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The 40 tonne axleload will come

01 May 1997

but track and train need common management

'CONSIDER a new heavy haul railway with 40 tonne axleloads and high adhesion locos hauling frequent trains at 120 km/h, and suppose it damages your business. What are you going to say to your business manager?' This warning from Harry Tournay of Spoornet was issued to nearly 400 engineers and specialists in the heavy haul freight business at the Sixth International Heavy Haul Conference held in Cape Town on April 6-10. Delegates had spent three days deliberating on engineering advances that would allow them to haul more tonnes at lower cost. While the iron ore market has recovered from the slump of the mid-1980s, thanks in part to rising steel demand in China and other booming Asian economies, Ben Alberts of South Africa's Iron & Steel group ISCOR said that 'the price in real terms is in constant decline'.

It was against this background that Spoornet Chief Executive Braam le Roux reminded delegates that the IHHA 'was not a very natural partnership because the customers are international competitors'. How refreshing then, that IHHA members are still willing to share their expertise in the unending search for the ideal wheel-rail interface where wear is controlled to the practical minimum. Much progress has already been made - in the last 10 years, according to the IHHA's first chairman Dr Bill Harris, rail life has been extended from 600 million to 2 billion gross tonnes. All heavy haul railways stand to benefit from the unique fund of knowledge and research that exists within the IHHA, as do other railways with lower tonnages who experience the same wear problems over longer timescales.

Le Roux urged delegates 'to push the limits beyond those which enable sound sleep'. This will require the courage to exploit advanced technologies, which could include automated train health checking, 'smart' trains with on-board rolling stock monitoring and perhaps crewless operation, optic fibre rail integrity checking, and ground penetrating radar to ensure the subgrade is in good fettle. Perhaps the biggest challenge is to go beyond the 38 tonne axleload limit already being contemplated by BHP in Australia's Pilbara, with 40 tonnes and beyond forming the quantum leap that Tournay saw as missing in topics up for debate at the conference.

In contemplating the advance beyond current axleload limits, Harris warned that it was 'imperative to treat the railway as a system' and cited the cost in terms of track wear in North America in the 1970s after many railroads introduced so-called 100 ton cars (loaded weight 119·3 tonnes) - 'it wasn't long before the subgrade let us know that it wasn't very happy'. Outgoing IHHA Chairman John Reoch considered separation of operations from infrastructure to be 'fundamentally flawed', a view supported by Roy Allen, Vice President, Research & Test, at the AAR who pointed to rail grinding that had contributed to a spate of derailments affecting double-stack trains.

It will be instructive to see how aspiring IHHA members in Sweden (operator MTAB and infrastructure authority Banverket) handle the planned upgrade to 30 tonne axleloads on the Luleå - Kiruna - Narvik line; the price of getting it wrong could be high. To find out what transpires, rendez-vous in Russia in 1999 for the IHHA's next specialist technical session on the wheel-rail interface. o