INTRO: In this comprehensive guide to spending plans and projects in Australia, Mark Carter finds that more than A$8bn will be committed in 2000-01, with the possibility of that figure doubling in the short to medium term

IN A COUNTRY not known for its commitment to rail investment, the short to medium term outlook for investment in Australia’s railway infrastructure and rolling stock looks pretty healthy. Well over A$8bn worth of projects are scheduled to commence this year or in 2001, and the anticipated start on construction of the 1400 km Alice Springs to Darwin rail link later this year should assist in lifting the image of railways with the investment community.

The A$1bn investment in new rolling stock by the Victorian passenger franchises will boost the flagging fortunes of the local rolling stock industry, even if some construction takes place offshore. Much of the investment focus will be in the urban rail sector, with both Sydney and Perth on the verge of commencing A$1bn extensions to their networks. In addition, a number of projects currently under review, combined with some tentative broad-based government funding commitments for rail, could easily see this A$8bn figure double in the next year or two.

Big-ticket items

Australia has readily embraced a number of big-ticket infrastructure projects in recent years, although to date only the A$1·2bn, 1400 km Alice Springs - Darwin line has reached the final planning stages. Government funding commitments have been increased to A$485m, leaving the private Asia Pacific Transport Consortium to raise just over A$700m from the financial markets. Negotiations over financing and formal contract signing between the consortium and the South Australian and Northern Territory Governments are expected to be finalised in June, and construction of the single-track north-south transcontinental link is likely to commence towards the end of this year. Completion is expected by mid-2003.

Serious consideration of a proposed Melbourne to Darwin inland rail link, at an estimated cost of A$10bn, is some way off. The price tag reflects plans to build the line for high value merchandise trains to run at up to 300 km/h, which many feel cannot be justified given Australia’s sparse population. A more conventional link would probably result in a 50% cost reduction, and is likely to prove more viable in the future.

A study has been commissioned to examine the feasibility of an inland route from Melbourne to Brisbane as a possible first stage. The upgrading of existing rail links on the southern part of the proposed route, along with a new crossing of the Toowoomba Ranges just east of Brisbane, would cost approximately A$1bn. Studies have shown that this would show significant cost benefit advantages over the upgrading of parallel road infrastructure on the Melbourne - Brisbane corridor.

Australia has toyed with the idea of high-speed rail links for well over a decade now, but the reality still seems some way off. After a sometimes bitter bidding war during 1998 for the right to build a A$4bn high-speed link between Sydney and Canberra, the Speedrail consortium won with its proposal using TGV technology.

While at this stage not seeking direct government support, the consortium is awaiting a response to its formal proving-up submission to government which will then be followed by an Environmental Impact Statement. Given that there are suggestions that the consortium will require tax breaks and possibly other financial incentives from government, it is unlikely that contracts will be signed off for the project for at least another 12 months.

A number of large rail infrastructure projects have been proposed to support new mining operations around Australia, though at present only the proposed 340 km extension to North Ltd’s Robe River Pilbara iron ore railway in Western Australia looks likely to proceed. As part of a A$1bn expansion of its operations, the company has allocated A$400m to construct the extension to serve its untapped West Angelas deposits, following the breakdown of track access negotiations with neighbouring ore producer Hamersley Iron.

In Queensland, the exploitation of new coal deposits for power generation in the Surat Dawson Basin has resulted in a proposal for a new standard gauge railway that has the potential to form part of the proposed Melbourne - Darwin inland route. Uncertainty over future power demand requirements has recently cast some doubt on the future of this project.

Rolling stock

The Australian rolling stock industry has suffered a decline in recent years with over-capacity leading to a number of lay-offs and plant closures in the last two years. Uncertainty in the market place created by the ’on again, off again’ approach to privatisation has also led to a significant downturn in new orders.

The next three to four years should see some reversal of this trend with the partial phased renewal of the urban fleets in Sydney and Melbourne. The New South Wales government has already committed A$300m for construction of 20 four-car double-deck sets for use on the Sydney suburban network. The contract with EDI subsidiary Clyde Engineering includes an option for a further 30 units, and the contract price includes maintenance of the new units by Clyde until 2015. Work has already commenced on the new units with the first expected in service in mid-2001.

In Victoria, all five passenger franchises made significant franchise commitments including new rolling stock orders and the refurbishment of most of the remainder of their rolling stock fleets. Between them the five are expected to spend over A$1bn on new orders, with deliveries planned between 2002 and 2005.

On the V/Line Passenger country network operated by National Express, an A$158m order for 29 two-car diesel multiple-units will replace most existing locomotive-hauled consists. In a partially related development the newly elected Victorian State government has indicated that up to A$80m will be available to upgrade infrastructure to reduce transit times for country passenger services upon introduction of the new rolling stock.

Between them, Bayside Trains (National Express) and Hillside Trains (MTE) will buy 120 three-car electric multiple-units for use on the Melbourne suburban broad gauge routes at a cost of around A$714m. Yarra Trams (Metrolink) and Swanston Trams (National Express) will invest A$275m in 90 new light rail vehicles for the Melbourne tram network.

In Queensland, the Brisbane light rail project will require an as-yet unspecified number of LRVs, while construction of two 10-car diesel tilt train sets for QR’s proposed Brisbane to Cairns service has already commenced (RG 5.00 p317).

Upgrading of the National Rail and FreightCorp motive power fleets in the mid-1990s significantly reduced the average age of the Australian locomotive fleet and has since suppressed new orders, other than in Queensland and Western Australia. Once the current build of 38 locomotives with AC traction drives for QR is completed by Clyde Engineering, new locomotive orders are likely to be few and far between and of relatively small size.

Urban rail projects

New South Wales continues to lead the way with large-scale urban rail infrastructure projects. The A$700m New Southern Railway serving Sydney Airport opened in May this year and will be followed by a A$1·4bn 28 km link between Parramatta and Chatswood which will relieve anticipated congestion on the main Western line and serve expanding urban areas. Funding for this link will come from a 10-year A$3bn urban rail funding package proposed by the current NSW government under its Action for Transport programme.

A further A$800m is proposed for upgrading sections of the Sydney to Newcastle inter-urban corridor, with work expected to commence next year. The stalled A$185m project to extend the Eastern Suburbs line to Bondi Beach has been revived, and following completion of the EIS process, work on this public-private sector partnership should commence in 2001.

Not to be outdone, the West Australian government will soon announce details of its seven-year A$1·1bn project to extend its electrified narrow gauge network, both north and south. The cornerstone of this project will be the 60 km extension south serve the rapidly growing areas of Rockingham and Mandurah, on which preliminary work has already commenced.

Sydney’s new airport link has obviously spurred other state capitals into assessing their airport transit links. Construction of the Brisbane Airtrain link, which interfaces with the existing QR Citytrain network, has commenced with opening scheduled for mid-2001, while the Victorian government is pursing options for a heavy or light rail link to Tullamarine airport.

Main line upgrades

The existing heavy rail infrastructure outside the major urban centres continues to remain the poor cousin when it comes to investment. The Commonwealth government’s four-year A$250m package of upgrades for inter-state corridors is now into its second year, of which approximately half has been allocated to a proposed Sydney freight by-pass. Aspects of this proposal may be made redundant by a joint A$400m project being investigated by Australian Rail Track Corp and NSW Rail Access Corp aimed at reducing transit times on the Melbourne to Sydney corridor to a more competitive 111/2 h or less, improving rail’s performance against road.

It is not clear whether either of these projects will go ahead given the Commonwealth government’s April announcement that no additional funding is to be made available for rail in the short-term. The Commonwealth still believes that there are opportunities for private sector investment in the inter-state corridors in partnership with ARTC, though to date nothing has happened.

The West Australian government has allocated A$73m for upgrading part of the Kalgoorlie to Perth inter-state track (including an A$18m contribution from the Commonwealth) and for upgrading the Kalgoorlie to Esperance line. The latter sees heavy iron ore traffic and increasing traffic to the port facilities at Esperance. Should the Westrail business be sold in the interim, which itself will attract a price of around A$500m, the new owner will be committed to overseeing completion of these projects.

In contrast to the relatively low rate of main line investment elsewhere in Australia, QR continues its tradition of outperforming the rest of the country. It has allocated a further A$240m over the next three years for main line upgrading between Rockhampton and Townsville, prior to introduction of the diesel tilt services to Cairns.

While not a large scale project, it is significant that the Victorian government has pledged A$40m towards conversion to standard gauge of further sections of its isolated 1600mm gauge network, leased to Freight Australia.

TABLE: Table I. Heavy rail projects planned or under construction

Project Value A$m Dates State Funding

Alice Springs to Darwin 1 200 2000-03 SA/NT Private/Public

Interstate main line upgrades 250 1999-2002 WA,SA,Vic, NSW Public

Standard gauge upgrades 73 2000-02 WA Public

Rockhampton to Townsville 240 2000-02 Qld Public

West Angelas Ore Project * 400 2000-02 WA Private

Total 2 163

* includes rolling stock

TABLE: Table II. Urban rail projects planned or under construction

Project Value A$m Dates State Funding

Perth suburban extensions 1 100 2000-07 WA Public/Private

Parramatta - Chatswood link 1 400 2001-06 NSW Public

Bondi Beach link 185 2001-04 NSW Public/Private

Brisbane airport link * 240 1999-2001 Qld Public/ Private

Brisbane light rail * 235 2000-02 Qld Public/Private

Total 3 160

* includes rolling stock

TABLE: Table III. Rolling stock on order or in build

Project Value A$m Date State Funding

QR diesel tilt train 138 2000-02 Qld Public

38 x QR Class 4000 diesels 132 1999-2001 Qld Public

QR Citytrain EMUs 251 1999-2001 Qld Public

NSW SRA 4th generation 300 2000-02 NSW Public

Metrolink (Yarra) LRVs 100 By 2005 Vic Private

V/Line Passenger DMUs 158 By 2005 Vic Private

Swanston Trams LRVs 175 2002-05 Vic Private

Hillside Trains EMUs 314 By 2005 Vic Private

Bayside Trains EMUs 400 2003-05 Vic Private

Total 1 960

CAPTION: Still 1 400 km to go. The trackbed for the never-completed Alice Springs - Darwin route was started in the early 1980s. Inset: Pine Creek station on the 1 067 mm gauge Northern Australia Railway from Darwin to Birdum closed in the mid-1970s

CAPTION: A Robe River iron ore train breasts the Cooya Pooya pass en route for the coast. Parent mining group North Inc is planning a 340 km line to reach new reserves at West Angelas Photo: John Kirk

CAPTION: Many of Sydney’s current urban rail investment projects revolve around the Olympic Games in September, to be served by this new station at Homebush Bay

CAPTION: Westrail Q class diesel loco 302 leaves Kwinana Yard with a train of empty grain wagons

Photo: John Kirk

CAPTION: Right: Following the completion of QR’s Gold Coast line, the next extension to Brisbane’s suburban network will be the privately-funded airport link

CAPTION: Great Southern Railway began daytime service on the Adelaide - Melbourne Overland on May 7; BL33 leaves Keswick with a southbound train

Photo: John Kirk