Viewpoint: Going loco in our old age
At a recent Grain Logistics conference in Melbourne hosted by Informa, Australasian Railway Association (ARA) chief exectuive Bryan Nye highlighted the ageing nature of Australia’s locomotive fleets, but are things really as bad as they seem?
By Mark Carter
The age of the locomotive fleet was not the sole focus of Nye’s comments; in fact he acknowledged that in some cases there was little point in train operators purchasing new and more powerful locos when a good portion of the track infrastructure is not up to accommodating them in the first place.
To be fair to the rail industry, and as I have pointed out in previous columns, it is about time the grain industry also acknowledged that there are still efficiencies that could be obtained through upgrading of their own infrastructure and streamlining other components of the supply chain.
For the rail industry as a whole, the issue of ageing locomotive fleets extends well beyond those in use for the transport of grain, but comparison of the age are not made easy by the diversity of operations and gauges and interpretation of what might be considered “fit for purpose.”
In the Pilbara, the iron ore loco fleets are on average the most modern in Australia, but operate outside the limitations of the standard and broad gauge networks of the eastern states.
Similarly the age and utilisation of the fleets used on the Queensland narrow gauge network have little bearing on the rest of the country or the thrust of this column.
After the completion of National Rail’s order for 120 new locomotives for interstate traffic in 1997, it would be another decade before any serious main line locomotive orders were placed.
SCT Logistics got the ball running with 15 new high horsepower locomotives delivered in 2008 and since then there has been a steady stream of new units coming from the workshops of UGL Rail and Downer EDI Rail and this looks like it will continue for some time yet.
However, much of this new horsepower has been soaked up hauling increased tonnages of export coal being moved over the Hunter Valley coal supply chain and while it has released some locomotives for use elsewhere it has done little to replace some of the more vintage units still roaming the rails.
The real clunkers are to be found on intrastate intermodal operations in the Sydney area and on secondary grain duties in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia.
Probably the worst example is part of the fleet employed on the broad gauge network in Victoria, some of which are well into their second half century of service and are leased from a variety of heritage and tourist railways.
It could be argued that these are “fit for purpose” as they are used on relatively slow, low value traffic and other comparable efficiencies could possibly be achieved within the supply chain at a lower cost than purchasing a new fleet of locomotives.
Given the marginal nature of the traffic at hand the purchasing of a new fleet by a train operator would be a giant leap of faith.
While there is the likely potential in the future for a cascading down of some older, but still more efficient locomotives within the existing fleets held by Pacific National and to a lesser extent QR National, to date neither operator has seen keen on such a strategy, despite the fact that any such power is unlikely to be used on traffics they would be interested in contesting.
Over the next year or two, inquiring minds may well be directing their attention towards developments in Western Australia where grain handler and marketer CBH Group has decided that it will invest in its own rail fleet which will include 22 new locomotives as part of its $175m investment in new rolling stock.
The grain industry in Australia has rarely had the luxury of having a dedicated locomotive fleet purchased for the exclusive haulage of grain, although the significant investment by the state and Federal Governments in track upgrading for the grain network may perhaps have influenced CBH’s decision.
The first of the new locomotives will be delivered in March 2012 and have been ordered from Motive Power Industries in the USA and the fleet will be managed by US regional rail operator Watco on behalf of CBH.
To end on an inquisitive note it will be interesting to see how Pacific National handles its intermodal motive power needs over the next few years.
The average life expectancy of a locomotives in front line services in the USA is around 14 years and it so happens that PN’s inherited intermodal fleet of NR class locomotives will start to turn 15 at the end of this year coinciding as it does with the expiry of the original 15-year maintenance agreement with UGL Rail.
Since the delivery of this fleet, less than 30 new units with other operators have been delivered for service on interstate traffic.
As with the grain industry, can the current volumes and margins on the interstate network sustain the purchase of replacement units or will some form of mid-life refurbishment be needed to keep them in front line services for another decade?