In July, a 30-tonne rail trailer carrying equipment for the Sydney Metro project ran out of control for more than 1.5km through a half-built tunnel between Marrickville and Waterloo, Guardian Australia reported.
The only reason the workers did not die, according to those on the scene, was that it happened on a Saturday at noon when they were on break.
The incident, which took place on July 16, was described by the Office of the National Rail Safety Regulator (ONRSR) as a “violation of basic train safety principles”.
A Sydney Metro whistleblower told Guardian Australia it was one of a series of serious incidents that raised concerns security had been breached to meet deadlines and avoid further project budget overruns.
Unions called for an independent investigation, saying it was a “miracle” no one had died. But Sydney Metro said safety was its “top priority” and the company had a “lost time injury rate” far below the safest workplace in Australia.
Why “security” failed
An “inadvertent train separation” occurred when a pin that was supposed to drop through the drawbar connecting the trailer to the train did not engage as intended.
When the cars detach – which shouldn’t happen – the brakes release pressure, triggering the emergency brakes. But in this case, the wrong truck brakes were installed on the carriage, so they did the opposite, as a result of which the “respondent” refused.
The wire and cable car continued to roll down the half-built tunnel until friction stopped it.
The incident was so serious that the regulator issued a safety alert for the industry asking all train operators to urgently inspect their carriages.
He has now inspected all the rail equipment used by Sydney Metro.
“The rolling stock and braking system remain suspended and ONRSR will meet with Sydney Metro this week to review the modifications made in the months since the incident to ensure all safety risks have been addressed,” a spokesman for the regulator said.
The escape was not the first serious incident at the Metro project. The whistleblower provided the Guardian with a list of cases this year where workers narrowly escaped being killed, with more emerging as further investigations continue.
February 2022: two collapses occurred during demolition work at the Parramatta car park, which is part of the Metro West project. Sydney Metro denied there was a risk to worker safety as exclusion zones were in place. SafeWork issued one prohibition notice and one improvement notice.
June 16: an escalator is being installed at the new Martin Place station fell four floors, there are almost not enough workers. Sydney Metro said the contractor had established appropriate exclusion zones. SafeWork issued four prohibition notices and required a demolition plan to be submitted for the restoration operation.
June: was a laborer for a contractor on the Pitt Street lot seriously wounded after lift failure. The worker tried to jump to the nearby platform, but fell from nine meters. He had leg and pelvis fractures. Sydney Metro has denied claims by unions that the contractor had not received adequate training.
July 2: three large rail trucks lost control in the Waterloo Tunnel before crashing into each other. The report, seen by the Guardian, listed several factors, including wet tracks and “inadequate” working brakes. Sydney Metro said the convoy was traveling at a slow speed and the cause was “loss of traction”.
August 31: A Sydney Metro truck carrying heavy scaffolding nearly lost control of its load on the Cahill Expressway. Sydney Metro said the vehicle made it to the Waterloo site without incident, despite photographs showing the load partially removed from the truck.
September: formwork collapsed at the site of the Crow’s Nest station. This incident is being investigated by SafeWork.
Pressure to deliver
There is growing concern at Sydney Metro about the organisation’s approach to safety for the multibillion-dollar, over-budget project.
The Metro West line from the CBD to Parramatta could explode by $3 billion for a total of $27 billionand The City and South Western line could cost $5 billion more the original budget was $12.5 billion, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.
There is also pressure to speed up the project.
Transport Minister David Elliott said opening the railway from the North West was a “priority” and spoke of the possibility of a two-phase opening. The track between Sydenham and Chatswood is 95% complete, there were assumptions the first phase may even open before the March election, though Elliott denied that at a press conference in May.
“I don’t want anyone to think we’re cutting corners or pushing the envelope just to get a vote for it,” Elliott said.
But the whistleblower said that was not the experience of those involved in the project.
He said the demand to meet deadlines has led to a culture of trying to avoid delays at all costs – including those caused by security concerns.
In some cases, the whistleblower said, safety incidents were downplayed to avoid reporting them to Safe Work.
The runaway train incident and the other rail truck incident should have been reported as Category A incidents requiring an immediate phone call to the rail safety regulator so inspectors could gather evidence, an ONRSR spokesman said.
Sydney Metro has reported Category B incidents, which require reporting within 72 hours. The escape took place on July 16, and it was reported on July 19.
The regulator noted that the category system is relatively new. “ONRSR is satisfied that incident reports were submitted in accordance with the required timelines,” it said.
The Electricians Union and the Mining and Energy Forestry Union said the safety concerns “are not alarming, they are extraordinary.”
“Our organizers have been consistently frustrated by the frequency and severity of these safety issues and the lack of response from regulators such as SafeWork. It’s a miracle no one died,” ETU State Secretary Allen Hicks said.
“But what we really need is an independent investigation within a short time frame. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this project is being rushed to give the Perot government a few lucky moments for the state election.”
The whistleblower said he was not alone in his concerns and that project managers had developed an informal network to share information and incidents to compensate for the lack of information coming from Metro Sydney.
He said he felt the organization was trying to keep unions in the dark.
The CFMEU (NSW) said it was not aware of all incidents in the tunnels.
“Both SafeWork NSW and Sydney Metro management actively oppose granting CFMEU officials access to the tunnels,” State Secretary Darren Greenfield said.
Labour’s transport spokeswoman Jo Halen said the government was “presiding over a project where the lives of dozens of workers have been put at risk”.
“These shocking incidents are evidence that there is something very wrong with the management of the Sydney Metro project,” Haylen said.
“This situation is absolutely unacceptable. Now the Minister of Transport and the Minister of Infrastructure must intervene.”
A Sydney Metro spokesperson said: “Safety is our top priority and we understand that construction is a high-risk industry. We work closely with our supply partners and all relevant safety authorities to monitor and enforce safe work practices across our $60 billion construction and rail operations program.
“We expect all our delivery partners to follow strict protocols to ensure the safety of everyone working on the Sydney Metro site. This includes reporting any workplace incident.”
Sydney Metro said that between July 1, 2021 and June 30, 2022, the lost-time injury rate for its projects was 1.47, “well below the Australian safe work benchmark for heavy and civil construction in 10.7”.