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Australian dream is close to take-off

01 Jun 2001

WORK was expected to get under way last month on the 1420 km rail link between Alice Springs and Darwin, following the assembly of a financing package for the project on April 20 (RG 5.00 p282). First proposed in 1858, a north-south rail link became a federal commitment in 1911. After various attempts, the AustralAsia Railway Corp was founded in 1996 by the Northern Territory and South Australian governments to develop the line as a privately financed project.

The AustralAsia Railway will complete the link between the present railhead at Alice Springs and a new deep-water port at Darwin, providing a faster route for trade between Australia and Asia. It will also enhance economic development in Central and Northern Australia.

According to the Northern Territory government, 'the rail-port project will service world-scale resource, energy and agribusiness projects from the Kimberley to Carpentaria.' After 25 years of operation, the line is expected to have increased total employment in the territory by 5200.

The Asia Pacific Transport Pty Ltd consortium selected for the 50-year build-own-operate-transfer concession signed a commercial agreement with the federal and state governments last October. APTC will contribute A$750m towards the A$1·23bn total cost. Led by Brown & Root, APTC includes Barclay Mowlem, John Holland, Macmahon Holdings, Genesee & Wyoming's Australian Railroad Group and PGA.

Construction programme

An A$1015m contract for design and construction has been awarded to the ADrail joint venture. This is formed by the construction partners in the consortium: John Holland, Barclay Mowlem, Halliburton/Brown & Root, and Macmahon. Based in Darwin, ADrail also has an office in Adelaide.

APTC has contracted to spend 70% of the project value within South Australia and the Northern Territory, including supplies, subcontracting and labour. Large contracts with local contractors and suppliers were negotiated earlier this year, ready for immediate confirmation following the financial close.

The three-year construction phase is expected to employ around 2000 people. The work involves construction of more than 100 bridges and 750 culverts, followed by the laying of 2 million m3 of ballast, 2 million concrete sleepers, and 150000 tonnes of 50 kg/m rail. Pandrol Australia has been chosen as sole supplier of fastenings, using its Fastclip design.

A substantial amount of pre-construction work had already been carried out before the financial close, allowing work to start immediately. Construction is being progressed simultaneously on two fronts: south from Katherine and north from Tennant Creek. The crews will then work north from Katherine to Darwin and south from Tennant Creek to Alice Springs. This programme is designed to take account of the region's wet season.

There will be six mobile construction camps, holding between 30 and 250 workers, operating from 16 locations. In addition, permanent camps will be located at Katherine and Tennant Creek.

Construction of bridges and culverts is expected to take two years, with up to nine bridge construction crews of 8 to 15 people. Precast concrete for the bridges will be sourced from existing precast yards in Darwin as well as new concrete sleeper facilities being established in Katherine and Tennant Creek.

Barclay Mowlem will be responsible for design and construction of the trackwork, and supply of concrete sleepers. Tracklaying is scheduled to start later this year, with machines operating from Katherine and Tennant Creek. Each train is expected to lay up to 1600m of track a day, requiring up to 7 sleepers a minute. Construction is expected to be complete in early 2004.

Operating subsidiary

Under the concession, APTC will also be given the rights to upgrade and operate the existing standard-gauge railway between Tarcoola and Alice Springs, which was completed by Australian National in 1980. Freight operations on the route, including the Darwin Port Freight Terminal will be managed by another subsidiary, known as FreightLink. APTC's principal railway operating partner is ARG, which includes Australia Western and Australia Southern.

The APTC partners have also formed a separate subsidiary to own and exercise the rights to develop services and utilities along the rail corridor.

John Holland's Managing Director Bill Wild is confident that the railway will be a success. 'We expect to see a significant amount of the freight that is currently transported to South East Asia by sea eventually being carried on our line.'

While the main focus of the railway is on freight, the twice-weekly Adelaide - Alice Ghan passenger train will be extended to Darwin. This is expected to bring extra tourism business to NT