Australia’s rail future on track

One thousand rail professionals from Australia and around the world gathered in Canberra in December to debate ‘Rails Role in Society’ for AusRail, the largest rail conference and exhibition in the southern hemisphere.

Hosted by the Australasian Railway Association(ARA), the two-day event included seventy technical and industry leading speakers who covered topics including high speed rail, the future of rail manufacturing in Australia, and rail engineering and rolling stock.

ARA CEO Bryan Nye said rail in its various forms plays a huge role in society.

“Here in Australia and around the world, all areas of rail, whether it be freight, passenger, light or high speed, is firmly on political and public agendas.

“Trains are no longer simply seen as a mode of transport to move goods and people but increasingly our industry is looked upon as one that can help solve the many challenges we face here in Australia and throughout the world.”

Talking to LMH, Nye said the freight haulage capacity of the network was huge.

“This year we have moved 950 million tonnes on the freight network,” he said, adding that the number is “tipped to increase in excess of a billion tonnes moved by rail” next year.

The increased use of freight rail has seen major projects develop throughout Australia, with the mining industry in particular is leading the charge, with multi-million dollar projects expanding the coal haulage capacity of major companies.

National Rail, now known as Aurizon, has announced plans for 10 new coal-train sidings as part of a $130 million train fuelling and maintenance facility at Hexam.

Aurizon said the project will lift the Hunter’s coal capacity to 180 million tonnes.

The proposal comes as federally owned Australian Rail Track Corporation plans to build five of its own sidings at Hexham, taking the total number of sidings to be built beside the main northern railway to 15.

The company expects to employ 30 people to service 12 trains a day by 2014-15, but says the number of trains will double by 2020 to 24 a day,

While also in the Hunter, Asciano’s new $110m Greta Train Support Facility opened in December.

Designed to support Pacific National’s NSW coal haulage operations and increase the efficiency of services in the Hunter Valley region, the new facility is set to provide significant capacity benefits to the broader Hunter Valley Coal Chain.

A range of functions will be performed onsite, including the refuelling of trains, routine train inspections, and wagon maintenance work.

In August last year, Asciano also opened its new $180 million train maintenance facility in Nebo, Queensland.

"Nebo is the first facility of its design in Australia and includes some of the most innovative design and maintenance techniques seen within the rail industry today, with capacity to support up to 25 coal trains, with eight bays for locomotives and two main tracks for wagon maintenance,” Geoff Featherstone, Pacific National's general manager operations QLD, said at the time.

However according to the ARA, despite increasing growth in the sector due in part to the mining boom, the transport industry is facing its own set of unique challenges.

In particular, Nye said government policies around the carbon tax and the ability to upgrade networks was essential in ensuring Australia’s national freight network remained internationally competitive.

The ARA say the carbon tax in particular will continue to have a perverse effect on rail transport.

It estimates that the tax will cost the industry in excess of $100 million in energy costs alone, and have taken issue with the exemption of heavy vehicles.

“Rail supports action on climate change. However, under this scheme, rail which is considerably less emission intensive will have to grapple with significant increases in its costs, while the more polluting road vehicles are exempt,” Nye said.

The ARA is calling for an end to the exemptions for road transport, or alternatively, want the same exemptions for rail.

The organisation estimates that if the $110 million carbon tax payed was allowed to be reinvested in the rail industry, by 2030 this would mean taking 42 500 trucks off the road.

“Where road and rail compete, we should be treated exactly the same,” Nye told Logistics and Materials Handling.

Nye said that the organisation would be pushing for an amendment to the tax, allowing for the equal treatment in payments made by trains and trucks and states it would allow the industry to become more cost-competitive.

“It means that freight by rail would be cheaper and that is what we are after, getting more freight onto the railway,” Nye explained.

But with increased haulage operations, Nye also highlighted that increased freight capacity was needed to ensure the demand was able to be met.

“Currently from Melbourne to Sydney only 5 percent of freight goes by rail,” he said. 

“I think everybody would like to see a lot more freight go by rail.”

“Part of the challenge is that everybody wants increased productivity and increased efficiency, I think the challenge is getting more freight on to rail between the capitals.

“The big challenge is to get trains through the congested city networks is a challenge.’

Pointing to the Southern Sydney Freight Line (SSFL), a dedicated 36km freight line between Birrong and Macarthur which allows passenger and freight services to operate independently, Nye said he hoped more projects like it would be invested in the government.

Separating passenger and freight rail lines will mean a reduction in freight transit times and increase freight capacity to encourage more of a shift from trucks to rail. 

“Ultimately I want to see the freight network totally segregated from the passenger network.

“If we don’t have that goal we are going to have areal challenge on our hands”

Also underway in NSW: The Northern Sydney Freight Corridor (NSFC) is a joint venture between state and federal governments to improve the capacity and reliability of freight trains between Strathfield and Newcastle.

According to Transport NSW the program will include “grade separation, track amplification, and passing loops to provide sufficient additional network capacity to meet long-term freight and passenger business requirements.”

Nye said that the construction of rail specifically for freight was the key to ensuring the network increased its reliability, which has been an issue for freight companies in terms of transporting cargo where it needs to be on definite timelines.

Upgrades to the rail network requires major capital investment by governments, and will help improve the issue, however it is also up to companies to prove they are a more efficient transport method.

“The thing we know we have to improve there is ensure we improve reliability,” Nye explained.

“One of the challenges is that as you repair and upgrade track, the train has to slowdown, so as you are doing the repairs it effects the efficiency, but we are coming to the end of that so the challenge now is to ensure our reliability.”

However, despite the challenges facing the sector, Nye said the improvements and gains made the industry in recent years were positive.

“Rail is an exciting industry be involved in.

“Employment has gone up dramatically every year for the last five years and the amount of freight we are moving is going up.”

Nye said the industry was evolving to meet its challenges and that its role in the hauling of cargo would be even more profound in the future.

“It is an industry that is on the way up,” he said.

Image: ABC, Railwaytechnology.com,