State, Victoria, Rail industry news (Australia, New Zealand), Track Construction, Industry Infrastructure, Industry Safety, Light Rail

How to defeat the Montague Street Bridge

Rail Express speaks with the National Transport Research Organisation to better understand what can be done to reduce impacts to the Montague Street Bridge.

The National Transport Research Organisation (NTRO) has broadened its focus to include the rail sector. A critical component of this expansion is having roads teams from the NTRO touring some of Melbourne’s rail landmarks, including the Montague Street Bridge, to give them an understanding of issues the rail sector face. 

The NTRO provides innovative research and practical solutions to challenges across road, rail, ports and airports, developing new knowledge, innovation, standards and specifications to shape the country’s transport future.

With more than 240 people and eight offices in Adelaide, Brisbane, Canberra, Launceston, Perth, Sydney, and Wellington and a sustainable materials research laboratory and office in Melbourne, NTRO is set to transform the way transport infrastructure is designed, built, used and maintained.

Naomi Dickinson is the chief technology leader – rail, safer smarter infrastructure at the NTRO, and explained why the organisation believes it is ideally set up to support the rail network in Australia.

Naomi Dickinson is the chief technology leader – rail, safer smarter infrastructure at the NTRO. IMAGE: NTRO

“You can use the example of pavements. The NTRO has done research around new pavements and bitumen, and we can bring that to rail and light rail, for flood proofing and to create an even stronger system less susceptible to wear and tear,” she said.

“These tours have been fantastic because as we take people around the tram network we can begin to see the wheels turn in their heads and ideas begin to formulate.”

Dickinson is an electrical engineer born and raised in Melbourne, who has spent much of her working life in and around light rail. She delivered the first low floor trams from Germany to Melbourne in the early 2000s.

Recently completing a Masters of Energy Systems, Dickinson has been looking at the legal and regulatory frameworks around the electrification of residential buildings and public transport. She believes the tension between road and rail is coming to an end and the two systems are ready to work more closely.

Melbourne’s trams

Dickinson explained that the Melbourne tram network faces unique challenges but can take suggestions from other systems to try and solve some of these issues. 

Melbourne’s rail network is one of the most integrated with road traffic in the world, posing a number of challenges, not to mention difficulties surrounding that it was constructed more than 100 years ago.

“When you compare Melbourne to a network like Canberra or Sydney, they are operating on a dedicated line. Melbourne has to contend with vehicles far more than other networks,” Dickinson said.

Common incidents that occur in the shared traffic system include:

  • Cars and trucks moving into the rail space and graze trams or crash into them.
  • Road users make sudden u-turns in front of trams.
  • Road user passing stopped trams while passengers are alighting.
  • Pedestrians jaywalk in front of trams.
  • Pedestrians may be distracted by mobile phones, other technology or other interactions and walk into trams or tram pathways.
  • Tram-on-tram rear-ending or striking each other where rail lines diverge.

 “We are looking at a legacy system when examining Melbourne. This is where bridges like the Montague Street Bridge come in,” she said.

“Our safety team would say it is important to evolve transport infrastructure and technology with how people are actually moving. You would never see a bridge like the Montague Street Bridge constructed now.”

Montague Street Bridge

To understand one of the nation’s most infamous bridges, it is important to look back at its history.

Although there are no open waterways or channels running through South Melbourne, it is an area that is prone to flooding. There are several drains including the Hanna Street main drain running along Kings Way, which is the most extensive.

Due to South Melbourne being an urban area, there isn’t a lot of green space to absorb rainfall. This results in water tending to run off towards lower lying areas.

Flooding on Montague Street was a continuous problem. For example, in 1916, there was a time when the area around the bridge was under a foot of water and pedestrians could not approach it. In 1934, South Melbourne council raised the underlying street level by about two feet, thus reducing the clearance height of the bridge. 

Construction firm Johns & Waygood was contracted to build the bridge in 1914 as part of the infrastructure of the Port Melbourne railway line. Montague Railway Station was located just south of the bridge and mainly served workers at nearby factories.

The last passenger train ran to Montague Station on 10 October 1987 after it was announced that the line would be converted to light rail. The light rail line was opened on 18 December 1987. Currently the bridge carries trams along route 109 between Box Hill and Port Melbourne.

The bridge currently has three metres clearance, making it susceptible to strikes from any over height vehicle. The bridge strikes can cause serious headaches for the tram network of the city.

“When an incident like that happens, it does not just impact the 109 line, but in fact there can be delays to the whole tram network,” Dickinson explained.

“You are looking at economic loss. You also stop traffic on what is a critical road in and out of Melbourne’s inner suburbs, causing major traffic congestion.”

Dickinson stated that there are 26 warnings as a driver approaches the bridge. This includes signage, lights, as well as an overhead gantry with paddles on it to hit the top of a vehicle to notify the driver they are over height.

Montague Street is a busy thoroughfare for South Melbourne and St Kilda. IMAGE: PRIME CREATIVE MEDIA

“The challenge when protecting the bridge from strikes is that we simply do not know what was going on in the cab when these strikes occur,” she said.

“When I come along that road, I always think that the area is very confusing. It has signs everywhere and it is a very grey area. It is easy to get confused I think.

“We are well aware of the warnings as we know the bridge, but it is easy to see how someone new can be overwhelmed and confused by all of the warnings.” 

Dickinson believes the government has done all it can to rectify the problems, but it is the drivers’ responsibility to not hit the bridge. She contends that modern technology might be impacting a driver’s ability to critically think their way through a situation such as the Montague Street Bridge.

“Some people can simply listen to the voice coming out of their GPS and blindly follow it, which can result in accidents like these,” she explained.

“This isn’t just true of the Montague Street Bridge but might influence other rail hazards such as level crossings around the country.”

Solutions

Dickinson believes now is an opportune time for a human factors review on the warning systems around the bridge, the learnings of which may be applicable to other low bridges.

“Are people being hit by information overload due to too much signage?” she questioned. 

Dickinson queried a human factors review within the heavy vehicle driver’s cabin, to establish if drivers were distracted in the lead up to accidents.

As far back as 2006 an article from Deutsche Welle reported that German and Dutch towns were removing road signs in the hopes of decongesting visual clutter along roads and making travel a less confusing experience. 

“Is it worth us following the European path and finding better ways to impact drivers with warnings to ensure these impacts do not cripple public transport networks?” she said.

“I look at what we have here at the NTRO and believe we have the exact capabilities to do a thorough review on something like this and provide advice around improving not only the safety around this bridge, but all bridges.”

Dickinson hypothesised the option of working closely with digital map developers on a system that can recognise the height of the vehicle and provide in car notifications they are approaching a potential hazard and potentially redirect over height vehicles along a more suitable route. 

Similarly, around the world, in-cabin monitoring systems that allow for driver and occupant monitoring are being introduced to improve heavy vehicle safety.  

“Government has done well to protect this bridge specifically, with an overhead gantry called the ‘can opener’ just before the bridge,” Dickinson said.

“You see similar things on the bridges between Flinders Street and Spencer Street where the bridge is protected from impacts by an overhead gantry.”

Whereas at level crossings in regional Australia, depending on the nature of the incident and size of the heavy vehicle involved, significant damage to the rail infrastructure might occur the result of an impact causes a significant derailment, and that might see networks shut down for days or weeks.

“It is easy now. New bridges are constructed with these height constraints in mind, and we are doing a fantastic job of separating trams and vehicles on newer networks,” Dickinson said.

Much of Australia’s rail network was constructed more than 100 years ago where bridges were built without the knowledge we have now around vehicle height. Solutions are necessary for these bridges that will remain a part of the network for years to come.

“I think it is critical that we keep road users minds focused as they are driving,” Dickinson stated.

“Public transport operators have a higher obligation for safety, and they do all that they can in this situation. We need to begin considering what we can do with the heavy vehicle drivers.”

Digital solutions

Melbourne’s Metro Trains has begun rolling out digital solutions to help get networks back on line quicker after a bridge strike. 

New CCTV cameras and sensors installed at three hot-spot locations have captured the moment when over height trucks have hit rail bridges.

CCTV and impact sensors can reveal the full details of an incident, providing immediate notification and remote assessment of any damage caused. 

Metro’s bridge inspector can now immediately evaluate the incident and decide if further investigation is required, meaning less delays for passengers.

Since being installed in May, the cameras have captured several incidents including a B-Double that failed to slow down on approach to the Warrigal Road Rail Bridge in Holmesglen, sending shrapnel into the air, halting both traffic and train services.

Previously the notification of bridge strikes was solely reliant on an incident report being filed by the person who caused the incident, a member of the public or a Metro team member.

Now, an alert notification is sent directly to Metro’s Security Operations Centre, including the time of the impact and images from the scene. Metro’s 178 rail bridges are struck on average once every week.

Jasper Milligan, Metro’s General Manager Infrastructure said Metro, will look to install more sensors to other rail bridges across the metropolitan network.

“Bridge strikes are hugely disruptive for our passengers, as we often need to stop trains while we assess if there’s any damage to the bridge,” he said.

Bridge inspector Liam Featherstone said incidents like these are easily prevented.

“A simple check of the height of your vehicle could help to avoid thousands of dollars in damages and disruption on the roadand rail.”