Alstom's Ballarat plant under cloud as train deadline approaches

Alstom's preliminary design for the X'Trapolis 2.0 trains.
Alstom's preliminary design for the X'Trapolis 2.0 trains.

New designs for Melbourne's trains that would make trips faster, smoother and feature a London Tube-style seating layout are feared to have stalled, putting local manufacturing jobs under threat.

Designs by French train maker Alstom for new X'Trapolis trains reveal plans to improve the train's suspension to make the ride less bumpy, modernise train doors to cut the time it takes for passengers to get on and off, and build new signs on carriages that would track the train's journey in real-time.

If the Andrews government refuses to commit to building the 'X'Trapolis 2.0' trains designed to carry 1200 passengers, the company is expected to launch an exit plan from its Ballarat manufacturing facility, where about 70 people currently work, within two months.

Alstom unveiling new trains in 2016.

Alstom unveiling new trains in 2016.

Closure of the facility owned by Alstom over the past two decades would be a major blow to Ballarat and likely have a ripple effect across the state's rail supply chain.

Preliminary designs created by Alstom in conjunction with the Victorian Department of Transport outline a plan for 20 new X'Trapolis 2.0 trains to be built at Ballarat, in order to retire the aged Comeng trains by 2026, which is four years earlier than current plans.

Features of the proposed new trains include:

  • Modernised doors to reduce dwell times to less than 40 seconds.
  • An air suspension system, enabling a smoother ride.
  • High-tech passenger information systems that would display the train's journey in real-time.
  • A more energy efficient or low voltage network, in line with modern rail systems overseas.
  • New interior designs including tip-up seating along the length of the carriage where there are wheelchair spaces.
  • Designated space for bicycle storage on train carriages.
  • Passenger operated, automatic wheelchair-accessible ramps located behind driver cabs.
Premier Daniel Andrews at the site in 2014.

Premier Daniel Andrews at the site in 2014.

In documents obtained by The Age, Alstom states that if the government pays the company to build the new trains - a contract estimated to cost up to $400 million - this would secure the future of the Ballarat site until at least 2023.

Alstom would invest $13.5 million in the Ballarat workshops to broaden its manufacturing capacity, giving jobs to about 270 Victorians, including 100 people in Ballarat.

It comes as the first of Melbourne's new $5.2 billion High-Capacity Metro Trains, which are being assembled by a separate local manufacturer, Downer EDI, are running more than six months behind schedule.

Failure to deliver the next-generation trains on time would delay the phasing out of the 1980s Comeng trains.

Alstom suggests in the documents that building X'Trapolis 2.0 trains could help retire the older trains faster, which would "save the state significant additional future life extension and maintenance costs".

The company missed out on the contract to build the new high-capacity trains in 2014 and has relied on a drip feed of state contracts since.

Alstom was thrown a lifeline by the Andrews government last year when it signed a $103 million contract to build five additional trains at Ballarat, which is due to wind up in April next year.

A spokesman for the company said Alstom would cease its Ballarat operations if a major new contract was not secured soon.

"If a new contract was not able to be secured in the next months, the continued operation of the Ballarat site will not be viable beyond the middle of next year," he said.

If the new contract is not signed, Alstom says it will close its Ballarat plant.

If the new contract is not signed, Alstom says it will close its Ballarat plant.

Electrical Trades Union's Ballarat organiser Damian King said workers have been sent out to "paint rocks, do gardening and clean floors" for council and local groups for 15 months over the past five years when there was no government work.

"It's probably the only time as a trade union official in 30 years that I've seen a company pay people while they do no productive work."

Rail, Tram and Bus Union branch secretary Luba Grigorovitch said workers at Ballarat had "long suffered from piecemeal orders being placed by governments that are too small to give long term job security for workers, but just enough to give political comfort".

"As we have seen with the demise of the auto industry; sadly once these workshops close and the jobs go, they don't come back."

A government spokeswoman said a decision to order the X'Trapolis 2.0 train orders would be made at a later date, based on the outcome of design works.

"The government has had a long productive working relationship with Alstom and we will continue to support local content and jobs in our pipeline of new and upgraded trains."

Since 1999, Alstom has received government orders for a total of 106 six-cart X'Trapolis trains.

The Andrews government has invested almost $500 million in 24 six-car trains, with 19 of them now in service.