Rail failings demand first-class response

When Premier Daniel Andrews or a minister is promoting Melbourne’s public train network, it’s more than likely they will be spruiking a new infrastructure project while wearing a hard hat and high-vis. The Metro rail tunnel or a level crossing removal project are regular backdrops for a press conference.

But when it comes to keeping the trains running on time – day in, day out – there is a far more prosaic side of public transport that rarely gets a mention by any MP, let alone the premier. Melbourne’s trains rely on a vast array of supporting infrastructure and technology that includes everything from the tracks and signals to information displays and computer systems.

The auditor-general has found serious shortcomings in the oversight of Metro’s contract to maintain rail infrastucture. Credit:Darrian Traynor

To stop them falling into disrepair, the state government, or more specifically the Department of Transport and Planning, hands over $2.7 billion to private company Metro Trains, which is best known for running the city’s trains, to maintain and renew these public assets. Finishing up in November next year, the funding is for a seven-year contract, although the government has extended the contract for 18 months while it completes the Metro Tunnel project.

All government outsourcing contracts such as this are only as good as the governance put in place to oversee them. In this instance, the state’s auditor-general, who has just completed a review of the contract, has some serious misgivings about whether the network is properly maintained.

As reported in the Sunday Age, the auditor-general’s most vocal criticism focuses on the state department’s lack of ability to assess whether Metro is maintaining assets cost effectively and if the work it is doing is beneficial in the long term. It appears the department has no overarching performance measurement and no long-term strategy for rail infrastructure and technology.

For a department that is handing out billions of dollars to a private company to maintain Melbourne’s most extensive and essential public transport infrastructure, that would seem a considerable failing.

That is not where the problems end. Metro appears to have fallen far behind on its upgrading of technology, which includes the systems that provide passenger information, control the movement of trains and monitor the system using closed television. Metro points the finger at a shortage of available trained staff and supply chain problems purchasing necessary equipment during the pandemic.

As a remedy, the auditor-general has made 10 recommendations. To a large degree, as you would expect, they reflect the deficiencies that they found in the department’s oversight of the contract.

While the report said infrastructure and technology assets needed to be properly maintained and renewed to make sure trains ran safely and on time, the auditor-general said failures to meet punctuality and reliability targets were mostly due to external factors such as the weather. The network was safe, reliable and punctual, the auditor-general said.

The report calls for a greater emphasis on broader and more detailed performance criteria and longer-term goals to ensure that the department has a clearer and more effective picture of how well Metro is doing its job. It should be noted that the department, in response to the auditor-general’s report, has accepted all 10 recommendations. This is a promising start.

But that does not diminish the reality that, up to this point, there have been serious failings in the oversight of such a critical part of our public transport system. Ensuring that our rail infrastructure and technology is properly maintained may not make for favourable political headlines, but it should be of the highest priority if Melbourne is to offer its commuters a first-rate public transport system.

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