Many of us would have been somewhat amused when we read in May last year that the French railways had ordered trains which were too wide to fit within the dimensions of many of their older platforms. It seems that SNCF, the national rail operator, procured the rolling stock based on their own specifications and advice from the regional rail operator RFF. However, despite the cooperation between the two organisations they forgot to check with the per-way engineer. The result was that some 1300 platforms needed remedial work to trim back the platform edges at a cost of approximately 50 million Euros.
Those of us with longer memories didn’t laugh as loudly as others. In the approach to the 1995 NSW state election the then state government decided to bring a tilt train to NSW to demonstrate their proposed upgrade for the country trains. One X2000 train was leased from the Swedish Railways and duly delivered by ship to Sydney. Surely a standard gauge train from Europe can run on standard gauge track in Australia? Unfortunately not! The train was too wide to fit within the NSW structure gauge and guess what – many of the station platforms on the routes on which the train ran had to be trimmed by up to four inches to allow the train to pass.
Despite the tilt train trial the Fahey government lost the election and was replaced by Labour, with Bob Carr as Premier. The train was packed up and returned to Sweden. When the details of the trial came to light in 2002 the then Minster for Transport, Carl Scully, took great delight in reminding the opposition, in detail and at length, of the issues caused by and the $7 million wasted by what he labelled “an electioneering stunt”.
The French problem appears to have been caused by not asking the right people the right questions. The NSW problem appears to have been caused by political imperatives over-riding common sense. It does not appear to have caught the NSW railway authority by surprise as their budget for the tilt train trial included an allowance of $500,000 for infrastructure modifications. Both situations are reminders of the risks of interfaces between engineering disciplines and of one group not being aware of the constraints imposed by another.
This type of problem will continue to occur when decisions are made in isolation from the full picture. Just recently I had some lively informal discussions with colleagues about dimensions for potential new passenger trains for NSW. Yes, you can have passenger cars 3.05 metres in width (as per the Tangaras) and yes, you can have passenger cars approximately 24 metres in length (as per the V-sets) but no, you can’t have passenger cars that are both 3.05 metres wide and 24 metres in length as they will not fit within the allowable transit space – although you could always cut the platform edges back again!
To hear more about how various rail disciplines can work together to achieve common goals visit www.informa.com.au/railworkshop for information on the 2nd Annual Inter-Disciplinary Rail Engineering Workshop
 NSW Government, Hansard, Legislative Assembly, 27 June 2002, p.4121.