat to the train driver’s union for 80 percent of the cancellations that occurred. Up till this point Mr Metcalfe was holding accountable the rising mercury going so far as to brand a 25C degree day as “a very hot day.”

Neos Kosmos English Edition spoke to the Victorian Branch Secretary of Rail, Tram & Bus Union Australia (RTBU), Trevor Dobbyn who declined to comment on Mr Metcalfe’s statement.

But he did criticize the state government for decades of neglect of the railway system, a fact that even the Victorian Minister for Transportation Lynne Kosky has conceded in recent statements. “There’s been decades of under investment by state governments and that led to the infrastructure running down,” said Mr Dobbyn.

He emphasised that the system is not in the shape that it could be and he called on the government to pour more money into public transportation and especially the rail network. When asked about one of the most common problems related to the heat which is the buckling of the tracks he explained that the only way to avoid this is to have concrete sleepers (the beam which supports the rails). “This requires a huge amount of investment by government,” underscored Mr Dobbyn.

He insisted that the buck stops with the government because “the whole system is owned and regulated by the government. Connex runs the trains on government owned tracks, overhead wires, signals and trains,” said Mr Dobbyn. “It is a state government system with an operator in it and if it was re-nationalised tomorrow these problems would be there for the government as they currently are today,” he added.

Christos Tsirkas president of operations for the Victorian Branch of RTBU reinforced this argument by noting that “money is the most important thing in public transportation.” The problems that we see today with train cancellations due to weather conditions did take place before Connex took over yet not to this extent, clarified Mr Tsirkas. What has changed in the past four years is that the patronage of public transport systems has increased substantially for a number of reasons such as rising fuel prices, greater road congestions and population growth. But it seems that the government has been caught off guard by this steady increase over the last years without fully addressing what have now become critical infrastructure and maintenance needs.

“The government has to accept responsibility. They have been in office 10 years and had surpluses and good economic times behind them and that’s when you do the work that is required,” highlights Shadow Minister for Public Transport Terry Mulder. On the criticism that the Opposition despite the verbal bravado has not introduced any specific and detailed public transport proposal, Mr Mulder was categorical. “It would be reckless of anyone to come out today and announce major infrastructure projects without knowing what money was available and we will not know that until the middle of next year until we get a comprehensive budget update.” Pointing the finger at the opposition, stressed Shadow Minister for Public Transport, is not helping the situation nor the public.

Monash University’s Public Transport expert Professor Graham Currie tried to disassociate the issue from the finger pointing exercise. “In my opinion, the blame game and especially blaming the train drivers is not very helpful. The [train] air conditioning failures we’re getting are actually heat related,” said Professor Currie. “The reason the trains don’t work in high temperatures is that they have never been designed to do that,” he pointed out. The railway in Melbourne, according to Professor Currie currently and throughout it’s history was never designed to work in temperatures above 35C degrees. “This is why the infrastructure is failing, we have never invested to get the infrastructure working in these temperatures,” clarifies Professor Currie. As for quick fixes he is clear that there aren’t any. “You can spend a lot of money if you’re trying to get a medium term solution. We can buy new air condition units that work in all temperatures, but honestly that’s not a very good investment,” he pointed out. Professor Currie explained that investment in railway systems are long term endeavours where an implementation policy today can reap the benefits 20 or 30 years down the track.

Further to this report NKEE contacted the Department for Transport, Energy and Infrastructure in South Australia that runs Adelaide’s rail system. Although much smaller in size, servicing only 42,500 trips per day, Adelaide’s rail network faired far better than Melbourne’s in the heat wave which engulfed South Eastern Australia. The only train disruptions were experienced last Wednesday when temperatures in Adelaide reached a dramatic 46C degrees raising the temperature of the rail to 75C degrees. The affected line “was closed for a number of hours due to a heat buckle in the track. Other services experienced minor delays due to heat related mechanical problems,” according to Ross Stargatt spokesman for the Office of Major Project and Infrastructure. Currently only one line in Adelaide’s system is fitted with concrete sleepers but the state government “has made a $2 billion dollar commitment to revitalise the public transport system. This includes a significant upgrade of the rail network involving electrification, re-sleepering and new rolling stock,” said Mr Stargatt.

While it is difficult to compare a cities of different size and their public transport, such as the larger Melbourne and the significantly smaller Adelaide, it is still refreshing to know that in the latter trains don’t stop running due to this summer’s excessive heat. By the way in Adelaide they are also offering commuters free water while succeeding in transporting them to their destination regardless of a few delays. By contrast in Melbourne Connex is only capable of giving away free water and ice creams.