KiwiRail chief executive calls on NZ government to boost the “rundown” network

Greg Miller, KiwiRail Group chief executive said there is far greater demand for rail services than the group is able to supply.

In his address to the Transport and Infrastructure Select Committee on the Land Transport (Rail) Legislation Bill on February 20, Miller explained why 92 per cent of freight in New Zealand does not travel by rail.

“The reason is simple. Our rail lines and our freight systems are so run down that it has taken a huge level of commitment from both the Government and from our team to start moving the company into a position where it can return to profit,” he said to the committee.

The NZ Ministry of Transport stated that the objective of the Land Transport (Rail) Legislation Bill is to implement a new planning and funding framework for the heavy rail track network owned by KiwiRail. 

Miller said the draft New Zealand Rail Plan plays an important role in KiwiRail’s turnaround plan.

“The draft NZ Rail Plan lays out a pathway for sustainable planning and funding that will allow rail to play the important role it should in the country’s transport system,” Miller said.

Miller said the group has failed to meet demand into growth due to historic short term decisions that have seen cost cutting resulting in lack of drivers, locomotives, wagons and fully usable track.

“We have had no capacity for market reclamation,” he said.

Miller said to the committee that KiwiRail’s strategy to return to profitability and deliver a good return to our shareholders is threefold. We aim to run more services, get the equipment we need to be able to grow capacity, and put in place the technology that will enable us to track freight, profit, and loss centres.

Miller also addressed road sector concerns, telling the committee the draft New Zealand Rail Plan is a way to return rail to complement road. 

“Freight moved by rail results in 66 per cent lower carbon emissions than freight moved by road. Rail freight is not just efficient long distance. Every one of our customers has a lens on the environmental impact and incorporates these benefits into every rail decision made,” he said.

“With increasing freight volumes, growing road congestion and maintenance costs and the need to meet emission reduction targets, rail is a critical part of our transport system.”

This follows Greater Wellington Regional Council’s Transport Committee agreement to reduce transport-generated regional carbon emissions and invest more funding for regional rail on February 20.

Roger Blakeley, transport committee chair said the committee agreed to strategic priorities for the 2019-22 triennium.

One of the key performance measures for these targets is the contribution to a 30 per cent reduction in regional transport-generated carbon emissions by 2030.

“Contributing to the regional target of a 40 per cent increase in regional mode share from public transport and active modes, [rail] will be the major contributor to a reduction in carbon emissions,” Blakeley said.

On Tuesday KiwiRail welcomed the NZ government decision to use the Provincial Growth Fund to invest $9.6 million in the Kawerau Container Terminal (KCT).

Miller said KiwiRail’s role will be to build the new rail siding and to run week-day train services beginning in 2021 between Kawerau and Port of Tauranga.

“The siding opens the way for containerised exports to travel directly to Port Tauranga from Kawerau,” he said.

 “Export containers from Norske Skog, Sequal Lumber, and Waiu Dairy will underpin the new train service as well as creating capacity for other exporters in the region.

“This is part of road and rail working together in a much more integrated way, improving efficiency and saving costs.”

The project is expected to take about 18 months to complete.

Concern over toxic soil to be dumped at a V/Line rail yard

$172.9 million V/Line stabling yard development could potentially be used as a temporary holding site for contaminated soil with possible carcinogens PFAS and asbestos.

The Wyndham Vale rail yard is set to be occupied by V/Line as a maintenance and storage space to replace the Footscray train stabling site which is being removed as part of the West Gate Tunnel works.

The $6.7 billion project requires 2.3 million tonnes of soil to be relocated offsite. The 82-hectare government-owned site in Melbourne’s west is being considered by officials following a meeting with Wyndham Council this week.

The Rail, Tram and Bus Union (RTBU) are raising concerns for the health and safety of rail workers if the soil was dumped next to the V/Line rail yard.

Luba Grigorovitch, Victorian Secretary of RTBU wrote in a letter to state Government officials on Monday that she is “deeply concerned” the toxic soil would pose a huge risk to workers and residents.

Grigorovitch told Rail Express that she is demanding confirmation from the government whether soil would contaminate the air conditioning systems of the Geelong-Melbourne trains, which run directly alongside the site.

The state secretary for the union said they’ve been inundated with calls from concerned V/line workers. 

“Our members don’t want to be operating alongside contaminated soil,” she said.

“This government seems to be infamous for passing the buck. We’ll be  undergoing full safety audits and testing before giving the ok for our members to be working at the site.”

The new facility is designed to meet interpeak stabling needs for V/Line trains operating on the regional rail network, while also ensuring there is capacity to house additional trains in the future.

The project will involve construction of a stabling yard, driver facilities and a bypass track connected to the Geelong line, which will allow trains to access the facility without delaying passenger services.

38 new VLocity carriages are arriving to the V/Line network early this year and there are concerns that there isn’t enough facilities for the growing network.

V/Line stated in 2018 that stabling capacity would be exceeded by March 2019.

The Age obtained an internal V/Line document under freedom of information laws, reporting that “the rail yard was needed to run a greater number of services on the network and to operate new trains reliably”.

According to the internal document, the lack of maintenance infrastructure will continue to impact on performance and shortages will impact V/Line’s reliability.

A government spokeswoman told the Hearld Sun that if Wyndham Vale was a temporary site it would not disrupt rail operations.

“Transurban and its builder are working with project parties to find a long-term solution to manage the rock and soil from tunnelling – no decision has been made,” she said.

Department of Transport spokeswoman said operations of the stabling facility will not be compromised.

“While a decision on where to temporarily hold soil from tunnelling for the West Gate Tunnel is yet to be made, the land in question is outside the Wyndham Vale stabling facility so if the site was ever used it would not impact the timing or operations of the new stabling facility,” she said to The Age.

The Wyndham Vale rail yard is metres away from proposed housing estates and four planned schools.

Treasurer Tim Pallas and member for Werribee said on air during a 3AW interview that it won’t be a long-term containment.

“Any suggestion that there is going to be long-term containment or toxic facility is just nonsense,” Mr Pallas told 3AW.

“What is proposed at Wyndham Vale is essentially a short-term place where it is isolated from the environment and if it is ever used – it may well not ever be used – it’s only if you can’t get access to the long-term facility.”

The stabling project is funded by the state government and is still under construction and set to open in the coming months.

Murray Basin Rail Project has run out of steam

The $440 million Murray Basin Rail Project needs urgent assistance to help complete the half-finished upgrades, according to the Rail Freight Alliance (RFA).

It’s been more than six months since the Victorian Government acknowledged the project had run out of funding. An Auditor General’s report is due next month to conduct a thorough review and investigation of the upgrade.

The RFA is calling on the state government to quickly fund the rest of the Murray Basin Rail Project.

Reid Mather, RFA chief executive officer said he is exceptionally disappointed at the current status of the project that is still yet to meet the scope of stage 2 that was due for completion in 2018.

Mather says the entire project will have to start from scratch and revisit stage 1 and 2.

“There is now a big slab of rail lines in Victoria that are exceptionally wrong due to underwhelming upgrades,” he said.

The completion of stage one, which began five years ago, included carrying out essential maintenance works across 3,400m of rail and roughly 130,000 sleepers in the Mildura freight line between Yelta and Maryborough.

The entire project is intended to convert parts of the Victorian freight rail network’s historical broad gauge to the standard gauge used in most other parts of Australia to enable tracks to have a higher axle loads for more efficient intrastate freight transfer.

However Mather claims that operators are saying that the network is slower than ever before.

Mather said Mildura to Melbourne was previously a 12 hour direct route before the upgrade project. In stage one, 30km of stabling was removed which now requires trains to route around Ararat and Geelong – now 17 hours a journey from Mildura to Melbourne.

“It is unacceptable. There is now a reduced capacity and uncertainty,” Mather said. 

Rail Projects Victoria is reported to be the organisation to carry out the review.

A Department of Transport spokesman told the Ararat Advertiser that the review would determine the most cost-effective outcomes of any future spending and make recommendations on the way forward.

“The Murray Basin Rail Project is delivering better, more efficient freight services for Victoria and continues to be a key project for the Victorian and Australian governments,” the DoT spokesman told the Ararat Advertiser.

“The project has already seen freight trains return to the Mildura and Murrayville to Ouyen lines with standard gauge access, and to the Maryborough to Ararat line, which has been reopened after 15 years,

“We know how vital this project is for our regional communities and the Victorian Government is working with the Federal Government to review the Murray Basin Rail Project business case, to jointly determine the best way forward.”

The state government last year announced the remaining $23m of the $440m federal and state money set aside for the project would go on urgent repairs to the Manangatang line and a new business case.

A spokeswoman for Transport Infrastructure Minister Jacinta Allan said a business case would be handed to the federal authorities by early to mid-2020.

Mather said the window for getting federal budget funding, to complete the project, was rapidly closing and requires urgent attention from state and federal officials.

“Works were meant to be completed by 2018 and certainly won’t be starting this year. The current network is in grid lock and it’s time to get the bones right,” Mather said.

“It’s all in the [government’s] hands.”

The most expensive railway in the world gets the green light

Eight of the UK’s largest cities will now be connected by rail, following Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s approval of the High Speed 2 (HS2). 

During a parliamentary hearing on Tuesday, 11 February, Johnson declared the decision has been taken to proceed with HS2 following consideration of the independent Oakervee review.

Johnson told parliament he plans to appoint a dedicated minister to oversee and manage the project to ensure no “further blowouts on either cost or schedule”.

In a statement released by the Prime Minister’s office, a spokesperson said HS2 will become “the spine” of the country’s transport network.

Grant Shapps, UK Transport Secretary, said the government is clear the project must reform and improve, with clearer accountability and transparency.

“I’ve been clear that we needed all the facts to decide the way forward with HS2,” Shapps said.

“Fully informed by a comprehensive and detailed scrutiny of all the facts, now is the time to drive HS2 forward, alongside a ‘High Speed North’ plan to give the North and Midlands the capacity and connectivity it vitally needs.”

The total HS2 network will be 330 miles. Phase 1 from London to Birmingham and 2a from Birmingham to Crewe is confirmed by Johnson to be constructed, while Phase 2b to Manchester and Leeds will be reviewed.

The project was originally expected to cost around £33 billion and the plan is now estimated at £106bn ($205bn), making HS2 the most expensive railway in the world.

The first stage of the line was approved in 2017 but was put on hold by the Government last year.

Under the current plans, the line is due to be completed in 2040 and Johnson has stated he wants to bring the finish date forward by 5 years to 2035.

The Financial Times has reported that the China Railway Construction Corporation (CRCC) had written to HS2 Ltd’s chief executive last month, stating they could complete a build of the line in just five years and at a reduced cost.

However, Shapps said on air during a Sunday morning talk show that he has not been in contact with CRCC.

“They have clearly had a letter sent to HS2 Ltd, there has been no conversation with me as a minister, as the secretary of state.”

Shapps said the government would be “fools” to not have a conversation about whether the project could be built faster than the proposed 15 year time frame. 

The UK Department of Transport executives have previously confirmed that preliminary discussions had taken place between CCRC and HS2 Ltd, but there are no “concrete commitments” at this stage.

CRCC has built most of China’s 15,500-mile high-speed network.

Darren Caplan, chief executive of the UK Railway Industry Association, said HS2 could unlock “a new golden age of rail”.

“HS2 will not just boost the UK’s economy and connectivity, but will also enable other major rail infrastructure projects to be delivered too,” Caplan said.

“So we now urge everyone – whatever their previous view on HS2 – to get behind this important project and to work together with the railway industry to deliver the full scheme.”

Supporters say the project is necessary to ease congestion on the core of Britain’s rail network, as current lines share long-distance express, local, and freight services.

The Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (CILT) said the HS2 line is essential to tackling systemic congestion in the UK transport system. 

A spokesperson for CILT said the institute is urging the Prime Minister, in parallel with HS2 Phase 1 and in advance of HS2 Phase 2b and future HS3/Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) works, investment is also committed to improve the number and size of trains that can operate on existing routes.

The CILT spokesperson said the institute is pleased the project has been given the immediate go-ahead and believes HS2 has a greater benefit for freight.

“Britain’s manufacturers, retailers, and ports are keen to move more of their goods by rail. This will accelerate as the implications of achieving Net Zero carbon by 2050 become clearer,” they said.

“The Institute’s belief is that electric trains carrying goods on the trunk haul, linking with electric-lorries for final delivery to customers in towns and cities, offers an attractive option for near-full decarbonisation of the supply chain once goods reach the UK.”

The UK government appointed Douglas Oakervee to analyse the HS2. The review was published alongside the Prime Minister’s approval announcement last week.

The review that it strongly advises against cancelling the scheme.

“If HS2 were to be cancelled, many years of planning work would be required to identify, design and develop new proposals. The upgrading of existing lines would also come at a high passenger cost with significant disruption,” the review document stated.

Douglas Oakervee, Chair of the independently-led review into HS2 said he is proud of the work that the review panel has carried out.

“The Review’s Report is a comprehensive appraisal of a challenging project. I believe the recommendations help offer it a way forward,” Oakervee said.

Once it is built, journeys will be shorter. London to Birmingham travel times will be cut from one hour, 21 minutes to 52 minutes, according to the Department for Transport.

Victorian Intermodal freight hub seeking a developer and operator

Development Victoria (DV) is seeking a developer and operator of the Ballarat intermodal freight hub terminal.

The Victorian Government is requesting expressions of interest to develop the intermodal freight hub on the Ballarat to Ararat railway line which is part of the Ballarat West Employment Zone (BWEZ).

Development Victoria said the BWEZ will allow freight and logistics enterprises to have exceptional access to road, rail, and aviation infrastructure. The freight network will link Melbourne, regional and rural Victoria, Adelaide and the ports of Melbourne, Geelong, and Portland.

It is proposed that the successful respondent will take on design and delivery risk, demand and operational cost risk, manage the commercial return based on these risks and the services provided.

Operational arrangements are likely to be effected through a lease agreement with VicTrack.

Federal government funding of $9.1 million was provided in the 2014 federal Budget for the development of the facility. Potential additional funding from the State via DV will be made available if required.

There is some flexibility around the physical configuration of the Facility to allow for rail siding (either linear or loop), and it is expected that the successful respondent will have operational access to the connected rail stub and associated signalling which will be delivered by the State up to the eastern boundary of the Facility connecting from the main-line.

The civil works for Stages 1 and 1B of BWEZ are complete with a large percentage of land having been sold. 

The head of Rail Freight Alliance has publicly said Victoria will only benefit from the proposed intermodal freight hub once the Murray Basin Rail Project is complete.

The Murray Basin Rail Project (MBRP) is improving key freight centres in Victoria and encouraging competition and private investment in the rail freight network.

MBRP stated that an increased axle loading will allow higher volumes of product to be safely freighted across the network, allowing trains to carry up to 500,000 more tonnes of grain each year.

The first stage was completed in 2016 and freight trains have returned to the Mildura line and to the reopened Maryborough to Ararat line. V/Line crews are working to finalise and bed in the track to complete stage 2 of 3 for the project.

Catherine King, federal member of Ballarat and shadow minister infrastructure, transport and regional development said the BWEZ facility is located alongside existing road and rail infrastructure, enabling the freight hub to connect with more locations.

“A truck will be able to come in straight off the Western Highway and either head in to a manufacturer or connect up with the rail line and deliver products further afield,” she said.

“The prospect of future infrastructure upgrades to the adjoining Ballarat Airport site will open up even more opportunities across the Ballarat region, but this will only come with support from governments at a state and federal level.”

Respondant registration closes on March 3 and EOI submission must be made by March 13, closing at 3pm.

Aurizon’s revenue rises to $1.53bn

Aurizon Holdings Limited revenue has increased by $73.4 million or five per cent in the 2019/20 first-half earnings before interest and tax.

Australia’s largest rail-based transport business has released a half year report for the period ending 31 December 2019, detailing new growth in the company.

Aurizon stated in the report that the higher revenue is offset by the sale of the rail grinding business.

A spokeswoman from Aurizon said the large sale transaction for the rail grinding business was completed with Loram in October 2019 for $167m with $105m net gain on sale (not included in underlying earnings).

With revenue up five per cent to a total of $1.53 billion, the company’s underlying net profit rose 19 per cent to $268.9m.

The group credited the UT5 Undertaking as a factor that improved revenue. In December last year, Queensland Competition Authority (QCA) approved the agreement that governs access to its rail network. 

Aurizon executives stated that the company’s financial position and performance was partially affected by the closure and sale of Acacia Ridge Intermodal Terminal. 

Two years ago the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) opposed the sale of Acacia Ridge Intermodal Terminal and commenced proceedings against Aurizon and Pacific National in the Federal Court. Aurizon and the proposed new owner of the terminal, Pacific National, both filed notices of cross-appeal that will be heard by the full Federal Court later in February. 

Aurizon executives highlighted its full-year earning guidance to $930 million from $880 million. This figure was noted before assumed impacts from the Australian bushfires and the world health emergency, coronavirus.

The coronavirus has delayed the arrival of 66 rail wagons being made in the epicentre of the disease, Wuhan in China. 

A spokeswoman from Aurizon said an initial order of 66 wagons have already been delivered and the remaining 66 wagons are planned for delivery in February or March.

The first batch of 132 coal wagons have been completed by our supplier. The construction of the second tranche of 132 wagons has been delayed due to a slow down of production in China,” the spokeswoman said.

Operating costs increased $13.9m or 2 per cent, which were identified as due to to increased labour costs.

Aurizon’s network operates the 2,670km CQCN, the largest coal rail network in Australia. 

Aurizon executives stated in the 2019/20 half year report that 58 per cent of the company’s revenue, a total of $887.5m, was from transporting coal from mines in Queensland and NSW to customer ports.

Operational performance across the network  “remained strong” during the first half of the new financial year, according to Aurizon.

Total system availability improved from 81 per cent to 82.2 per cent, and cycle velocity improved 4 per cent.

Aurizon’s executives said the focus has been on the trial and implementation of schedule adherence in the Blackwater system in QLD.

Compared to the previous half, the network delivered an average reduction in turnaround time of 1.2 hours per service and both on-time arrival to mine and to port increased.

Aurizon’s executives said the network is now working with operators to improve the current scheduling process by realigning maintenance constraints to unlock capacity and optimising the weekly Intermediate Train Plan to avoid pathing contests between operators. The report stated that system throughput is expected to increase, in the third quarter of this year.

Additional $2 billion investment to put Melbourne’s airport rail on track

A private consortium involving Melbourne Airport and Metro trains are offering to invest an extra $2 billion to build a dedicated track from the CBD to Melbourne’s West as part of the airport rail project.

IFM Investors, a fund manager owned by 27 superannuation funds, as part of the AirRail consortium are proposing to build a 6km tunnel between Melbourne and Sunshine, 12km west of Melbourne’s CBD.

IFM Investors have written to the Victorian and federal government on Thursday last week to offer a further $2 billion investment on top of the $5bn initially proposed in 2018.

IFM are proposing a market-led solution to the new track, calling for a new rail tunnel in a letter sent to Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews and Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

“A project option that includes a tunnel between the CBD and Sunshine delivers the best airport rail solution particularly when compared with a MARL that utilises the Melbourne Metro Project,” wrote IFM.

The Age reported that federal and Victorian government plans for an airport rail line will involve a route via the Metro Tunnel to Sunshine, with a new track to be built between Tullamarine and Sunshine.

In 2016 a Metro Tunnel business case rejected a 2012 Public Transport Victoria plan to run airport trains through the $11bn metro tunnel, currently under construction until 2025.

The federal and Victorian state governments had previously agreed to a $10bn joint commitment to the Melbourne airport rail link.

A Victorian government spokesperson said in May last year that part of the budget also includes additional tracks between Sunshine and the CBD that would be part of Melbourne Airport Rail Link.

Every airport rail option being assessed would include a stop at Sunshine to connect to Geelong, Ballarat, and Bendigo services, according to a Victorian government spokeswoman.

The AirRail consortium, that also includes Metro Trains, Southern Cross Station, and Melbourne Airport will request that the State Government is charged a toll every time a Metro or V/LIne train runs through the new rail tunnel for operating and maintenance purposes.

IFM says it wants to operate the tunnel over a 40-year concession period.

According to the letter, the access payment from regional trains that use the tunnel would recoup an appropriate share of the significant capital cost of building the tunnel.

IFM have stated they do not wish to constrain regional or metro services due to frequent airport trains and decisions on service, pricing, and timetabling would remain wholly with the Victorian government.

AirRail Melbourne has been ready to commence construction on the infrastructure project since 2019 and IFM is waiting for the green light to start the build. Australian rail suppliers have also contacted IFM to propose their interest as potential contractors for the project.

In June 2019 the Victorian government announced that Rail Projects Victoria (RPV) will be developing a detailed business case for Melbourne Airport Rail.

The Victorian state Government said the business case will be delivered by 2020 and will assess station and procurement options, value capture and creation opportunities, and economic analysis of the recommended solution.

AirRail Melbourne proposed in a 2018 blueprint that 20-minute travel times will be expected to the city, using dedicated rollingstock.

“Our ambition is to have a train journey to the airport from the city that is fast, affordable and meets the needs of travellers,” a spokesperson for federal Minister for Urban Infrastructure Alan Tudge was quoted by The Age last year.

Alstom receives first order for battery-electric trains

To meet the demand for electrically powered trains on a non-electrified line, rail manufacturer Alstom will build, deliver, and maintain 11 battery-electric trains.

The Coradia Continental trains will operate on the Leipzig-Chemnitz route for German rail authorities VMS (Verkehrsverbund Mittelsachsen) and ZVNL (Zweckverband für den Nahverkehrsraum Leipzig).

The announcement follows the 2014 decision by VMS to purchase 29 Coradia Continental electric regional trains (EMUs), however 80km of the line between Chemnitz and Leipzig is not electrified, leading VMS to request a battery-electric version.

Alstom expects the trains to enter service in 2023, being built at Alstom’s rail yards in Salzgitter, Lower Saxony. The battery traction sub-system will be designed and supplied by Alstom’s traction centre in Tarbes, France.

The order is the first battery train order for Alstom, and represents a step forward for the company in providing emissions-free rollingstock, said Gian Luca Erbacci, senior vice president of Alstom Europe.

“Today, Alstom stands apart in being able to offer any form of emission-free traction currently on the market built into a proven solution. As a responsible company, Alstom has an intense focus on sustainable mobility, offering the best-fitting solutions that make it not only possible, but also cost-effective and attractive,” said Erbacci.

The 56m long and 150-seat Coradia Continental BEMU have a range of up to 120km. The trains can travel at a top speed of 160km/h in battery mode.

The order for the BEMU comes after Alstom has introduced the Coradia iLint which is powered by hydrogen fuel cells. According to a statement from Alstom the iLint trains have a performance comparable to diesel-powered trains, and have been in passenger service in Germany for more than one year.

NZ City Rail Link commences next stage of construction

Building works have started on the Aotea underground station in central Auckland part of New Zealand’s City Rail Link (CRL).

Dale Burtenshaw, deputy project director for the Link Alliance consortium which is building the stations and tunnels for the CRL project, said construction of the Aotea station under the intersection is “massive in scale”.

Construction of the station, platform and tunnels continues will continue below ground until 2021.

Wellesley Street West intersection with Albert Street and Mayoral Drive will close to road traffic from Sunday, 1 March 2020 and is set to reopen in a year.

This follows the removal of the information hub building in the middle of Beresford Square last month to construct the station under nearby Karangahape Road.

The CRL is set to be a 3.45km twin-tunnel underground rail link up to 42 metres below the Auckland city centre.

The depth of the two new underground stations will be 11m at Aotea and 33m at Karangahape Road.

The CRL will extend the existing rail line underground through Britomart, to Albert, Vincent, and Pitt Streets, and then cross beneath Karangahape Road and the Central Motorway Junction to Symonds Street before rising to join the western line at Eden Terrace where the Mount Eden Station is located.

The project was launched in 2017 and is estimated to cost $4.419 billion by the 2024 completion date.

Surviving a Digital Tsunami: the Rail Manufacturing CRC’s legacy

A digital revolution is underway in the rail manufacturing industry, says Stuart Thomson, CEO of the Rail Manufacturing Cooperative Research Centre (CRC).

 


With the growth of emerging technologies which will disrupt the way industry conducts its business, “the changes are going to be rapid and the rail industry needs to be ready,” Rail Manufacturing CRC CEO, Stuart Thomson, tells Rail Express.

In response, the Rail Manufacturing CRC has spent the last five years working with the rail industry to start tackling these challenges. Launched in 2014, the Rail Manufacturing CRC’s focus has been to increase the capability of Australia’s rail manufacturing industry. Industry participants include Downer, CRRC, Knorr-Bremse, Bombardier Transportation Australia, HEC Group, Airlinx and Sydney Trains, who collaborate on research and development programs with institutes such as University of Technology Sydney, CSIRO, Deakin University, University of Queensland, Monash University, CQUniversity, Swinburne, RMIT and CSIRO.

“By sharing the risk involved in the development of technology while building networks across the supply chains, this increases the Australian rail sector’s competitive global position and creates a depth of industry capability.”

Since commencing, though, there have been some changes in the centre’s focus. Initially focused on heavy-haul rail, the subsequent plateauing of the mining boom, coupled with massive growth in passenger rail thanks to state and federal investment in rail infrastructure, resulted in a shift in the centre’s focus.

While its projects have contributed to a more innovative rail manufacturing industry, the most important contribution of the Rail Manufacturing CRC is the newfound strong engagement between universities and participating rail organisations. Australia’s universities have highly skilled and worldclass levels of research capabilities, and the challenge lies in the capacity for the rail sector to use that knowledge.

“With less than half of one per cent of scientists and researchers working in rail, it is key to attract and train the next generation of employees, while recognising the new skills that research graduates can bring to Australia’s future rail industry,” Thomson shared.

Planning for the future has, so far, consisted of 32 industry projects, 48 PhD scholarships and the involvement of 35 organisations over the entire six-year life of the Rail Manufacturing CRC, with the centre now working towards a closing date of June 2020.

“Over our full six-year lifetime, we will have achieved a wide range of leading research and commercialisation activities across the centre’s program areas of Power and Propulsion; Materials and Manufacturing; and Design, Modelling and Simulation,” says Thomson.

In its Power and Propulsion stream of projects, the centre has focused on energy solutions for better rail efficiencies, looking at battery and supercapacitor development and manufacture, new composite braking materials and rail-wheel-interface projects. Some of these projects involve the testing of lithium storage technologies.

With Australia’s great lithium reserves, this has wide reaching benefit across the resources sector as well as for rail, and according to Thomson, there is a boom in the use of lithium in energy storage devices. In regard to battery technology, Thomson says the centre is looking at fundamental studies to create better and more efficient lithium batteries, supercapacitors and energy storage systems.

“The ultimate goal of our energy storage projects is to develop technologies that will make overhead rail catenary systems obsolete, resulting in reduced infrastructure and maintenance costs. We’re working with companies such as Downer, Knorr-Bremse, CRRC, and the HEC Group, all of whom have different applications in a very active field of endeavour.

“We’re also using energy storage devices for emergency applications in rail as backup batteries. We’re looking at using lithium and new battery technologies to decrease the cost and also increase the life cycle of those devices. Obviously, the less servicing needed means significant cost savings in terms of maintenance.”

Meanwhile, the Materials and Manufacturing stream of work focusses on component durability, maintenance optimisation, composite material design and assembly automation. The projects in this stream intend to create replacement materials that are much more light weight, yet still with similar or better structural properties and the safety properties required.

“The challenge in rail at the moment is that we’re creating more energy consuming rail rolling stock, so it’s ideal to reduce energy consumption by light-weighting light rail and heavy rail.”

Within this, the centre is investigating with Swinburne University, metallic cellular materials, such as recycled aluminium honeycombs and foams for rail sandwich panels. One project is researching the manufacturing methods to best make these materials, while another is looking at experimental works and simulations to investigate the mechanical properties of the sandwich panels.

Another centre project collaboration with the University of Queensland and Bombardier worked to predict the wear rates of axle bearings used in suburban passenger trains. Through the development of a software model, bearing life is predicted using algorithms that aim to optimise the bearing selection, lubrication and overhaul maintenance schedule with significant economic benefits.

Within the Design, Modelling and Simulation stream, the centre is focussing on passenger information systems and dwell time management, cabin airflow monitoring, data transfer and analytics, and virtual and augmented reality rail training.

One of the more visible of the centre’s projects is the Dwell Track technology created in collaboration with Downer and the University of Technology Sydney. The technology enables operators to anonymously monitor passenger numbers and movement using 3D cameras to extract the relevant spatial and temporal information in real-time.

“We are able to monitor passenger flow and pathways. The information collected is used to better understand how platform infrastructure can be designed and operated in a more efficient way to limit congestion at certain points and times. By understanding where the congestion points are on platforms, operators are able to redesign or tailor solutions based on the information collected, so it’s really data driven.”

Thomson credits rail operators for providing the facilities to keep improving the Dwell Track technology.

“Queensland Rail, Sydney Trains and PTA Western Australia have all participated in testing and trialling the technology over a number of years. This has enabled the project team to tweak the technology to make it better as we’ve gone along. It is a real example of how operators have come to the fore to assist the development of new innovations,” he said.

While at the moment this technology enables decisions to be made or exceptions to be identified efficiently, Thomson believes this technology will eventually have an artificial intelligence component. “If we could automate some of those functions, such as if gates can be closed or opened based on computers rather than having staff on the platforms doing that work, we’d be able to free up staff time to concentrate on other critical issues.”

Ultimately, however, the goal is to take the data captured by the technology, analyse it and understand what responses can be taken to alleviate congestions at stations.

When asked about his predictions for the future of innovation in the rail manufacturing space, Thomson says data analytics is the key.

“I think we’re going to see a lot more use of data for modelling and prediction. We’re seeing a huge focus on condition-based monitoring applications and being able to monitor and understand all components to provide the operators and customers with information relating to the rollingstock’s use and performance in real-time.”

One of the critical uses for this is also to provide maintenance when its needed, rather than in the aftermath of issues. “Being able to predict when something’s going to happen before it does and fixing it prior to breaking down will have huge benefits for operators and manufacturers.”

One example of research being undertaken in this area is a Rail Manufacturing CRC, Deakin University and Downer collaboration to provide data specialists for Downer’s TrainDNA project. Aimed at improving data collection, analysis and interpretation, the team are developing algorithms and system platforms to provide real time information to customers, maintenance staff and engineering specialists.

The implementation of TrainDNA is likely to have significant benefits for those who operate and maintain rolling stock. The growth of new digital systems and data analytics in rail will require an ongoing adaption of the rail workforce.

“That’s where we see some of the challenges and the opportunities for rail companies in the future. Building new skill sets into the rail workforce is going to be key to unlocking these digital benefits that can flow into the sector.”

Where previously the skilled workforce in rail was confined to a few specific domains of engineering expertise, a new breed of skilled workforce is now needed.

“We no longer primarily need mechanical and electrical engineers, we also need people who can code, we need AI specialists, data scientists, virtual reality specialists, and more.” As such, the rail sector must be able to attract a whole new digital workforce.

“We’re not only competing with other transport providers for specialised blue and white collar workers, we’re also competing with other industry sectors such as finance, mining and tech giants like Google and Amazon,” Thomson said. “Too often, we focus on the technology, but a lot of the future solutions within the digital field will be expertise driven, they’ll be people-driven. The focus should be on a culture within the industry to build research and innovation capacity, but also to bring the right skill sets and expertise to utilise these new technologies most effectively.

“The biggest thing we have seen [during the CRC’s six-year term] has been a change in innovation culture. There are very talented young people who need to join the rail industry to propel it forwards, so the focus should be on the next generation of rail workers. I think that we’ve partly contributed to the industry realising that.

“We’ve got young researchers working on very exciting areas. At Monash University, we have multiple PhD students working on automating systems that can send drones onto tracks, into tunnels and even into the Pilbara region to automatically assess and monitor railway lines and the integrity of those systems.”

The main benefits to this are to get people out of danger, off the tracks and out of harsh environments, not only for safety reasons, but also to free them up to do other skilled jobs.

“It’s one thing to collect data, that’s the easy part, but it’s another thing to be able to automate, transmit and analyse it instantaneously, in real-time,” Thomson said.

The innovations that the Rail Manufacturing CRC has seen with the rise of the Internet of Things and other such emerging technologies has enabled a whole range of critical information to be captured, such as the integrity of rail infrastructure, the performance of equipment above and below rail, and the capacity to plan for future growth and safe operations of the networks.

Upon the completion of its term in June next year, Thomson tells Rail Express that a large part of the Rail Manufacturing CRC’s legacy lies in its initial commitment to collaboration.

“I think we’ve contributed to a realisation that collaboration between researchers and industry is a very good thing,” Thomson said. “The legacy that we’ve created is that collaboration between research organisations and the rail industry is assured.”

How can companies in the rail manufacturing space be more innovative?

“It’s simple,” Thomson concludes. “Hire, support and trust smart young people.”