Melbourne Metro Train. Photo: Creative Commons / Zed Fitzhume

Melbourne Metro performance dips in May

Melbourne’s metropolitan passenger rail network was at its least punctual in at least 12 months in May.

91.7% of all metro services were on time, according to the latest statistics from Public Transport Victoria. While this meant the network achieved its 38th consecutive month of over 90% punctuality, it was also the lowest figure so far in the 2014/15 financial year.

The figure was only slightly worse than that of the month prior (April 2015), when 91.8% of trains were recorded ‘on-time’.

With no clear explanation offered for the punctuality dip from public transport director of performance and contract management Jereon Weimar, one possibility is that the decline in timeliness is linked to the improvement in another area of Melbourne Metro’s performance: the reduction of unplanned station skipping.

Station-skipping trains, known by PTV as “unplanned express” services, are those which go right through a station where they were supposed to stop, often because they are running late.

Looking to fix a pet peeve for many rail customers, Victorian public transport minister Jacinta Allan pushed for Melbourne Metro to reduce the practice. Her campaign looks to have paid off, with station skipping reduced from a peak of 0.5% of services in May 2014, to just 0.1% in January, February and May this year, and just 0.2% in March and April.

But that reduction in station skipping could logically have resulted in the slight decline in overall punctuality, and that’s suggested in the figures.

Understandably, Weimar did not mention the 12-month low for Melbourne Metro punctuality in his official statement on the May figures, instead choosing to focus on the benefits of the reduction to station-skipping.

“Of the more than 63,000 Metro services that operated in May, 48 services ran as unplanned express, representing 0.1% of Metro’s daily timetable this month,” he said.

Melbourne Metro delivered a total of 98.9% of its timetable in May, which is within the range it has delivered over the past 12 months. Service delivery peaked at 99.3% in June 2014, and has dipped as low as 98.5% in two months since then.

Level crossing removal project. Photo: Department of Transport Victoria

Gates added to notorious level crossing

While Victoria is working to remove many of its level crossings, it’s also working to make those it’s not removing safer.

Victorian minister for transport Jacinta Allan on Thursday announced the completion of a $554,000 project to insall boom gates at the level crossing on the Bendigo to Echuca rail line at the Midland Highway.

Allan said the upgrade will help control movement of cars and heavy vehicles as they pass through the crossing.

“There have been a number of near misses at this crossing in recent years,” Allan said. “It needed to be upgraded.

“The new boom gates will increase the awareness of motorists, improving their safety and the safety of local residents and rail passengers.

“The Andrews Labor Government is removing or improving level crossings across Victoria, to make our road and rail network safer.”

She said the local Bagshot community is now safer for the boom gates, which will reduce the risk of collisions, fatalities and injuries for local residents, road users and train passengers.

There have been a number of near misses between trains and vehicles at this specific level crossing over the last five years, the State Government said.

Amtrak derailment - Photo NTSB

Positive train control could have prevented Amtrak derailment, but it’s not quite on track

How does positive train control – safety technology that could have prevented May’s deadly Amtrak derailment – work, and why is it still not on US rails? Purdue University’s Jeffrey C Peters looks for answers.

On May 12 2015, northbound Amtrak Northeast Regional Train 188 carrying 238 passengers to New York from Washington DC derailed near Philadelphia while entering a curve at almost twice the designated speed limit. Eight people were killed and more than 200 injured in an instant.

Questions about how the train derailed, why the train was traveling more than twice the posted speed limit and how this could have been prevented surfaced immediately.

Engineers typically have control over train speed, but the engineer of this particular Amtrak train currently reports having no recollection of the crash. Until the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation is complete, we can only speculate on the root cause. However, we can discuss how this could have been prevented.


The promise of positive train control

Positive train control (PTC), a safety technology for rail transportation, may have been able to prevent this accident, and it is not the first time this sentiment has been echoed. In 2008, a similar accident prompted federal action.

On September 12 2008, a passenger train collided with a freight train, resulting in 25 fatalities and 135 injuries in California. The engineer of the passenger train was distracted due to text messaging, and the NTSB specifically stated that PTC could have prevented this accident.

Within a month, the Railroad Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (RSIA08) became law and mandated that PTC must be implemented on about 60,000 miles of track “providing regularly scheduled intercity or commuter passenger transportation” by the end of 2015. The abnormally fast response can be attributed to support from Senator Barbara Boxer of California, who was the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works at the time.

Unfortunately, the recent Amtrak accident came before the end of 2015 deadline, and this section of the Northeast Corridor did not have operable PTC. Further, it is highly improbable that the 2015 deadline will even be fully met.

While implementation of PTC is moving forward in some places, system-wide implementation continues to face significant barriers due to high costs, interoperability requirements and communication spectrum availability.


What is positive train control?

PTC from a functional perspective is a system designed to prevent train-to-train collisions, over-speed derailments, incursions into established work zone limits and the movement of a train through a switch left in the wrong position.

The technical aspects of these systems can vary, but they generally include a positioning system on each train and information on rules for sections of track, such as speed restrictions. There also has to be a way of communicating these data throughout the network. For example, PTC would override manual control if it sensed that the train was entering a section of track at double the posted speed limit.

An example of a PTC system employed by major freight companies. Graphic: MeteorcommPTC
An example of a PTC system employed by major freight companies. Graphic: MeteorcommPTC


The potential safety benefits

Interest in PTC dates back to at least 1990, when the NTSB first placed it on its “Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements” where it is still regularly featured up to the most recent list in 2015.

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) estimated that between 1987 and 1997, an annual average of seven fatalities, 55 injuries, 150 evacuations and over USD$20 million in property damage could have been prevented by PTC. To put this in the context of the entire transportation network, there were 33,782 fatalities on the road network in 2012.

Although PTC is on NTSB’s “Most Wanted List” and many serious incidents due to human error could be prevented, the monetized safety benefits are significantly less than the costs. The FRA estimates the annual monetary value of the safety benefits from PTC to be about $90 million. The safety benefits may be slightly larger today, considering several serious accidents stemming from a boom in oil shipped via rail.


The costs

The law is an unfunded mandate, which means the costs of meeting the requirements are borne by the railroad operators. The FRA estimates that the total capital cost for full PTC deployment according to law would be about $10 billion (about one year’s worth of capital investments for the major US railroads) and annual maintenance costs of $850 million. While this investment might be feasible for major US freight rail companies, local and state governments with tight budgets will have a much more difficult time allocating funds for PTC.

The FRA established an annual $50 million grant program to help support the development of PTC, but the grant has been funded by Congress for only $3 million – well short of the total required cost of $2.75 billion estimated by the American Public Transportation Association.

Some argue that PTC could be used to optimize business operations with benefits up to $4 billion annually; however, this remains largely speculative.

Regardless of the federal mandate and possible future benefits, the costs of implementing PTC remain a significant barrier.


The systems integration barriers

In addition to costs, PTC has faced barriers in technical implementation, namely system interoperability and allocation of communication spectrum.

Interoperability is key in successful implementation of PTC. In the case of the Northeast Corridor, where the most recent accident occurred, Amtrak operates on both Amtrak-owned track and track owned by regional transit authorities and vice versa. Elsewhere, Amtrak operates on track owned by freight railroads. It is necessary to ensure that the systems developed by the freight railroads, Amtrak and regional authorities all communicate with one another. While interoperable systems have been developed, some issues persist.

Track ownership and rail operations in the Northeast Corridor. Graphic: Government Accountabiy Office - Amtrak
Track ownership and rail operations in the Northeast Corridor. Graphic: Government Accountabiy Office – Amtrak


Another system integration issue is the acquisition of radio spectrum to support the communication demands of PTC. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) generally holds auctions for spectrum, but allocates some for emergency services and government agencies.

However, the FCC so far has not addressed the needs of PTC. A consortium of railroad companies exists to purchase appropriate spectrum, but the amount of spectrum and the frequency are still uncertain – especially in highly congested areas in major cities, where choices in spectrum may be scarce. Without guidance from the FCC, obtaining spectrum and ensuring its interoperability is time-consuming and costly.


Going forward

It remains to be seen whether Congress will take immediate action following the Amtrak accident as it did with the 2008 accident in California.

House speaker John Boehner recently said it was “stupid” to claim that the slow rollout of PTC, which may have prevented the accident, is a problem with funding. He may be right that no federal money was cut for rail safety programs, but he also failed to mention that no money was given to help meet the unfunded mandate. Either way, it does not seem likely that local and state governments will receive much help in meeting the unfunded mandate.

Furthermore, a bill was introduced in the Senate this March to extend the PTC deadline to 2020 to help accommodate the cost, interoperability and spectrum barriers the railroads are facing. Perhaps then, the timing of this accident will lead to the failure of the bill and cement the 2015 deadline regardless of the financial and technical barriers.

More information can be found here.

Jeffrey C Peters is Doctoral Candidate in Energy Economics; Systems Engineer at Purdue University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Transport apps. Graphic: Trafi

Search begins for next timetable apps

Public Transport Victoria has launched the search for the next generation of apps using timetable data, with a month-long ‘incubator’ program for new ideas.

Known as the VicTripathon, the event was kicked off on Saturday with a two-day ‘tech jam’ – a weekend of intensive workshops to support participants who have limited experience developing digital products.

Participants ended the weekend presenting their product concepts to a panel, with five concepts progressing to the month-long incubator phase.

Running from Monday, June 1 to Thursday, July 2, the incubator phase will give the five successful teams access to a range of experts so they can further develop their product.

“The five incubation phase teams have one month to develop their concept to a market-ready product, and present it to a panel of judges who will determine an incubation phase prize winner, based on the product that best enhances a customer’s experience,” Public Transport Victoria said on May 28.

Two other grand prizes will be awarded and participation is open to all developers to submit market-ready products using PTV’s API data.

PTV’s new Timetable API (Application Programming Interface) dataset includes, for the first time, real-time tram information, some real-time bus information and service disruption information, the authority said.

VicTripathon is being run for PTV by a consortium, which comprises Collabforge (consortium leader), Open Knowledge Australia, Code for Australia, Owl Ventures and NICTA.

Level crossing removal project. Photo: Department of Transport Victoria

Cranbourne-Pakenham crossing removals released to market

Expressions of Interest are being welcomed for the removal of nine more Victorian level crossings under the Andrews Government’s plan to remove 50 crossings over the next eight years.

The tender for the removal of the first four level crossings was awarded earlier this month, to a joint venture of John Holland and KBR.

Transport minister Jacinta Allan on Monday night hinted that the EoI for the next nine level crossings was coming “very, very soon”.

And that was confirmed on Wednesday, with the EoI released for the nine identified crossings between Caulfield and Dandenong.

The package also includes rebuilding four stations at Carnegie, Murrumbeena, Clayton and Hughesdale, and the roll out of power and signalling upgrades along the line.

Delivering the works as a single package will allow works to be coordinated, saving money, reducing disruption and removing the crossings sooner, the government said.

The Cranbourne-Pakenham line is Melbourne’s busiest, but boom gates along the line are closed for up to 87 of the 120 minutes that make up the morning peak period on weekdays, according to government research.

While this slows down road commuters, level crossings have the added effect of making the rail network less productive, as trains often have to slow down significantly as they pass through them.

The inherent safety risks associated with level crossings also add to the desire to have them removed.

“Some of these boom gates are down for more than 80 minutes every morning,” Allan said. “They are choking our city and putting our lives at risk – they have to go.”

She said the removal of the level crossings, as well as the plan to buy 37 new high-capacity trains for the network, will boost capacity by 42% – creating space for an additional 11,000 passengers in peak hour.

An industry briefing will be held next week to provide more information for the EoI, which will close in late June.

Applications will be evaluated by the Level Crossing Removal Authority, which will then narrow them down to a shortlist of two bidders to continue through the process.

Work on the removal of the level crossings is expected to commence in 2016, and all nine level crossing removals will be completed by 2018, the government said.

“Removing every level crossing between Caulfield and Dandenong will reduce road congestion, make local communities safer, create jobs, and allow for more trains from Cranbourne, Pakenham and Gippsland,” Allan said.

Melbourne tram. Photo State Government Victoria

Five findings of the infrastructure audit

Infrastructure Australia last week released its Australian Infrastructure Audit Report, and there’s a lot in it for the rail industry to digest.

The report, billed as Australia’s first-ever “comprehensive infrastructure audit,” suggests a huge amount of work is needed to get Australian infrastructure on pace with economic and population growth.

Five key factors stood out for the rail industry.


  1. There is a serious need for investment in transport

Releasing the report on Friday, Infrastructure Australia chairman Mark Birrell said Australia must act now before demand pressures affect living standards and economic competitiveness.

“Experiences of transport networks failing to keep pace with demand, water quality standards being uneven, energy costs being too high, telecommunication services being outdated, or freight corridors being neglected are now so common that they necessitate a strategic response,” Birrell said.

Infrastructure Australia said in its report that without investment in new transport capacity and/or means of managing demand, car travel times in Perth, Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Brisbane and Canberra are expected to increase by at least 20% in the most congested corridors by 2031.

“In some cases, travel times could more than double,” the report warns.

“Demand for public transport in the capital cities (measured by passenger kilometres travelled) is set to rise by 55% in Sydney, 121% in Melbourne, and an average of 89% across all capital cities.

“Unless peak period passenger loads are managed and capacity is increased, commuters in all capital cities will see more services experiencing ‘crush loadings’, where peak demand exceeds capacity.”

Both public transport and road infrastructure will need to be expanded to meet this growth in demand, the audit found.


  1. Australia needs a long-term infrastructure plan

The report says Australia would benefit from a strong and consistent pipeline of well-planned infrastructure projects.

Infrastructure Australia says a consistent pipeline “would provide greater certainty for infrastructure constructors and investors, and provide the basis for a well-resourced environment for project procurement and informed decision making”.

It said state and federal governments need to take action to make major project procurement more efficient.

This will reduce administrative burdens, and streamline assessment processes across governments, the report says.

“Integrated infrastructure and land-use planning is essential if there is to be strategic decision-making at all levels of government.

“Whilst there have been improvements in this area, progress has been slow in securing the many benefits that will be gained from an integrated approach to managing infrastructure challenges.”

A key benefit of a more cooperative approach to infrastructure, the report says, would be the establishment of best practice principles for infrastructure planning, procurement, delivery and operation.

“Improvements in infrastructure project appraisal and project selection (including the consistent use and transparent reporting of cost benefit analyses) are necessary if Australians expectations are to be realised,” the report explains.


  1. Rail freight’s share will grow in the future, due to bulk

Infrastructure Australia predicts the mode share of rail freight within the national freight task to grow over the period to 2031, but says this will not be due to a major shift of container freight onto the rail network.

“This is mostly due to increased haulage of minerals for export,” the independent body explained.

“Demand for national rail infrastructure is projected to grow, especially in WA, Queensland and NSW.”

WA accounts for roughly 50% of the national rail freight value-add, due to mining in the Pilbara, and the audit projects that the value-add from rail freight services will grow to $9.5 billion in 2031, an increase of 75%.


  1. Total public and private funding needs to increase

As a proportion of GDP, spending on infrastructure has been higher in the last five years than in the preceding 20 years.

But the audit finds that fiscal pressures – such as the need to fund health, retirement and other social welfare programs – mean governments will struggle to maintain current levels of infrastructure spending in the medium to long term.

“Private investment in infrastructure has grown, with more private owners and developers of infrastructure,” the audit recognises.

“Creating the conditions for further private investment is an important strategy in meeting future infrastructure needs.”

To do this, the report says, Australia will have to increase the amount of funding available from both public and private sources, to maintain and grow our infrastructure networks.

“Current funding arrangements are unsustainable,” Infrastructure Australia said, “particularly for the transport sector.”

The audit says reform is needed.

“While users contribute a proportion of the cost of transport infrastructure through licensing and registration, fuel excise, public transport tickets and freight network access charges, governments still pay the lion’s share.

“The current system therefore relies on limited revenue sources … and it does not ensure that the revenue is directed to transport outlays, new projects or improved performance of networks.”

If there is no change to this, the report warns, maintenance of existing assets would need to be cut back, and new projects aimed at maintaining or raising levels of service in our cities and regions would likely not proceed.


  1. We need to sweat our assets

Infrastructure Australia urged a newfound focus on resilience and improved maintenance, noting that existing assets will need to be maximised to cope with future growth.

“Maintenance and resilience are major themes in the audit,” the independent body said on Friday.

“Most of the infrastructure that Australians will use in 2031 has already been built, but maintenance standards are often below par.

“Service providers will need to improve whole-of-life asset management processes, including adequate long-term funding strategies, to ensure infrastructure networks are able to provide reasonable levels of service in the future.”


Fremantle Rail Bridge. Photo: WA PTA

Early warning system for hazardous bridge

The Public Transport Authority of WA has begun work on an early warning system for trains about to cross the Fremantle Rail Bridge, after a series of dangerous incidents in recent years.

In August 2014, strong currents caused a container ship to break its mooring and crash into the bridge, closing it for 12 days for inspection by structural engineers.

That followed a 2011 incident, in which a refuelling ship crashed into the bridge, damaging the overhead traction wiring system and cutting rail access in and out of the port.

The state has responded with several measures aimed at reducing the danger of shipping incidents around the rail bridge, a number of which are already completed or underway.

One of those measures: state transport minister Dean Nalder announced the implementation of an early warning system had begun on May 25.

“This early warning system will provide an extra level of safety by alerting the PTA, giving them the ability to switch the signals to red and stopping trains from crossing the bridge,” Nalder said.

The project is estimated to be completed in September 2016.

The installation is one of several initiatives under way on and around the bridge, which the state has packaged together.

Also included in the works has been a $4.4 million project to remove and replace more than 1000 rail sleepers on the bridge, which was completed in early 2015.

Main Roads WA, on behalf or the PTA, will be completing pier strengthening works on the bridge. The work is expected to be complete in late-2016.

A $21.1 million contract has been awarded to York Civil and Marine & Civil to construct new concrete and steel bollards downstream from the rail bridge to absorb significant force in the case of impact by a vessel.

And finally, a new LED message board has been installed to improve vessel navigation through the southern channel.

Robert Sumwalt NTSB press conference

Derailed train approached bend at over 160km/h

A train which derailed at a rail bend in north Philadelphia earlier this week, killing at least seven onboard, was travelling at more than twice the authorised speed at that bend, according to the National Transport Safety Bureau.

“Just moments before the derailment, the train was placed into engineer-induced braking,” NTSB board member Robert J. Sumwalt told the media less than a day after the incident.

“Maximum authorised speed through this curve was 50 miles per hour.

“When the engineer-induced brake application was applied, the train was travelling at approximately 106 miles per hour.

“Three seconds later, when the data to the recorders terminated, the train speed was 102 miles per hour.”

Sumwalt said the figures were preliminary, but indicated there was no reason they would be significantly incorrect. “We’re pretty close on that,” he said.

Sumwalt briefed the media on Wednesday afternoon, local time, roughly 20 hours after Amtrak train 188 derailed on a left turn in Port Richmond, north Philadelphia.

The entire train, consisting of one locomotive and seven passenger cars, derailed. 238 passengers and 5 crew were onboard.

The train had forward-facing video camera and an event recorder. Both have been sent to the NTSB’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.

“The locomotive and all but two of the train passenger cars are currently being moved to a secure location where detailed examination and documentation can occur,” Sumwalt said.

“Throughout the next few days investigators will work on scene.”

The NTSB will interview the train’s crew and other personnel, as well as passengers of the train. Train control signals will be tested, as well as the systems on the train itself.

“Our mission is to find out not only what happened, but why it happened, so we can prevent it from happening again,” Sumwalt said.

As of Wednesday evening local time, the NTSB had not spoken with the train’s driver, but Sumwalt said it planned on doing so.

“This person has gone through a very traumatic event, and we want to give him the opportunity to convalesce for a day or two … but that is certainly a high priority for us.”

Related: At least 5 dead, 65 injured in US derailment

Melbourne Metro Train. Photo: Creative Commons / Zed Fitzhume

Victoria to clamp down on station skipping

Public Transport Victoria will begin publishing the number of stations skipped by trains on the metro network, in a transparency move by the Andrews Government.

Public transport minister Jacinta Allan says the number of stations skipped by metropolitan trains will be published each month on the Public Transport Victoria website, “as part of a push by the Andrews Labor Government to further reduce the practice”.

Public Transport Victoria’s monthly Track Record report usually features punctuality and overall service data for the state’s metro and country trains, and trams. The report will now include data on station skipping.

Allan said the data will show the number and proportion of overall services that run express when they were not timetabled to, as well as historical data, so trends in station skipping can be monitored.

The minister said that while there’s been a 0.5% per cent drop in station skipping since the election, to just 0.2% of services, the practice was still a serious concern for many passengers.

This month’s Track Record report showed 97 Metro services ran as unplanned express, out of the more than 60,000 scheduled services.

Allan said greater transparency would give passengers the accountability they deserve and help to improve train punctuality.

“Passengers need a train system that actually works and we’re delivering it,” Allan campaigned.

“While the previous Liberal Government defended station skipping, Labor is taking a strong stand against it.

“By publishing the data, passengers will get the transparency they deserve. If Victorian’s don’t like what they see, then more will need to be done to put an end to the practice.”

Allan said the government has already had discussions with PTV and Metro about how skipping can be reduced within the current contractual arrangements, and will ensure the issue is addressed in future contract negotiations.

Esperance Port. Photo: Esperance Ports

Kalgoorlie-Esperance gets two-way radio

Brookfield has installed a $16.5 million two-way radio network to a 385km section of its track, in one of its largest communications projects since privatisation in 2000.

The company, which manages and operates 5,500km of WA’s open access, multi-user freight rail network, said the communications system will improve safety, efficiency and operability along the line from Kalgoorlie to Esperance, in the state’s south.

Brookfield’s general manager for infrastructure Paul Lowney said the project, which was completed at the end of April, has provided a high speed, high availability transmission system which would future proof the rail line.

“This new system introduces a reliable 2-way radio communications network which will mean train control, train drivers, maintenance crews and contractors will be able to communicate more efficiently and effectively in that region,” Lowney said.

“The project highlights Brookfield Rail’s long-term commitment to improving the safety, efficiency and reliability of the state’s freight rail network.”

Previously, rail workers and train operators had relied on fixed land line telephones and use of mobile or satellite phones where available for communication.

“Our customers’ train drivers can now continuously communicate with Train Control throughout the Goldfields-Esperance region without disruption,” Lowney explained, “making the communication process far more efficient and rail operations safer.”

The radio and transmission networks were fully designed using in-house expertise, Brookfield said. The project also involved the installation of fibre optic cable, new radio towers and communication equipment rooms.