Melbourne’s underground rail Loop is a disaster waiting to happen and the city’s busiest railway station had no effective fire plan until very recently, the state’s public sector watchdog has said.
In a report that has harshly criticised the Department of Transport for failing to act after years of warnings, acting Ombudsman John Taylor wrote that the department took ‘‘little effective action’’ to fix a host of safety problems in the Loop, despite receiving seven detailed engineering reports between 2001 and 2011.
Problems identified in the Ombudsman’s investigation, which was tabled in State Parliament today, include:
- corrosion and cracking of concrete plinths supporting rail tracks
- poor condition of the emergency walkways
- corroded fire services, pipes and no smoke alarms
- significant deficiencies in the ventilation systems
- problems with driver-only communication in the event of a disaster or the driver being incapacitated.
In response, Public Transport Minister Terry Mulder today accepted ‘‘each and every one of the recommendations’’ the report contains on fixing the problems.
Mr Mulder also attempted to reassure people that the City Loop is safe for travel, saying works to improve safety would be completed next year.
‘‘Yes it is safe but there are safety enhancements that should have taken place in the past and those safety enhancements weren’t taking place,’’ Mr Mulder said.
He blamed the former Labor government for failing to act on the multiple safety reports, and said that when he came to power he identified an unhealthy culture within the Department of Transport that sought to avoid responsibility. But he said that culture was changing.
‘‘A line in the sand has been drawn with the establishment of Public Transport Victoria ... We now have in place a board who are responsible and you’ll see a complete and total change in the way that we administer the contracts, the way we analyse where money should be spent, so can I assure you of one thing, safety will not be compromised,’’ Mr Mulder said.
The Ombudsman’s investigation found that important safety infrastructure inside the Loop had not been properly maintained or renewed in the past decade, potentially putting many thousands of passengers at risk in the event of a disaster such as a fire.
‘‘This investigation found that the [Loop] had not attracted the priority or the investment necessary to maintain its assets at a level reflecting its importance to the network and at a standard that would ensure the safety of staff and the public in an emergency,’’ Mr Taylor said.
‘‘It was only after the commencement of this investigation that a comprehensive program of works was put in place to address the problems identified ... over the last decade.’’
The Ombudsman’s report follows an investigation by The Age last year into the City Loop’s safety. The Age revealed that serious structural problems in the Loop — including cracking tunnel walls, concrete corrosion and poor emergency systems — had been ignored by successive state governments and train operators, despite repeated warnings.
In response to The Age’s investigation, Public Transport Minister Terry Mulder said he was satisfied with two recent reports that found the tunnel to be safe.
However, the Ombudsman noted today that a briefing the department provided to Mr Mulder in September last year in response to The Age’s reports ‘‘omitted important information and contained wrong information’’.
On being misled, Mr Mulder said it was ‘‘disappointing and it’s wrong that a minister is not fully informed in terms of an exact situation’’, but would not say whether any departmental staff would be dismissed.
Safety concerns about the City Loop and Flinders Street Station had been raised for years groups including Victoria Police, Ambulance Victoria, the Metropolitan Fire and Emergency Services Board, the Rail, Tram and Bus Union and the managers of the Melbourne Central shopping complex, who all expressed fears to the department that they could not adequately respond to a disaster.
Delays in responding to recommendations to improve fire safety at Flinders Street Station were in part caused by an inability between the department and Metro to agree on who was responsible for doing the work.
The Ombudsman found that official recommendations to boost fire protection had not been acted on six years after they were made.
‘‘For at least 11 years the department and its franchisees [Connex and Metro] were advised about problems with key emergency systems in the [Loop]. Engineering and other reports repeatedly highlighted the poor condition of evacuation walkways and fire services pipes and questioned the smoke extraction capacities of the ventilation system. Concerns have also been raised by emergency services and the Rail, Tram and Bus Union,’’ Mr Taylor said.
‘‘For the past six years, Victorian Managed Insurance Authority reports have highlighted deficiencies with fire protection systems at Flinders Street Station that put the historic building at risk in the event of a fire.
‘‘I am concerned that the department did not ensure that action was taken to address these problems in a timely manner. While action is now being taken, this does not excuse the delays identified by this investigation.’’
Metro took up to two years to finalise its emergency management plans for the network, using out of date plans in that time, and the department failed to ensure it complied with the timelines set out in its contract, he said.
The Ombudsman identified a number of incidents where poor driver safety skills had put people at risk, including an incident in 2010 when a Metro train crashed into the rear of a freight train on the Craigieburn line after the driver had sped past two stop signals. Passengers were hospitalised and both trains were badly damaged.
In 2009 a driver taking an empty train from Flinders Street Station to the Epping railyards ended up on the wrong track after passing a stop signal, and continued towards Jolimont until coming to a stop just 46 metres away from a facing train.
Each weekday, more than 700 trains travel through the Loop and an estimated 130,000 people use its three stations. About 180,000 people pass through Flinders Street Station each weekday.