No end in sight to Sydney trains safety upgrade as yet another deadline missed

An inquiry into the 2003 Waterfall train derailment highlighted the importance of drivers, controllers and other workers communicating via the same technology. Photo: Andrew MearesA $360 million digital radio system designed to help prevent another Waterfall rail disaster is running five years behind schedule, and transport officials have given up predicting when it will be ready.

The new digital radio system is designed to allow drivers, controllers, signallers, guards and track workers to communicate with each other, and remove “black spots” on the network where the analogue radio cuts out.

Since work began in 2008, the project aimed at helping to prevent rail disasters has been plagued by repeated delays.

Officials and contractors missed their most recent deadline of last July despite assurances almost two years ago from then Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian that “this complex project is now back on track” following delays under the previous Labor government.

Transport for NSW’s deputy director general for infrastructure and services, Fergus Gammie, declined to give a completion date for the project due to its complexity.

“Clearly this project has been going for a long time. We have been fairly transparent that when this project came to us in 2012 it wasn’t in great shape,” he said.

“We are comfortable that we are in a better space now. It is quite a large and complex project … and it is not just a standard fit.”

Mr Gammie said the project was challenging because of different terrain and the need to install it on eight train types. Older trains in the fleet were the most difficult.

Testing of the new system on the first train carrying passengers before Christmas was successful. The department will gradually install and test it on more Tangara trains, before rolling it out to other models.

“We need to take it step by step. Once we get it tested on Tangara trains, we have to roll it out on other train sets. We are certainly focused on doing it speedily but robustly,” he said.

Workers have been installing the digital train radio system over 1455 kilometres of the electrified rail network – from Kiama in the south to Lithgow in the west and Newcastle in the north. It has involved the construction of about 266 base stations.

The push for a new digital train radio system followed an inquiry into the Waterfall train disaster in 2003, which claimed the lives of six passengers and a train driver.

The inquiry highlighted failures to upgrade communications on Sydney and NSW trains, and the importance of drivers, controllers and other workers communicating via the same technology.

In the wake of the report, the former Labor government announced plans to install a digital-radio system across the network by the end of 2010 but later delayed the completion date to 2012.

The incoming O’Farrell government shifted the completion date to July last year, and blamed the delays to the project on the former Labor government.

“It is a disgrace that Labor left this project in such a mess,” Ms Berejiklian said in 2014. “The safety of customers is a priority for the NSW government and I’m pleased this complex project is now back on track.”

Rail, Tram and Bus Union organiser Bob Newham said it had been a “fairly convoluted process” but the new digital radio system was “very important” for drivers and train safety.

“They need to have emergency communication – you need a system in place where you can talk to other trains in the network,” he said.

Transport insiders say the project is extremely complex because it involves installing an entire new level of technology that needs to interact with existing systems.

“It’s like trying to retrofit a bionic ear into someone’s head and not killing them in the process,” one said.

“The big issue is a lack of understanding at senior management levels at just how complex something like this is. It is not just a case of clicking your fingers.”

The new digital radio system also has to be compatible with the Australian Rail Track Corporation’s communication network used by freight trains. The federal government-owned corporation manages most of the country’s interstate rail system.

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