An extensive upgrade of rail infrastructure in the North - South corridor between Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, on course for completion in June 2009, is intended to make rail freight operators more competitive in terms of price, availability and reliability

Tim Ryan is General Manager, North - South and Derek Harris is Manager, Infrastructure Strategy at Australian Rail Track Corp

THE OFFICIAL commissioning on October 29 of new Network Control Centres at Broadmeadow and Junee in New South Wales marked a key milestone in the massive A$1·3bn upgrading of the North - South corridor linking Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. Work is in full swing, and the project is on course for completion by June 2009. This is part of ARTC's A$2·4bn investment plan which includes significant investment in the Hunter Valley coal network.

The north-south route is one of the two principal axes for interstate rail freight movements in Australia, but for many reasons it has been less successful in terms of rail's market share against road and sea transport than the east-west corridor linking Melbourne and Sydney with Adelaide and Perth.

ARTC began work in 2005 on an aggressive capital investment programme, which we believe will enable train operators on the north-south route to deliver a step change in performance against the three key criteria that are known to determine market share: price, availability and reliability.

We have approached the investment from a business philosophy which seeks to grow the market so that revenues increase to justify the expenditure. Our investment is clearly targeted at the main performance objectives - transit time, reliability, capacity and yield - with a view to achieving a significant growth in rail's market share.

ARTC uses an elasticity model that predicts the change in rail market share given changes in availability, reliability and relative road price. This modelling shows that the investment now underway should produce considerable growth in market share. Using the medium-range forecast, and given an expected increase in the market of 40% over the next 10 years, this predicts an overall growth in rail freight volumes of 170% compared to a base case without investment (Fig 1).

Integrated approach

The creation of ARTC grew out of the National Competition Policy reforms initiated in the early 1990s (p770), which led to a view that the interstate rail network would be best managed though a single entity separate from train operations. Integral to the agreement between the federal government and the mainland states signed in 1997 was that ARTC would support the development of an integrated national rail network.

One of the critical issues was the need to ensure an integrated approach to investment. This became particularly problematic where divisions in ownership along a corridor meant that one owner could benefit from the investment of another without matching its spending. Having finally secured control of the interstate and Hunter Valley networks in NSW in September 2004, ARTC now controls the majority of the mainland rail infrastructure. For the first time in Australia, a single organisation has the means to transform the performance of the interstate rail network.

Rail has achieved significant market share growth in the east-west corridor over the past 10 years, and now has around 80% of the land transport market. Our aim now is to encourage similarly strong market share growth on the north-south route.

Business perspective

It is important to appreciate that ARTC approaches its railway operations from a business perspective with a strong commercial focus on growth. ARTC is a company established under the Australian Corporations Law and, although 100% owned by the Australian government, approaches its business as a privately-owned company would.

Rail will only take a leading role in the land transport market if it is competitive and can generate sufficient revenue to justify investment on commercial grounds.

ARTC's investment strategies are therefore driven by market needs and not by engineering policy. This is a clear and unambiguous philosophy, which defines how the company thinks and acts.

Initially, for example, the north-south investment strategy contemplated building new alignments in various places, to overcome the worst constraints of this highly-curved corridor. But after environmental and planning issues were considered, the proposals were costed at A$10m per minute saved. Greater benefits could be achieved by concentrating available funds on less expensive and more cost-effective projects.

Some of these smaller schemes, including the use of higher speed turnouts at crossings and passing loops, adding turn-out indicators to signals and repositioning speed restriction boards, are unglamorous but cheap and effective. So we have pursued such opportunities wherever they are available.

We believe that ARTC's investment will deliver cost reductions and service improvement opportunities for freight operators, enabling them to invest further in rolling stock and terminal capacity to ensure we can grow the market together. This will include continued encouragement of competition between train operators.

What drives market share?

Research in Australia has consistently shown that there are three key elements of rail's performance that influence an end customer's choice of transport mode where the task is contestable between rail, road and sea:

Freight availability: this is defined as the service offered, based on collection and delivery times from the end customer (rail is generally competing with a road alternative that offers afternoon pick-up, and delivery the following or second morning).

Reliability: the assurance that the consignment will be available at the time it is advertised.

Price: not just the rail elements, but the total cost of door-to-door transport.

When responding to these factors, ARTC uses an over-riding set of performance objectives, based on transit time, reliability, capacity, and yield (for both the train operator and infrastructure manager). The last of these is actually an outcome, in that the yield we obtain from the business will, we believe, automatically improve when we improve the other three factors.

Transit time is simply the total time a train takes to complete the journey, taking into account the capabilities of the infrastructure and operating systems.

Reliability is closely related to transit time, and requires robust programming and operating performance (including robust infrastructure) to achieve the train plan on a regular basis.

Capacity defines the number of trains that can be operated in any given period, and as such is dependant on both the infrastructure configuration and the train operating system.

To some extent these objectives are inter-related, but transit time is the key focus. From a train operator's point of view, transit time reductions will deliver cost savings as cycle time decreases and asset utilisation increases. Transit time is also a main driver of improvements in availability and reliability.

The key outcome of our current investment strategy is a reduction in average transit times of around 20%. That is equivalent to 2·8 h between Melbourne and Sydney, 3·9 h between Sydney and Brisbane and no less than 6·7 h between Melbourne and Brisbane.

There will be a range of other benefits, including cost reductions in the range of 6% to 8% and reduced conflict between freight and passenger services in the congested Sydney metropolitan area.

Delivery through alliances

For the most part ARTC has chosen to use alliance partnerships as its key delivery mechanism (RG 6.04 p353). Alliances provide access to resources in a competitive market, allow the joint development of design and construction plans, and are very flexible in practice. They also avoid the costs and delays inherent in tendering individual projects on a design and construct basis.

The selection process for partners to deliver the bulk of the capital works on the North - South corridor took place in the second half of 2005. The South Infrastructure Alliance, consisting of John Holland, MVM Rail and O'Donnell Griffin, was selected to undertake civil engineering and signalling works on the Melbourne - Sydney route. The Transport Express Alliance of Laing O'Rourke and Balfour Beatty was selected for the North Coast civil works, whilst Ansaldo STS was appointed to undertake the North Coast resignalling.

Since then, the partners have undertaken detailed design and estimating on the basis of ARTC's concept plans. In some cases this found that the preliminary estimates were not achievable under current market conditions or because of other circumstances. As a result, the programme has been amended so that it continues to maximise the performance objectives but remains affordable in the context of the ARTC business case.

Corridor-wide improvements

ARTC has a philosophy of managing trains on a corridor basis, and several elements of the programme will have an influence on the entire north - south route. Thus the two-year Train Control Consolidation project, formally inaugurated by ARTC Chief Executive David Marchant, has seen the creation of two new Network Control Centres using fully-automated Phoenix train control system technology.

Starting with Maitland in November 2006 and finishing at Cootamundra on October 19 2007, no fewer than 28 manual signalboxes across New South Wales have been closed. The two remaining manual block signalling areas on the Melbourne - Sydney line have been eliminated, and the existing CTC on the Sydney - Brisbane line has been extensively upgraded.

Control of the Port Waratah and Kooragang coal export terminals in the Port of Newcastle has been transferred to NCC North at Broadmeadow, which also assumed control of the Orange Control Centre and Dubbo signalbox areas on the Western line in July. New structures and duties have been introduced at both NCCs, based on the existing ARTC corridor management model.

This A$80m project will bring operating efficiencies which will improve the commercial performance of the business, but importantly it also gives ARTC the management tools to plan and operate trains to maximise transit time and reliability over the whole corridor.

Another key target is an increase in line speeds, particularly on sharply-curved sections of the route. Much of the Sydney - Brisbane line in particular suffers from tight curvature, making this a particularly attractive strategy. Thanks to some intensive studies undertaken with Monash University through the Australian Rail Co-operative Research Centre, we believe that it should be possible to operate trains at higher speeds through curves by allowing an increase in cant deficiency, provided that the track has sufficient strength and good geometry.

As part of the upgrade, timber sleepers between Melbourne and the Queensland border are being replaced with concrete. This will support the increase in speed through curves, but will also deliver other benefits. We expect annualised maintenance costs to be reduced significantly, giving an improved yield despite the increased capital charges (depreciation). A significant improvement in reliability is also expected, given that concrete-sleepered track is less likely to be affected by hot weather. There should also be a commensurate improvement in ride quality.

Melbourne - Sydney

Amongst the most significant projects being undertaken in the southern half of the corridor, the Southern Sydney Freight Line will provide an independent freight track between Chullora and Macarthur. This will reduce conflicts with Sydney commuter services in the southern suburbs, and remove the current 'curfew' on freight trains operating through the metropolitan area during the morning and afternoon commuter peak periods.

Between Junee and Melbourne we are building no fewer than 17 'passing lanes'. These are short sections of double track, nominally 6·8 km long, that form dynamic passing loops. By allowing trains to cross each other without stopping, this work will increase capacity and reduce transit times significantly. On the double-track section at Harden in southern New South Wales, a new overtaking loop is being installed in conjunction with resignalling. This will allow fast trains to overtake slower ones, again increasing capacity and reliability.

A new chord at Tottenham, just outside Melbourne, will provide a triangular junction between the north-south and east-west corridors, eliminating the need for trains to reverse. This will reduce operating costs for through traffic, and will open up options for train operators to use terminals other than the main Dynon facility in Melbourne.

Nevertheless, work is underway on upgrading the main line between Tottenham and Dynon, under a scheme which is being funded by a direct grant from the Australian government. This complex and congested dual-gauge section forms the throat to Melbourne's port area and principal rail freight terminal, and upgrading should provide much-needed relief as well as additional capacity.

Replacement of the life-expired Murrumbidgee River bridge at Wagga Wagga in January 2007 eliminated some severe speed and axleload limits, helping to reduce transit times.

Sydney - Brisbane

North of Sydney, much of the work in the three-year A$200m North Coast Improvement Programme focuses on facilitating a reduction of transit times for 1 500 m superfreighter trains.

No fewer than 14 crossing loops on the North Coast section between Newcastle and the Brisbane-area terminal at Acacia Ridge are being lengthened to 1 500 m, doubling the number of loops on the line that can accept full-length Superfreighter trains. As well as extra capacity, we forecast that the longer loops will reduce transit time and increase reliability. The second of these loops was officially commissioned at the end of September. The loop at Braunstone, between Coffs Harbour and Grafton, has been lengthened from 894 m to 1 695 m.

The 18 existing long loops on this section are also being upgraded and remodelled to eliminate track and signalling configurations that cause unnecessary delays when trains enter and leave the loops. This work includes the installation of higher-speed turnouts and the repositioning of signals.

The upgrade of the North Coast Line also includes replacing or rehabilitating five bridges For example, the completion in July of the 500 m Leeville viaduct south of Casino at a cost of A$7·7m has eliminated a 40 km/h restriction on the old structure (dating from 1925), which has been in place for 10 years, allowing trains to run through the area at the full 115 km/h line speed. Along the line, more than 500 000 new concrete sleepers are being installed; these are being manufactured by Rocla in Grafton.

Installation of CTC on the cross-border section between Casino and Acacia Ridge has eliminated the use of electric staff working - which required every train to stop and exchange staffs at each loop, whether it was passing another train or not. Eliminating these delays will save over 30 min in average transit times and reduce the operating and maintenance costs arising from repeated stops with long and heavy trains.

  • CAPTION: Whilst the North - South corridor upgrade will primarily benefit freight services, Rail Corp's CountryLink XPT services from Sydney to M elbourne and Brisbane should also be accelerated
  • CAPTION: ARTC's new Network Control Centre North at Broadmeadow is responsible for the route north to the Queensland borderPhotos: ARTC
  • CAPTION: On the southern section of the corridor, ARTC intends to increase capacity and improve operational flexibility by building a series of dynamic passing loops between Junee and Melbourne
  • CAPTION: Fig 1. ARTC has adopted an elasticity model to show the likely return on capital investment in terms of traffic growth over the next decade
  • CAPTION: ARTC's upgrade aims to deliver a railway capable of coping with the anticipated growth in bulk freight traffic in a cost-effective manner. Replacement of mechanical signalling and longer sections of double track are key to coping with increasing traffic
  • CAPTION: ARTC is using a concrete sleepering machine known as 'the pony' to relay track. The installation of concrete sleepers, as seen here near Maitland, New South Wales, should make the track less susceptible to the effects of hot weather
  • CAPTION: A new bridge over the Murrumbidgee river near Wagga Wagga was opened to traffic in January 2007, enabling axleloads to be increased and a severe speed restriction to be eased

More information about this work is available at: