22 February, 2019   By: Kerry Faulkner

Unlike hopping on a bus where you can greet the driver and call out ‘thanks’ when you get to your stop, our trains and the people in the driver’s seat remain a bit of a mystery.

There were more than 60 million trips taken on Perth trains last year, which equates to everyone in Perth taking at least 27 trips each. It's quite a few. Yet most people take a seat with no thought for how that train got itself to that station at that precise moment.

Peter Fleichmann knows very well the highly calibrated schedule that is in place to make it all happen. Fleichmann worked as a train driver for three years before moving into the control room. He loved it.

"Flying along the freeway at 130km/h with cars either side of the rails sitting gridlocked, was one of the joys of my train driving career," he says.

Under pressure

Train drivers work to very strict timetables to get their passengers - up to 1100 on board a metro train - to their destination on time. Even the time it takes a driver to walk between trains is given a strict time limit.

In Perth, there are 320 drivers and driver co-ordinators across three depots, with a variety of shifts starting around 4am, long before the first passenger hops on, and rolling right through the night. Trains are housed overnight at three depots - Claisebrook, Mandurah and Nowergup and sent to end of line stops like Fremantle in the early hours to pick up the first passengers.

At the start of every shift drivers need to check for special events or track defects, do a walk around the train to check everything externally, check inside the driver’s cabs at either end and finally walk through the passenger section to ensure lights, doors and air conditioning are working, before taking instructions from Transperth's control room and getting the precisely coordinated pattern of journeys underway.

Despite the large number of drivers and constant interaction with the control room, it's something of a solo job.

"You're not really working with anybody else, but you do see people all day looking in the window, smiling, waving especially little kids - that brings a smile to your face,” says Fleichmann.

Commuters boarding a train at Perth station
As many as 1100 passengers can be aboard one metro train

Driving a train is not as simple as hopping in the cab and hitting the accelerator. Hundreds of people apply to be train drivers with Transperth every year, but only around 60 are taken in each year. Recruits then go through 26 weeks of training to learn the rules of the tracks and get first hand experience.

"The driver must understand the signals, curves, gradients, different speed limits and other characteristics peculiar to each line, and also the stopping positions at each station which vary depending on the size of the train," says Transperth communications manager David Hynes. 

"While there's no specific requirements for applying to be a train driver, an interest in and basic understanding of mechanics is useful," says Hynes.

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When things go wrong 

Trains appear straightforward - go one way, go back the other. But they are very complex electro-mechanical devices, operating nearly 24/7, carrying heavy loads and are constantly exposed to the elements. So components wear out, break and malfunction.

When a motor car fails you can push it onto the verge to get it out of the way. Not so a train.

Perth train on freeway line
With trains running in a loop, breakdowns must be cleared quickly

“If a train stops for any reason, it blocks the passage of all the trains behind it,” says Hynes.

“It’s not a big problem if the train gets moving again reasonably quickly but if the delay is prolonged it impacts trains going in the other direction because services operate on a loop. For example a train leaves Fremantle, runs through Perth and on to Midland, then comes back the other way.

“One of the most common reasons for significant delays is a problem with the sliding forks which enable a train to transition from one line to another. If they become jammed, the train can’t pass.

“If the problem is with the train itself – a door fault is the most common – it’s taken out of service, which creates a hole in the timetable and can lead to delays. On rare occasions we have a complete train failure, which takes two trains out of service because the ‘dead’ train must be pushed into the nearest siding or depot by the following train.”

Central command

Taking control of each and every one of these situations is done by the team at Transperth central command, sitting in a dimly lit room not far from Perth’s CBD, illuminated by a wall of lights that shows Perth’s entire train system, right down to boom gates.

Train service manager David Van de Velde is in charge of the team of 26 controllers here, many are former drivers with decades of network experience. Van de Velde says his controllers are meticulous, accurate, nearly stress-proof and extremely dedicated, all essentials for the job.

"They could work ten hours on one problem and won't stop until it's done," he says

“When there’s an incident, we’re in here heads down bums up working hard.

“People will be barking commands, it’s busy, loud, controllers are flipping trains that are not on the diagram. It’s very difficult and that’s why teamwork is really important.”

End of the track

While issues with a train door or a sliding fork on a track can cause delays, so can passengers.

Fleichmann says crowding to one end on the platform or around a set of doors slows down the embarking and disembarking. Each and every hold up for the train to get moving again means the schedule gets pushed back. 

He says drivers sympathise with those running for the train who don't make it, "but if we stopped and waited for every late passenger, none of the trains would ever run on time."

The other big player in throwing out the carefully co-ordinated train schedule is the weather.

“On wet days, steel wheels on steel tracks, all wet and slippery, means it takes longer to stop so the train doesn’t skid. Just like in a car, the driver needs to drive slower and brake earlier,” he says.

"It's the weather, so there's not much we can do about it."

Commuters outside Perth train station
Our trains operate almost 24/7 with drivers arriving well before the first commuters get to their stations