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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Anne Davies

Out-of-control train carriage ran 1.5km through Sydney Metro tunnel in one of several safety incidents

The railway trailer that ran uncontrolled through tunnels under construction on the Sydney Metro on 16 July.
At noon on 16 July, this railway trailer ran out of control through the unfinished tunnels of the Sydney Metro due to what the regulator later described as ‘a breach of a basic train safety principle’. Photograph: Sydney Metro

A 30-tonne railway trailer transporting equipment on the Sydney Metro project ran uncontrolled for more than 1.5km through the half-built tunnel between Marrickville and Waterloo in July, Guardian Australia can reveal.

The only reason workers weren’t killed, according to those on site, was because it happened on a Saturday at noon, when they were on their break.

The incident, on 16 July, was described by the Office of the National Rail Safety Regulator (ONRSR) as “a breach of a basic train safety principle”.

A whistleblower inside Sydney Metro told Guardian Australia it was one of a string of serious incidents that have raised concerns that safety has been compromised to meet deadlines and avoid the project going further over budget.

The unions have called for an independent investigation, saying it was “a miracle” no one had been killed. But Sydney Metro said safety was its “top priority” and the company had a “lost time injury frequency rate” considerably below the Safe Work Australia industry benchmark.

Why the ‘failsafe’ failed

The “unintended train separation” occurred when a pin that was supposed to drop through a drawbar ring, connecting the trailer to the train, failed to engage as designed.

When carriages decouple – something that shouldn’t happen – the brakes are meant to depressurise, causing the emergency brake to apply. But in this case incorrect truck brakes had been installed on the carriage, so they did the opposite, with the result that the “failsafe” failed.

The carriage carrying wiring and cables kept rolling through the half-built tunnel until friction brought it to a standstill.

The incident was so serious that the regulator published a safety alert to the industry asking all train operators to check their carriages urgently.

It has now audited all rail equipment used by Sydney Metro.

“The rolling stock and braking system remain suspended and ONRSR will meet with Sydney Metro this week to inspect modifications made in the months since the incident to ascertain that all risks to safety have been managed,” a spokesperson for the regulator said.

The runaway was not the first serious incident on the Metro project. The whistleblower provided the Guardian with a list of occasions this year where workers had narrowly avoided being killed, while more came to light through further investigation.

February 2022: two collapses occurred during demolition work at a Parramatta car park, part of the Metro West project. Sydney Metro denied there was a risk to worker safety as exclusion zones were in place. SafeWork issued one prohibition notice and one improvement notice.

Image shows Sydney Metro collapse during demolition at Parramatta car park site.
Sections of a car park at Parramatta collapse during demolition as part of the Metro West project. Photograph: Anne Davies/Sydney Metro

16 June: an escalator being installed at the new Martin Place station site fell four floors, narrowly missing workers. Sydney Metro said the contractor had appropriate exclusion zones in place. SafeWork issued four prohibition notices and required a demolition plan to be lodged for the recovery operation.

June: a labourer for a contractor on the Pitt Street site was seriously injured after a personnel hoist failed. The worker attempted to jump to a nearby landing, but fell nine metres. His injuries included a broken leg and pelvis. Sydney Metro denied union claims the contractor was not properly trained.

2 July: three large rail trucks lost control in the Waterloo tunnel before crashing into one another. A report seen by the Guardian listed multiple factors, including wet tracks and “non-compliant” service brakes. Sydney Metro said the convoy was moving at a slow speed and the cause was “a loss of traction”.

Truck which nearly lost load of scaffolding on Cahill expressway on way to Sydney Metro Waterloo, New South Wales Australia site
Scaffolding teeters off the edge of a truck on the Cahill Expressway. Photograph: Anne Davies/Sydney Metro

31 August: a Sydney Metro truck carrying heavy scaffolding nearly lost control of its load on the Cahill Expressway. Sydney Metro said the vehicle continued without incident to the Waterloo site, despite photos showing the load partially off the truck.

September: formwork collapsed at the Crows Nest station site. This incident is under investigation by SafeWork.

Pressure to deliver

Inside Sydney Metro there is growing concern about the organisation’s approach to safety on the multibillion-dollar project, which is running over budget.

The Metro West line from the CBD to Parramatta could blow out by $3bn to a total of $27bn, and the City and Southwest line could cost $5bn more than the $12.5bn original budgeted, the Sydney Morning Herald has reported.

There is also pressure to speed up the project.

The transport minister, David Elliott, has said opening the rail from the north-west is “a priority”, and talked about the possibility of a two-stage opening. With trackwork 95% finished between Sydenham and Chatswood, there has been speculation the first stage might even open before the March state election, although Elliott denied that at a media conference in May.

“I don’t want anyone to think we are cutting corners or progressing work just to get a vote out of it,” Elliott said.

But the whistleblower said that was not the experience of those on the project.

He said the pressure to meet deadlines had led to a culture of trying to avoid delay at all costs – including those caused by safety concerns.

In some instances, the whistleblower said, the seriousness of safety incidents had been downgraded to avoid them being reported to Safe Work.

The runaway train incident and the other rail-truck crash incident should have been reported as category A incidents, which require an immediate phone call to the rail safety regulator to enable inspectors to gather evidence, a spokesperson for the ONRSR said.

Sydney Metro reported them as Category B incidents, which requires reporting within 72 hours. The runaway took place on 16 July and was notified on 19 July.

The regulator noted that the category system was relatively new. “ONRSR is satisfied the incidents were reported in line with the required timeframes,” it said.

The Electrical Trades Union and the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union said the safety issues were “beyond alarming, they are an emergency”.

“Our organisers have been continually frustrated by the frequency and severity of these safety issues, but also the lack of response from regulators such as SafeWork. It’s a miracle no one has been killed,” the ETU state secretary, Allen Hicks, said.

“But what we really need is an independent investigation within tight timeframes. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that this project is being rushed to give the Perrottet government some happy snaps for the state election.”

Secrecy concerns

The whistleblower said he was not alone in his concerns and that project managers had developed an informal network of sharing incidents and information to make up for the lack of information coming from Sydney Metro.

He said he felt the organisation was trying to keep the unions in the dark.

The CFMEU (NSW) said it was not aware of all the incidents in the tunnels.

“Both SafeWork NSW and Sydney Metro management actively resist giving CFMEU officials access to the tunnels,” the state secretary, Darren Greenfield, said.

Labor’s transport spokesperson, Jo Haylen, said the government was “presiding over a project where the lives of tens of workers have been put in danger”.

“These shocking incidents are proof that something deeply wrong is happening with the management of the Sydney Metro project,” Haylen said.

“This situation is totally unacceptable. The minister for transport and the minister for infrastructure must intervene now.”

A spokesperson for Sydney metro said: “Safety is our top priority, and we recognise that construction is a high-risk industry. We work closely with our delivery partners and all relevant safety authorities to monitor and enforce safe work practices across our $60bn program of construction and rail operations.

“We expect all our delivery partners to adhere to strict protocols to ensure the safety of everyone who works on a Sydney Metro site. This includes the reporting of any workplace incident.”

Sydney Metro said that between 1 July 2021 and 30 June 2022, it had a lost time injury frequency rate of 1.47 for its projects, “which is considerably below the Safe Work Australia industry benchmark for heavy and civil engineering construction of 10.7”.

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