Saturday, March 7, 2009

Bashing your head against the railways

Latest letter to RailCorp:

24 February 2009

Mr Ben Johnson
General Manager
Ministerial Correspondence and Customer Relations
PO Box K349
Haymarket NSW 1238

Dear Mr Johnson

Removal of graffiti from railway structures in Leichhardt

I refer to my letters of 13 May 2008, 11 October 2008 and 12 November 2008 and your subsequent responses.

I don’t believe that I received a reply to my letter of 12 November.  I did receive a survey last month asking me to comment on your performance, but a substantive response to my concerns has not been forthcoming.

Let me recap briefly for you:

1. On 13 May 2008, I wrote to you requesting that you paint over the graffiti on the overbridge at Charles St in Leichhardt
2. Six months later, after noticing that nothing had been done, I wrote to you again – this time asking that a work order be lodged in Ellipse
3. Your response in essence said that nothing could be done without a closedown
4. I wrote back and asked for the date of the next closedown, and never got a response
5. I also contacted Leichhardt Council as you suggested.

Therefore, I am following up to see where things stand.

1. Has RailCorp been contacted by Leichhardt Council with regard to this bridge, and what position has RailCorp taken in regard to having the graffiti removed?
2. Is this line still operational, and if so, when is the next scheduled closedown?
3. Assuming that a closedown has been programmed for 2009, has graffiti removal been inserted into the program of works?
4. If this line is no longer operational, I presume that a closedown is not required, and therefore the graffiti can be removed at any time.  If that is the case, why has nothing been done for the last 9 months?
5. What action has your department taken to pass on my request to the appropriate area within the Asset Management division?  The twelve month anniversary of my first letter is fast approaching, and depending on your response to this last question (assuming you bother to respond), I will decide whether to FOI the entire file regarding this correspondence.  

I don’t particularly want to go through the FOI process – I just want RailCorp to remove the graffiti in question.  Is that too much to ask?

Yours sincerely


There are a few things that I am trying to clarify with RailCorp in regard to their actions so far; mainly, have they actually thought about cleaning away the graffiti on the bridge in question, or are they just sending me canned responses?

In one of my earlier letters, I asked for the Ellipse work order number.  RailCorp uses an Enterprise Resource Management system (ERM) called Ellipse, which comes from a Queensland company called Mincom.  Earlier versions of Ellipse were called MIMS.  Ellipse is like SAP or Oracle Financials - it is an enormous bit of expensive, integrated software that is used to run the HR, finance, asset management and asset maintenance functions of big companies.  Mincom started by writing this software for mining companies, and it is now used by all the big electricity and water authorities, as well as most railways.

RailCorp uses Ellipse to track every maintenance work order for trains and track.  Everything that the maintenance staff do is controlled by Ellipse.  If you don't have a job programmed in Ellipse, nothing gets done.  This is why I specifically asked for the Ellipse work order number - it's proof that it will be taken care of at some point.  Since Mr Johnson skated over that request and didn't supply a number, I can only assume that someone, somewhere in RailCorp has decided to do nothing - they just don't have the guts to say that to my face.

[I know about Ellipse because I bought the server that ran MIMS for the Rail Access Corporation, participated in the upgrade from MIMS to Ellipse, and had to rollout and support the MIMSMUI, which was the interface that staff used on their PC's to access MIMS.  I also sat a few feet away from the MIMS/Ellipse administrators, and drank beer with them, so I know a little bit about it.  I still run into them from time to time when I walk past the building that I used to work in, as they are generally out the back having a smoke together.]

I then asked for the date of the next closedown of the rail line in question.  Mr Johnson feels that the bridge can only be cleaned up during a closedown, which is true for busy rail lines.  You don't want staff running out between trains with a paint brush - it's too risky.  Much better to close the line to all traffic, then do the work in safety.  If you are a train user and you've heard that buses have replaced trains, then that's because a closedown is in progress and no trains are running.  Closedowns are planned months in advance, and involve a  hell of a lot of work - because they are few and far between, every engineering group wants access to that bit of track to do their maintenance and upgrades.  Co-ordinating all the work is a massive task.  

[I know about that too - just before I left RailCorp, they were looking at rolling out a bit of project management software called Primavera to help with the planning, and I setup the servers that were used for development and testing and installed Primavera on them.  I've spent a small amount of time out in the field with the engineers, watching them planning closedowns.  Unless Mr Johnson comes from a background in rail maintenance, I can safely bet that I know more about them than he does.]

If a closedown is planning for this line, it shouldn't be too hard to find out the date.  And it also shouldn't be too hard to find out whether cleaning this bridge has been put into the bucket of work for that closedown.  But once again, that question was skated over, meaning that no closedowns are planned (because this line is practically unused these days), or one has been planned, but no one has bothered to put cleaning this bridge into the project.

If the line gets next to no traffic - say a train a week - then you don't need a closedown to do the work.  The maintenance crews can organise with train control to block the track off for a while so they can get a clear run at cleaning it up.  If that's the case, then Mr Johnson has been rather disingenuous in his response - the closedown excuse is just a smokescreen for doing nothing.

All track maintenance work at RailCorp is undertaken or managed by the Asset Management Division - this is a huge department with thousands of staff scattered all over the metro area.  I am tempted to FOI the file relating to this case just to see whether anyone in the MCCR has actually bothered to talk to anyone in the Asset Management Division or not.  I'd be pretty ticked off if I discovered that the MCCR had not bothered to talk to the manager responsible for this bit of track and find out whether cleaning this bridge was feasible and a priority or not.  If there is one thing I can't stand, it's being bullshitted to.  

There should be an email conversation between the MCCR staff and the Asset Management Division - and that won't be too hard to find.  For you see, in my last year at RailCorp, I was part of a small team that installed a software product from Veritas called Vault, and Vault has an archiving feature where every single email sent to or from anyone at RailCorp goes into a permanent archive, from which nothing is ever deleted.  I also had to buy several terabytes of storage to cope with all the emails that needed archiving.  

Vault has a nifty enterprise search feature, so doing an FOI search should be a doddle for a Vault administrator with the right access (and that person used to be me).  It's great for doing discovery in legal cases.  If emails have been sent, we'll soon get to the bottom of the story.

I also had a hand in putting in the records management system that RailCorp uses, so I know that retrieving the file should be a piece of cake.

I'll decide what course to take once I get a response from Mr Johnson - assuming I get one by the end of March.  I'll give him 5 weeks to work out what to do, then put in the FOI request.  It's been 16 years since I last saw an MCCR file - I might just FOI mine for old time's sake.

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