Recently I got to have a look at proposed upgrades to the Comeng train fleet.
A short history of the Comeng trains
Comeng trains are named after the Comeng (“Commonwealth Engineering”) factory where they were built, with the carriages being brought into service between 1982 and 1989. The factory in Dandenong is now run by Bombardier, and in the grounds you can find a plaque from 1983 with the same logo you’ll still see on many of the trains.
Most of the trains are still in service, making them between 29 and 36 years old. Of the 570 built, there are still 555 Comeng carriages in service (92.5 x 6 car trains, though Vicsig has a lower figure), making them the most numerous in the Metro fleet, though they are about to be overtaken by X’trapolis trains in number.
Along the way they’ve undergone various upgrades:
- Refurbishment 2000-2003 by then operators National Express (M>Train) and Connex, which unfortunately split the fleet into two incompatible halves
- The “Concorde” program to make them compatible again in 2006 after National Express made a hasty exit in 2004
- Air-conditioner upgrades following the well-publicised failures of summer 2008-09
- Seat removal around the doorways in 2016 to help get more people on-board and provide more standing room
The Rolling Stock Strategy released in May 2015 flagged another set of upgrades to keep Comeng trains going into next decade until they can be replaced by the new “High-Capacity Metro Trains” (HCMTs) to be introduced from 2018.
Specifically, the strategy flagged: $75 million for maintenance and refurbishment to extend the life of the current Comeng train fleet, with an expected phase-out from 2022-2025 — though of course it remains to be seen if this happens as quickly as that.
In the next few months we’ll start to see visible signs of this. The work is being done at the Craigieburn Train Maintenance Facility (TMF), which was opened in 2011 and is the “home depot” for the Comeng fleet.
This makes sense in the context of the Five group railway plan, which flagged that the overall train fleet would be semi-permanently dedicated to specific lines. The Comengs would run on the Northern (Upfield, Craigieburn, Sunbury) and Dandenong lines, obviously to be replaced by the HCMTs first on the Dandenong line, then the Sunbury line (when the two are connected via the metro rail tunnel from 2026) then presumably the others.
I was invited by Metro to have a look, and headed up to Craigieburn one Friday afternoon. It was surprisingly busy with people leaving the city, as well as school kids heading home.
I’ve been past Craigieburn numerous times, but the last time I stopped off was not quite ten years ago, for the opening of the new station and extension of suburban services. On that day, then-Premier John Brumby (pictured) and Transport Minister the late Lynne Kosky (I think she’s standing on the other side of Brumby) rode a train to the new station to officially open it. Brumby was whisked away by car, but Kosky, to her credit, stayed longer to answer questions and meet the public.
The new Train Maintenance Facility itself is impressively large, and is part of a larger complex of sidings north of Craigieburn station, and alongside the rail line north to Seymour, Shepparton and Albury.
After signing in, we took a look at the various changes they’re trying out.
This front cab design isn’t going to be used… it’s not very appealing, is it. Sounds like instead they’re likely to go for a stripe design with more blue.
What is changing is the marker lights (the small bulbs above the cab windows) will change to LEDs. The handlebars at the front, often used by train surfers, may be removed (in a future project) — apparently they used to be useful for drivers to do diagnosis on faults, but are rarely used for legitimate purposes now.
The interior prototypes have been reviewed by a number of stakeholders, and include a raft of tweaks.
Several designs of seat cushion are under consideration:
More visibly different “special needs” seats (you may recognise the pattern from the trams; apparently this is likely to become the standard PTV design):
Possible implementation in a future project: wheelchair spots at second door as well as the first, which may be useful where larger number of wheelchairs need to board on a single trip:
Extra hand straps, similar to those on the X’trapolis trains, and designed not to cause an issue when tall people bump into them!
Centre poles (except in the doorways for wheelchair boarding) like E-class trams:
Not shown on the day were that handles on the backs of seats will be made larger. This may make up for the problems they have installing hand holds along the carriage, away from the doors.
They are not removing the fifth seat of each row (as has been done with the X’trapolis trains), as this is technically difficult/expensive on the Comeng fleet. However they may remove a small number of seats at the ends of carriages.
It’s not illegal to move between carriages, but it is illegal to ride (eg stand) on the inter-carriage platform while the train is moving. This is relatively common, and is a favourite spot for nicotine addicts who just can’t bear to be on a train without a cigarette.
It’s less common for people to try and enter and exit the train this way — but it does happen.
Riding there or boarding is dangerous – it wouldn’t be hard to fall and slip underneath the train, especially if it’s moving. The carriages may bounce around, and you’re only held in by a some bars and a chain. Being outside the carriage structure, there’s also no protection in a collision.
On my trip up to Craigieburn, I’d noticed a few school kids had changed carriages via these doors, some while the train was moving.
Metro can’t just lock the doors – they may be needed in an emergency situation. So they’re looking at ways of enclosing the connection, as in the Siemens and X’trapolis trains. The two designs they’re trying out are similar to what’s found in those trains.
Bellows, similar to the Siemens fleet (but leaving the doors in place):
Similar to the X’trapolis design — this one has some teething problems as they’ve found a gap appears when the train goes around sharp corners.
Upgrades to come
These upgrades will start to appear in service from about the middle of this year.
I’m told that later changes next year will include an overhaul of the air-brake system and Passenger Information Displays as well as CCTV.
I still look fondly on the Comeng fleet – back in the day, when they were the only air-conditioned carriages, in hot weather it was a joy to see one approaching.
It’s good that there’s a plan to improve them to keep them in service a bit longer, since it will mean as the newer trains come into service, they can initially be focused on growing the size of the fleet to cope with patronage growth. It would make no sense to throw away good carriages for want of a little TLC.
Barring any out-of-left field plans to keep them running (one proposal was to use them on the Geelong line, hauled by diesel engines), eventually the Comeng fleet will be phased-out next decade, having done at least 40 years service.
Thanks to Metro Trains for inviting me.
Edit 11/3/2017: Minor changes to the text to correct some errors. Some of the proposals in the prototype unit are for evaluation for later projects, and are not being implemented across the fleet at this stage.
Update 10/10/2017: It took a while for things to get moving, but the first unit is finally in service.
— Nine News Melbourne (@9NewsMelb) October 10, 2017