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Analysis: Benchmarking – a tool to improve fuel efficiency in heavy haul rail

by Rail Express last modified Apr 24, 2012 01:14 PM
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Research reveals a lack of available data benchmarking fuel consumption in the Australian heavy haul rail sector, yet doing so could provide impetus for saving fuel and bring enhanced competitiveness to the heavy haul industry.

Analysis: Benchmarking – a tool to improve fuel efficiency in heavy haul rail

Aurecon's Ahsan Khan

By Ahsan Khan*

The Australian heavy haul rail sector, with the exception of parts of the Central Queensland coal operations, is heavily reliant on diesel fuel for its motive power. With unique system characteristics in each state as well as the prevalence of different rail operators, a varied understanding about fuel consumption behaviour exists.

Research from published sources reveal a lack of available data benchmarking fuel consumption in the Australian heavy haul rail sector.  Traditionally, there has been less focus on fuel consumption in the rail sector; however, increased pressures to reduce operating costs as well as dealing with increased cost of diesel fuel itself, is changing that.

The average operational age of diesel locomotives is between 40 and 50 years-old, and diesel fuel represents more than 60% of the total lifecycle cost for a locomotive.

Increase in demand for Australia’s freight task, increasing diesel fuel prices, volatility in international oil markets and the new carbon tax for off-road fuel users such as rail from 01 July 2012 has drawn interest in energy efficiency initiatives.

The diesel fuel consumption is influenced by system characteristics such as the skill of drivers, topography, age of the locomotives, loading/unloading efficiencies and technology used on the locomotives.

A report undertaken for the UK freight industry, shows that fuel efficient drivers have a sizeable impact on emissions and the operational cost of the fuel.

Benchmarking allows development of theoretical benchmarks that may not necessarily be a one-size fit all approach, but opens up the discussion on other external factors that affect fuel consumption.

A report done on Union Pacific Railways in the US identified a variation of 30% in fuel consumption between the worst and the average train drivers in their fleet.

Energy efficiency
Focus on energy efficiency in Australian heavy haul is relatively new with participation in assessment of energy use mandated under federal legislation – Energy Efficiency Act 2006, where businesses consuming more than 13 million litres of fuel or 139,000 megawatt hours of electricity in a year are obliged to register with the program. The companies identify energy efficiency opportunities but are not mandated by legislation to implement the findings.

Benchmarking has been recognised as a tool in identifying potential improvements in the transport sector. Benchmarking studies from different transport sectors identify the best performance, best practises, reasons for differences and potential improvements that can be implemented by decision makers.

A benchmarking exercise can provide the stimulus for improvement at all levels through an externally focused, industry-wide competitive assessment. It also helps organisations to prepare strategies to continuously change and adapt to the market place. Furthermore, in a national and global context, “best practises” must reach across regional and national boundaries.

A study done in the UK by freight operating companies on benchmarking developed a framework for rail freight companies, rail freight customers, individuals wishing to report carbon and individuals wishing to set carbon conversion factors. The study also grouped initiatives for efficiency into specific areas based on the experience of different freight companies.

Lack of accurate data
One of the key points highlighted during Energy Efficiency Opportunities Transport Sector Presentation, September 2011 was that a lot of Australian rail businesses are set up to measure and produce financial data but not accurate engineering data on fuel consumption patterns. Anomalies were found in the data analysed; data was not disaggregated to develop high level trends and the collection methods varied.

To improve accuracy, resolve data gaps and improve on data collection processes, energy and material flow analysis needs to be carried out at an overall, system and vehicle level basis. Detailed system and vehicle level energy analysis will allow evaluation of factors affecting energy consumption, sub-metering of data and a meaningful comparison with theoretical benchmarks.

A key challenge for businesses dependent on diesel fuel is financial uncertainty due to fluctuation of fuel prices in the international market. Treatment of investment uncertainty requires economic analysis that incorporates a sensitivity analysis based on different price escalation scenarios. These scenarios can be derived from past fuel trends, extrapolation of credible rail industry forecasts and best “guess” estimates (Key Element 3, Information and Data Analysis, RARE Consulting, November 2010).

On an organisational level, benchmarking being the key enabling path to achieve energy efficiency needs to be carried out as part of the overall change management process to achieve the goals of efficiency.

A mechanism of providing greater visibility to fuel consumption that includes feedback from drivers, train driver workshops, recognition of good driving behaviour, simulator training, coaching by senior tutor drivers, adoption of new technology, practice of golden run on energy intensive routes, organisational aids and leadership from senior management forms part of the overall change process. 

Aurecon, as a multidisciplinary engineering firm, has in-house technical and economic expertise to assist rail organisations to undertake the required investigations, analyses and business case formulations.

Benchmarking data for fuel consumption will provides impetus for saving fuel and will bring enhanced competitiveness in heavy haul rail industry. There is a need to develop a strategy to engage rail operators to develop a better benchmarking system to measure fuel consumption and be able to quantify fuel savings in initiatives implemented by the rail businesses.

*Ahsan Khan is a senior mechanical Engineer at Aurecon, and has over six years of experience in rolling stock engineering within the public sector and rail industry. He can be contacted at:

Heavy Haul Rail
28th - 29th August 2012 | Newcastle City Hall


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