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Rail industry moves into top gear

26 Nov 2007

Passenger and freight operations in Australia are undergoing massive revitalisation, with billions of dollars in public and private funding being invested in new and upgraded lines and rolling stock

AROUND 1 000 senior railway professionals are expected to converge in Sydney for the biennial AusRAIL Plus event on December 4-6. The three-day conference and exhibition, with a host of other networking functions, is Australasia's largest rail event and a focal point in the rail industry calendar.

The Australasian Railway Association is a key member of the steering committee, along with the Australian Rail Industry Corp, Rail Track Association Australia, the Railway Technical Society Australia and the Institution of Railway Signal Engineers. We believe there is much to discuss this year.

Australia's railways can celebrate a veritable transformation in efficiency and service quality, brought about through a transformation in ownership, operations and technology, supported by booming demand for key commodities, rapidly-growing passenger and freight traffic, and unprecedented levels of investment in infrastructure and rolling stock.

Mineral resources boom

Driving much of the freight investment is the continuing resources boom - Australia's mineral and energy export earnings are tipped to grow by 4% to A$112bn in 2007-08.

Mining companies in Western Australia's Pilbara region are leading the charge, with huge investments in their heavy haul railway and port infrastructure to feed a seemingly insatiable appetite for iron ore in eastern Asia - and especially in China.

BHP Billiton Iron Ore now operates a network with more than 1 000 km of track, using a fleet of over 70 diesel locomotives and more than 4 000 wagons. Its typical trains are now 3·8 km long, with six locos rated at 6 000 hp hauling more than 26 000 tonnes of ore in 200 wagons. At Port Hedland, solar-powered computers control train movements, inspect passing trains for unsafe conditions and weigh each loaded wagon on the move.

With around 1 200 km of track, the Rio Tinto Iron Ore network links the Hamersley and Robe River mines to ports at Dampier and Cape Lambert. RTIO's fleet includes almost 6 000 wagons and more than 60 diesel locos.

The newest player in the Pilbara region is Fortescue Metals, which is currently building a 240 km line to new port facilities at Port Hedland, financed by a capital investment of A$3·7bn. Fortescue's first shipment of iron ore is scheduled for May 2008.

Meanwhile, on the eastern side of the country rail infrastructure in Queensland and New South Wales is being upgraded to cope with a boom in Australia's other big mineral resource - coal. In contrast to the dedicated single-user facilities in WA, coal traffic must share rail and port infrastructure. The mining companies share ownership of their terminals, but rely on the states for the provision of rail infrastructure. This has been blamed for recent bottlenecks restricting supply and creating enormous queues of ships.

State-owned Queensland Rail transported a record 177 million tonnes of coal in 2006-07 in both Queensland and NSW. QR's five coal networks - Newlands, Goonyella, Moura, Blackwater and Western - today represent 2 000 km of track. With annual traffic volumes forecast to reach 230 million tonnes/year over the next five years, QR is investing A$3bn to expand its rail infrastructure.

In NSW, a group of mining companies including BHP Billiton is proposing to build a new A$800m terminal to increase throughput at Newcastle, already the world's biggest coal port. This will put pressure on the local rail network, although recent investment to upgrade the infrastructure has boosted capacity.

Rail freight resurgent

Away from the mining networks, rail freight is also booming thanks to changes in railway ownership and improved efficiency (p770). Where each state once developed its own rail network, freight is now largely handled by two national operators - one publicly-owned and one private - who are delivering seamless service across state boundaries.

Most of the interstate network is now controlled by the Australian Rail Track Corp, created in 1997 by agreement between the Commonwealth and state governments as a 'one-stop shop' for operators seeking access to the network.

Through ARTC and the land transport funding plan (AusLink), the Commonwealth government expects to invest more than A$2·4bn in infrastructure improvements, including A$820m on the Melbourne - Sydney - Brisbane corridor. This is expected to reduce the average journey time for the 1·5 km long 'superfreighters' by 2½ h between Melbourne and Sydney and by 4 h between Sydney and Brisbane.

Among the major freight operators are Pacific National, which provides intermodal services to all state capitals on the Australian mainland as well as other major regional centres including the main ports, and Toll, which provides integrated logistics services. Australian Railroad Group, now part of QR, has bulk freight operations in WA and NSW, whilst Adelaide-based Genesee & Wyoming Australia provides intrastate haulage of bulk commodities (including grain, steel, gypsum and minerals) over nearly 5 000 route-km. SCT Logistics was the first private company in Australia to operate a non-government freight service on the interstate rail network.

Finally completed in 2005, the long-planned Adelaide - Darwin route is owned and operated by FreightLink under a 50-year concession. The company currently runs five general freight trains a week each way, connecting with services to other interstate locations. It also hauls bulk minerals destined for China from mines along the route to the port of Darwin.

Most interstate passenger services are in the hands of Great Southern Railway, now owned by Serco Asia Pacific. GSR operates the Indian Pacific (Sydney - Adelaide - Perth), The Ghan (Adelaide - Alice Springs - Darwin) and The Overland (Melbourne - Adelaide).

Urban rail investment

State governments are also investing heavily in upgrading and expanding their urban passenger rail services, with the introduction of new technology.

In Queensland, passenger demand increased by 13% in 2006-07 compared to the previous year. The state govern-ment expects to spend A$7bn over 20 years to improve the Brisbane network, with 144 km of new track and 44 additional EMUs (MR07 p26). QR will take delivery of a new trainset every month until the end of 2010, giving it the capacity to provide 30 000 extra seats per day.

Every weekday the NSW rail network centred on Sydney handles more than 900 000 passenger-journeys. Once criticised for under-investing in capacity and maintenance, the state is now spending A$1bn to improve reliability, capacity and safety. Next year will see completion of the A$2bn orbital line from Epping to Chatswood. Another A$8bn of investment is planned over the next 15 years to develop further links to Sydney's northwestern and southwestern suburbs, and improve the capacity of the network in the central area.

Melbourne's metropolitan rail network is also experiencing its biggest increase in patronage on record. Over the past two years ridership has jumped by 23%, putting pressure on network capacity and reliability. Southern Cross station - formerly Spencer Street - has been redeveloped as a world-class public transport interchange, linked by fast rail services to major towns across Victoria.

Western Australia is currently spending A$1·66bn expanding and extending the metropolitan passenger train network, with an extension to the Northern Suburbs line recently opened and a new route south to Mandurah due to be inaugurated before Christmas.

National strategy essential

Australia's rail industry is undergoing a veritable renaissance. But with indications that the volume and movement of freight will double over the next 20 years, and road congestion in urban areas expected to cost the national economy A$30bn by 2015, there is an urgent need for the Commonwealth government to develop a clear policy on transport. Issues such as competition, economic regulation, access pricing and public transport planning must all be addressed if the rail industry is to have a stable and balanced framework for future investment.

The AusLink programme marks an initial commitment towards better transport planning: the A$2·4bn allocated for the five years to 2009 is the largest single investment in rail freight by the Commonwealth government in Australian history. However, investment on this scale needs to be backed up by a national logistics plan.

Demand for urban passenger services is growing rapidly, due to steep increases in fossil fuel prices and their impact on household incomes. There is also growing awareness of the threat that vehicle emissions pose to the environment, and of the negative impact that road congestion is having on the economy. All these factors require the government to reassess its role in public transport. If Australia is to meet its transport challenges, a different approach to determining transport policy is required, and this will depend on a joint effort by government and industry.

The rail industry is working hard to overcome a legacy of entrenched practices, and we are adopting new technology to solve tomorrow's problems. For example, the adoption of common communications standards for both urban passenger and freight trains across Australia is an achievement as significant in operational terms as overcoming the break of gauge between different networks. But there is much more to be achieved if we are truly to lead Australia's railways into the future.

The rail industry, like all industries that are growing in Australia, is facing skills shortages. We are looking at how to improve the way we manage our people and use technology where appropriate. We are also keen to address rail's image so that the industry is seen as an employer of choice.

Australia's railways are aware of these challenges and for the first time in its long history the industry is taking steps to tackle them together in a progressive and cohesive way.

It is our vision to make Australia's railways the transport mode of choice, because of rail's economic, environmental and social advantages. We look forward to more trains carrying increased volumes of freight and enhanced passenger services to support our communities.

  • CAPTION: Surging demand for iron ore to feed the booming Asian economies is driving up traffic on the heavy-haul railways in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. Both BHP Billi ton and Rio Tinto are investing to raise capacity
  • CAPTION: Urban road congestion and environmental concerns are driving up the use of urban rail services in the major cities. Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Perth are investing heavily to improve and expand their rail networks

AusRAIL Plus

AusRAIL Plus is being held at the Sydney Convention & Exhibition Centre, Darling Harbour, on December 4 - 6 2007.

For further details contact:

AusRAIL Plus 2007
120 Sussex Street, Sydney,
NSW 2001, Australia
Tel: +61 2 9080 4307

Visit Railway Gazette International at AusRAIL Plus 2007