Australia’s epic journey to finally create a harmonised national rail system has moved a stage closer to overcoming century-old technical inconsistencies created by political divisions and interstate rivalries.
The Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC) has confirmed it is actively investigating the prospect of incorporating the Sunshine State’s extensive freight rail network into the national rail system, a move that would make it simpler for train operators to move across states.
The inconsistencies between the width of rail tracks across Australia’s states are so infamous they are now almost permanently embedded as a pejorative in the vernacular of project management where the term “rail gauges” is routinely used as the prime metaphor for systemic inconsistency.
The renewed enthusiasm for national rail integration follows an agreement between federal Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Development Warren Truss and the Queensland Minister for Main Roads Scott Emerson to evaluate the benefit, or otherwise, of expanding the ARTC’s 8,500 kilometre national network.
If the ARTC and the Queensland government can establish the merits of such a move, the result could mean bringing Queensland Rail’s 6,600 kilometres of freight rail track outside south-east Queensland into the ARTC’s domain.
However Mr Truss said there were a number of factors that still need to be considered that.
“By no means is this a done deal, but it’s important that we have all the facts on the table,” Mr Truss said.
Mr Emerson said ARTC officers would begin working with Queensland Rail staff in late February 2014 and report back to the Queensland and Federal governments by mid-year.
“Queensland’s Moving Freight strategy shows the freight task is expected to grow by 80 per cent over the next decade and we need a rail network that can do that heavy lifting,” he said.
Importantly, the plan has been backed by the Australasian Railway Association (ARA), whose chief executive officer Bryan Nye said it’s “got to be good for Australia” because it will “enhance the control of the national train network”.
“The challenge is [Queensland’s] narrow gauge; the rest of the network is standard gauge. But over a period of time when you’re building new bridges, you probably could build new gauges to make it worthwhile,” Mr Nye said.
One of the main drivers behind the ARA’s support for bringing Queensland into the national freight rail network is the potential for a uniform upgrading of signal control systems to digital automatic signalling.
The ARTC has been working on a new digital automatic signalling system with American aerospace, defence, security and advanced technology company Lockheed Martin and Italian transportation company Ansaldo STS to create the new system.
The ARTC has dubbed this new signalling system as the as the Advanced Train Management System (ATMS) and has been valued at $100 million over its proof of concept period.
The implementation of this system will eventually mean that traditional trackside signalling will be replaced with on-board displays of ‘authorities’ to drivers, will provide precise location of trains both front and rear, and provide voice and data information to all locomotives via the Telstra 3G National Network.
“Eventually, Queensland would have had to replace its signals, but if it’s done with one unified system across Australia, there are advantages to that,” Mr Nye said.
He said the ARTC is moving in this direction as well as all the passenger networks such as Sydney Trains by replacing their “old signalling systems with modern, digital train control systems”.
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