Sunday, February 5, 2012

Is SE Queensland's rail system an accident waiting to happen?

Unlike many other commuter rail systems around the world, Brisbane's suburban rail network has no Automatic Train Protection (ATP) system. ATP comes in many forms. Sydney and Melbourne have an outdated, intermittent, and rudimentary form of ATP called train stops. More modern ATP systems continuously monitor a train's location and feedback to a train its maximum permitted speed, braking curve, and limit of movement authority (i.e. the point where it has to stop before it reaches a hazard). This forces a train to brake or stop completely if it is travelling too fast around sharp curve, approaching a dead end terminus too quickly, and on approach to a red signal due to a preceding train or junction. It has to remembered that ATP will not prevent all train accidents such as level crossing collisions. Brisbane's suburban network does have a train protection system called Automatic Warning System (AWS), but this outdated system can only differentiate between green and not green signals, provides no speed limit adherence, and can be overridden by the driver. AWS has not prevented many fatal accidents in the UK since it was invented in the 1930s.

There are a few locations on Brisbane's rail network where there are dead end terminus platforms - Cleveland, Domestic Airport, the under construction Ferny Grove station, and the planned Kippa-Ring station. Whilst there have been no known recent incidents in Brisbane, dead end termini around the world have a poor safety record. For example the 1975 crash at Moorgate in London killed 43 passengers - this was even with red lights, speed limits, and a dead-mans handle. A dead end terminus accident that injured hundreds allegedly occurred at South Brisbane in 1957. Continuous ATP would prevent the vast majority of causes of dead end termini accidents.

There is also nothing to prevent speeding around the many sharp curves which plague Brisbane's rail network. This was the cause of Brisbane's worst train accident at Camp Mountain crash near Samford in 1947 which killed 16 passengers. Speeding around a sharp corner was the cause of Japan's terrible Amagasaki train crash in 2005 which killed 106 passengers. The Waterfall train accident in NSW in 2003, and Tilt Train accident in 2004 were also caused by trains speeding around a curve too fast. Queensland's narrow "cape gauge" also increases the risk of derailment on sharp curves compared to standard or wide gauge track.

Despite lacking ATP, SE Queensland's rail network has had a very good safety record since electrification. This is likely to be due to QRs high safety standards, culture, and training. Brisbane's infrequent train services and little bit of luck may also be a factor. A recent review by Queensland Department of Main Roads and Transport showed that the most suitable ATP system for SE Queensland would be European Train Control System (ETCS) - Level 2. This is a radio based signalling system with continuous ATP based on widely adopted European standards. The time frame of the implementation of this system is unfortunately unknown to the public. BrizCommuter would like to see installation of ATP to be an election issue. The likelihood of being killed or injured whilst travelling by train is a fraction of the risk travelling by car. However, until ATP is installed on Brisbane's commuter railway system, then SE Queensland's dead end termini, sharp bends, and many non-grade separated junctions could be an accident waiting to happen.


  1. Part of QR's City network passenger fleet has ATP installed. The ICEs, which is operational north of Caboolture, and they are in the process of fitting ATP in on the 10x IMU100 trains for the same purpose (north of Caboolture running).

  2. So in other words, the vast majority of SE Queensland's passenger rail network has no ATP, and the majority of trains have no ATP.

  3. I'd love to see them squeeze this by the unions. They'll believe it's the start to remove all drivers from trains and fully automate

  4. With the recent crash at Cleveland station, it seems that the writer's concerns have been validated. The transport minister wants answers: it seems that they are already provided here...


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