Huge government transport bungle in Sydney

Even at a cost of billions of dollars, building just 19 kilometres of railway was too difficult for them. The contractor did as it was told but the things it was asked to do were half-baked. Governments should never attempt anything "innovative". You need close involvement for that -- not bureaucratic inertia and indifference

Serious defects have emerged in the $2.3 billion Epping to Chatswood Rail Line that could threaten its long-term reliability and have the potential to increase dramatically the cost of running the still unopened railway. A secret Government report, obtained by the Herald, has exposed thousands of flaws in the way the tracks have been fixed to 19 kilometres of concrete slabs. It details the widespread failure of the epoxy, which was often water-affected or contaminated with slurry, the use of incorrectly tensioned bolts and clips, and cracks in the sleepers.

The line was meant to open in 2006, but it has been repeatedly delayed. Full operation of the line was again deferred after revelations in the Herald last month that noise levels inside test trains were equivalent to a Boeing 737 coming in to land.

The latest report, commissioned by the State Government's rail-building agency, the Transport Infrastructure Development Corporation, raises grave questions about the long-term cost of maintaining the line. "Any assurance of reliable track performance remains presently 'out of the question' until action to solve the thousands of track component defects, currently being uncovered and listed, can be accomplished," the document of March this year says.

There is already a feud between the Government and the contractor, Thiess Hochtief, over the noise problems, which will cost $29.5 million to fix. The Government is now demanding the contractor also pay to repair the latest problems. A TIDC spokesman, Peter Whelan, told the Herald that "95 per cent of the track has been lifted and fully inspected", as part of its "quality assurance and audit process". "The issues noted [in the report] were identified by TIDC and were required to be addressed by the construction contractor at its cost," he said.

But the Herald understands that senior RailCorp staff consider the long-term maintenance risk to be so serious that they have begun their own work on how to fix the problem. "Some concerns have been raised [by RailCorp] and are being addressed," Mr Whelan said.

Unlike traditional railways, the multibillion-dollar line uses more than 54,000 "Delkor Eggs" as sleepers - these are oval-shaped rubber mats designed to absorb vibration. At the core of the problem is the lack of reliable bonding between these eggs and the concrete slab. "It would, in this author's view, be a grossly irresponsible and negligent act to certify as to the suitability of the ECRL track structure reliability prior to the above conclusion items being satisfied," the report finds. "Such action would constitute grave compromise of professional integrity of those individuals involved in my opinion."

The document questions whether the problems may also stem from an incorrect concrete mix being used to lay the slab: "The presence of slab cracks and prevalence of voids under [base plate] pads suggests some level of variance from design and placement requirements for ECRL." But Mr Whelan said there was no problem "with the integrity of the concrete slab".

The report reveals that the failure of individual eggs increases the pressure on neighbouring eggs, eventually buckling the tracks and causing "ride discomfort". This accelerates the wear on the track, increases the cost of routine rail grinding, reduces longevity and can only be repaired as effectively as "the integrity of the initial track construction provides", the report says.

The problem was first revealed by the Herald in February. But for several months before that TIDC and Thiess Hochtief carried out works to try to solve the problem. At first, attempts were made to squeeze more epoxy under the baseplates - but this only made things worse, the report reveals. The problem's persistence led to the independent site inspection that formed the basis of the leaked document. "It is considered possible that RailCorp will decline to accept handover of [the] project on the basis of inadequate assurance available for future system reliability," the report concluded.

But Sue Netterfield, a Thiess Hochtief spokeswoman, said the problems had "been rectified". "Having met all the contract requirements, the joint venture is in the process of handing the project over to the client and is not aware of any outstanding issues."


Posted by John Ray. For a daily critique of Leftist activities, see DISSECTING LEFTISM. For a daily survey of Australian politics, see AUSTRALIAN POLITICS Also, don't forget your daily roundup of pro-environment but anti-Greenie news and commentary at GREENIE WATCH . Email me (John Ray) here

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