Rail Failures: A Question of Protocol

Last night, both V/Line and Metro Trains Melbourne (MTM) commuters were delayed due to various problems with the rail network in Melbourne.

Some V/Line customers were heavily affected by a points failure at Southern Cross Station which prevented some trains from getting out of their platforms to start their journeys.

On the Frankston line, an arson attack destroyed an electrical switch box between Carrum and Seaford stations, leaving several trains and their passengers stranded between stations for an extended period.

Commuters understand that things go wrong from time to time – it’s a man-made system, so it’s a fact of life that they break down. There’s also not a lot you can realistically do to stop someone from setting something on fire.

Ultimately, you can’t really blame either company for the problems. You could argue that better maintenance might have prevented the V/Line points failure, but brand new infrastructure can fail too.

Here’s where failure can be prevented – customer communications.

I was on the 16:19 train from Southern Cross to Geelong which was blocked into platform 3 by the points failure. Subsequent trains heading to Geelong were scheduled to depart at 16:37, 16:47, 16:55 and 17:08. There shouldn’t have been a problem getting passengers from the 16:19 onto these services.

Well, there was.

After one tweet saying the train would be departing 20 minutes late, and then another saying it had departed – (untrue) – and that it had been delayed 15 minutes, we were assured on board that the train would be departing very shortly.

When the 16:37 departed first, there were a few unnerved glances between the passengers waiting. At 16:44, we were directed to platform 8 South to board the 16:47, as the points failure had not been resolved. With only three minutes to go, people bolted to the other platform.

Only we had not been directed to the 16:47 at all. We’d been directed to the 17:08. Nobody had time to locate and transfer to the 16:47. By the time most people realised what was happening, the 16:55 had left as well.

Leaving everyone who originally boarded the 16:19 to wait for the 17:08 to depart to commence their journey home.

V/Line could have directed passengers to the 16:37, 16:47, and 16:55 services – but instead directed them to the 17:08, whilst telling them it was actually the 16:47. Many people were very pissed off when they realised what V/Line – deliberately or not – had done to their evening commute time.

Yet another demonstration of how badly V/Line copes when something goes wrong.

Over on the Frankston line, people were just as frustrated:

“Five trains, carrying hundreds of commuters, were stranded between platforms for up to two hours before the passengers could eventually alight at Seaford station last night.”

Many of passengers claimed of receiving no information about the continuing situation – and alas, this is entirely believable. It happens over and over.

Things go wrong – it is unavoidable.

What is avoidable is the continuation of poor customer service, despite claims by both V/Line and Metro Trains that their communications are improving.

Well, they’re not. They are getting worse.

There still seems to be no protocol as to what to do when incidents like this occur.

It is undoubtedly a complicated situation, but here is one suggestion for V/Line and Metro Trains. It is not even a complicated suggestion.


Start building a protocol – and part one of that protocol is tell your customers what is happening.

Don’t lie. Don’t make stuff up. Don’t give out clearly inaccurate information.

It would really be nice to not have to sit in a train carriage wondering if you’re even going to get home at all.

Last night, lots of people were wondering just that.