AT PRECISELY 18.37 on March 27, Director-General of Transport in New South Wales Michael Deegan ordered the indefinite closure to all traffic of the Menangle bridge. Several trains approaching the bridge on the main line between Sydney and Melbourne were halted. Freight operations have been severely disrupted, not assisted by the Rail Infrastructure Corp closing all routes south of Sydney over the following weekend for routine maintenance. This caused Pacific National to divert freight for Melbourne via Newcastle and Werris Creek, adding 12 h to the trip.

The Menangle bridge is 148m long, spans the Nepean river, and was constructed of wrought iron in the 1860s. RIC had commissioned Professor Michael Weston to survey it, and other bridges. Observing many loose rivets and vertical movement of a girder as trains went over, Weston told RIC on March 10 that the bridge should be closed immediately.

The view of RIC’s engineers was that several other bridges were as bad or worse than Menangle, and it seems that Labour Transport Services Minister Carl Scully preferred to sit on the report until after elections on March 22. But Weston had also been highly critical of RIC’s bridge inspection procedures. Inquiries into incidents of track failure such as the Hexham derailment had likewise revealed a lack of training and supporting documentation.

It was a delicate moment. Retired judge Peter McInerney who investigated the Glenbrook collision (RG 7.00 p397) had just opened an inquiry into the Waterfall derailment, where a Tangara EMU rolled over at 110 km/h on a 50 km/h curve (RG 3.03 p122). Labour won the election but replaced Scully by Michael Costa. The new minister immediately made sweeping changes, ousting the heads of State Rail Corp and RIC (p263) and creating a new Transport Safety & Reliability Regulator. He also asked former State Rail boss Vince Graham to investigate ’failures of process’ by RIC.

Costa clearly intends to succeed where Scully had failed in rectifying the damage done by the separation of functions in 1995, when State Rail was reduced to a passenger train operator. He will doubtless refer to a cabinet minute in which Scully reported that State Rail, the (then) Rail Access Corp, Rail Services and FreightCorp had collectively ’lost sight of their core business’ while pursuing financial goals. ’A loss of corporate knowledge and expertise has occurred, with skilled staff either leaving the industry or being spread too thinly across the three entities.’

  • The four eight-car Millennium EMUs so far put into traffic by City Rail were withdrawn on April 11 after signals had remained at red following their passage through the underground loop under the centre of Sydney, causing substantial disruption.