The unsung hero of the Dandenong South train crash: the train design

I ran into friend and blog commenter Andrew W on the train last week, and we were chatting about the Dandenong South crash. I noted that the design of the train hadn’t really been remarked upon in coverage of the accident, and being the knowledgeable person that he is, he was able to tell me a bit about it.

Dandenong South crash scene (pic by Channel 7, via The Age)

In short, the horrific sight of carriages scattered across the accident scene is the result of deliberate design decisions about what should happen in a high speed crash with something big and solid like a truck.

The couplings, as well as strengthened supports at the ends of carriages (in the Comeng fleet, on either side of the end-of-carriage doorway; on others including the carriage corners as well) are designed to absorb the impact and maintain the overall structure of the carriage, because the last thing you want is carriages “telescoping” (passenger cabins coming apart from the undercarriage, and collapsing), crushing large numbers of people inside.

Comeng train interior

The door from the driver’s cabin into the passenger area is there so that if necessary the driver can evacuate the cab, which is likely to take the impact of a head-on crash (though I wonder under what scenario the driver is likely to have the time to evacuate).

Newer carriages in Melbourne’s fleet, the X’Trapolis and Siemens, have similar design features, and have improved on them somewhat, though you wouldn’t want to be between the carriages on any of these trains in the unlikely event of a crash — that places you outside the protection of the carriage structure.

In the case of Dandenong South, of course, multiple safety precautions had already failed. The level crossing warning signs, flashing lights, ringing bells, and boom gates across the road hadn’t prevented the collision.

The death of one passenger (of about thirty on-board) is a tragedy, but it obviously could have been so much worse. Andrew made the comment that if it had been a bus (or any other kind of motor vehicle, for that matter) colliding with the truck, the probability of survival would have been much lower.

Along with the fact that the previous death of a passenger in a train accident on the Melbourne suburban system was back in 1946, I think it helps underscores that train travel is extremely safe.

Feel unsafe on the train? You shouldn’t.

In the wake of Saturday’s tragic train accident, perhaps it’s understandable that people feel a little nervous.

Herald Sun online poll: Do you feel safe travelling on Melbourne's metropolitan train system? Yes = 50.69% / No = 49.31%
(Online vote, Herald Sun)

They shouldn’t feel nervous. Even one death is too many, and more needs to be done, but the fact is that Melbourne’s trains have an enviable safety record.

Train on the South Morang line near Rushall

Even with Melbourne’s 170+ level crossings, as far as I can see (according to Wikipedia, which may or may not be correct) it’s been more than 80 60 years since the last passenger death due to an accident on the suburban system — that was in Caulfield in 1926 near Frankston in 1946 (see comments).

It’s true that regional (V/Line) trains don’t have as good a record, thanks to accidents such as the Kerang level crossing disaster in 2007. The issue here is that the regional network has many crossings with lesser levels of protection (eg crossings with no boom gates) than in suburban areas. It would appear the last fatality caused by the railway itself (rather than a motor vehicle, as at Kerang) was in 1976 at Laverton.

Unfortunately of course, deaths on the road system are a daily event.

(The bigger safety concern on trains is that of personal safety, but that’s a subject for another day.)

The bottom line — and the statistics back this up — is that you are much, much, much more safe in a train than on the road.

Which is little comfort to those involved in Saturday’s accident of course.

Truck rollover at Flinders/Spencer. Again.

I was curious to see how many times in the last year that trucks have missed the “Low clearance 4.0″ (metres) height warning and crashed into the guard rail for the rail bridge at Spencer and Flinders Streets, before rolling-over and blocking the intersection.

Spencer/Flinders St bridge, Melbourne

(Or look on: Google Streetview)

Answer via Google News archive search: at least four times in the last year, including this morning.

17/12/2009 Truck rollover in Melbourne’s CBD causes traffic chaos

24/2/2010 Tram and traffic delays caused as truck rolls on the corner of Flinders St and Spencer St in Melbourne

21/3/2010 Truck rollover blocks intersection of Spencer and Flinders streets

4/10/2010 Truck rolls over in Melbourne CBD

(One link suggested another one in April 2010, but I haven’t found a news report of it.)

For non-locals, this is one of the busiest intersections in central Melbourne, with many cars, buses and five tram routes passing through. The rail bridge is also a key one, with most metropolitan train services using it. Lucky the guard rail is apparently strong enough to prevent the trucks crashing into the bridge itself.

Let’s assume for a moment it wasn’t steering or brake failure. Do trucks have any kind of reminder in the cab of the height of the load? For semi-trailers I assume this would vary from job to job, whereas some other vehicles (the one in February was a garbage truck) would be a fixed-height.

Updates

8/10/2010 — It happened again

19/11/2010 — And again

6/5/2011Truck jammed under notorious rail bridge

1/8/2011Truck trap hits city traffic

5/3/2013 — I’m not sure if it’s been less frequent or less reported, but today it happened again

10/4/2013And again:

5/4/2014And again:

  • Age: Truck slams into Flinders Street rail bridge causing delays
  • Herald Sun: Online blogger Daniel Bowen has kept a tally of the number of run-ins trucks have had with the rail bridge in recent years. He updated his list following the latest crash, saying similar incidents had happened at least 11 times in the last five years.