Rail industry news (Australia, New Zealand), Major Projects & Infrastructure

A transcontinental dream fulfilled

This year is the 20th anniversary of the AustralAsia Railway, which connects South Australia and the Northern Territory.  

On January 17, 2004, an inaugural Adelaide-to-Darwin freight train rolled across the embankment to the new East Arm Port after a 2979-kilometre journey from Adelaide.

On February 2, the first transcontinental Ghan pulled up alongside a brand new platform and railway station on East Arm Peninsula.

Cheered on by rapturous crowds, the trainload of VIPs included South Australian (SA) Premier Mike Rann, Northern Territory (NT) Chief Minister Clare Martin, Federal Finance Minister Nick Minchin, railway ambassador Tim Fischer and a Victorian couple who’d won tickets for the ‘first train’ 22 years earlier.

The historic journeys came 74 years after the first Ghan arrived in Alice Springs, 24 years after a new standard gauge track linked Tarcoola and Alice Springs, and 125 years after the first sod was turned in Port Augusta for a visionary trade route proposed to link the Southern Ocean with the Arafura Sea and beyond to Asia.

Despite a litany of economic misfortunes and broken political promises, the dream of a transcontinental railway had finally been realised. The ‘missing link’ – a modern, standard gauge line between Alice Springs and Darwin – was delivered by an innovative BOOT (build, own, operate and transfer back) scheme.

 The SA, NT and Australian governments contributed $480 million towards the $1.3 billion AustralAsia Railway. The Asia Pacific Transport Consortium, which won the bid to build, own and operate the railway, thermit-welded the final rail early and on budget.

AustralAsia Railway Corporation Chairman Alastair Shields said the SA and NT governments fought to realise this long-held dream because they never doubted its potential.

The Corporation managed the bid process and now manages concessions for railway operations along the corridor and access to easements to facilitate new projects, such as the proposed Sun Cable renewable energy project.

 “The business case was based on moving freight from road to rail, opening up minerals provinces and providing a landbridge between the southern coast and growing markets in Asia,” Shields said. “The icing on the cake was extending the iconic Ghan tourism experience to Darwin.”

 As the AustralAsia Railway entered its 20th anniversary in January, there is confidence in the future.

 “Aurizon has invested $1.4b acquiring the operations of One Rail SA and NT operations and an additional $50m in new assets,” Shields said.

 “This has boosted industry confidence and reinforced the value of the logistics corridor as an enabling economic asset.”

The line also benefits The Ghan, operated by Journey Beyond, which is one of a suite of renowned experiential multi-day train services and has a stellar reputation as one of the great rail journeys on Earth.

 After a decline in freight during the COVID pandemic, 2.7m tonnes were transported along the corridor in the 2022-23 financial year, a slight decline from the previous year but a strong rebound from 2020/21.

The Corporation is now working with the NT and Australian Governments on new logistics hub to improve the capability of the logistics network.

AURIZON

ASX-listed company Aurizon boasts more than 150 years’ rail experience. It is the nation’s largest rail freight business, with more than 700 locomotives,15,000 wagons and more than 5000 employees across its national footprint.

The business transports around 250mt for customers each year.

In mid-2022, Aurizon acquired the One Rail business (now called Aurizon Bulk Central) in the NT and SA, including the Tarcoola-to-Darwin rail corridor. This investment recognised the strategic value and potential of the business in serving rapidly-growing markets for resources, agribusiness, renewable energy and general freight.

 Aurizon Bulk Central is an integrated rail operation with track infrastructure and above-rail operations and depots in Adelaide, Port Pirie, Port Augusta, Whyalla, Thevenard, Alice Springs, Tennant Creek, Katherine and Darwin. The business has more than 400 staff and continues to recruit a range of new roles to support ongoing growth.

Aurizon Bulk Central General Manager Matt Jones said the Tarcoola-to-Darwin railway was a nationally-significant corridor connecting to the Port of Darwin, the closest port to Australia’s largest trading partners in Asia.

“Aurizon plans to improve the efficiency and capacity of this corridor, with targeted investment to benefit existing customers and boost the viability of projects under development,” he said. 

Aurizon operates intermodal trains on the Adelaide to Darwin corridor and various bulk ore trains for mines in SA and the NT.

“In the first 18 months of operation, Aurizon invested more than $50m in new assets for the region, including the replacement of 270,000 sleepers and two mobile harbour cranes at Darwin Port,” Jones said.

Aurizon acquired the former One Rail business in the NT and SA, including the Tarcoola-to-Darwin rail corridor. IMAGE: AustralAsia Railway Corporation

“Aurizon also plans to increase services along the railway as it responds to increasing customer demand. This could include additional passing loops on the corridor and additional capacity in the Berrimah rail terminal, next to the port.

“As well as supporting customer growth and development of regional projects, these investments have the flow-on benefits of increasing employment, and supporting local communities and business. More than 80 per cent of Aurizon’s employees live and work in regional communities.”

Pipeline of opportunities

Jones said Aurizon was assessing a pipeline of more than 200 growth opportunities in Central Australia.

While not all will progress to production, the list provides a strong indication of customer demand in these markets and growth opportunities in rail-based freight volumes. This includes commodities such as magnetite, copper, rare earths and phosphate.

For example in August 2023, Aurizon and  Northern Iron announced a new rail haulage contract for magnetite iron ore, from a mine near Tennant Creek through to the Port of Darwin. Up to 1.2mt a year of magnetite from the Warrego project will be railed 1000km between mine and port, expected to commence in the first half of 2024.

Another key opportunity that Aurizon is exploring is land-bridging of imported freight from Darwin Port via Aurizon’s rail infrastructure to southern markets.

 This is a natural extension of Aurizon’s national container services. 

It will leverage that capability and installed rollingstock assets with modest additional investment to support the initial stage of land-bridging.

Darwin can offer materially reduced transit times under the land-bridging proposal, with a saving of up to seven days on typical Shanghai to Melbourne shipping route, an attractive proposition for time critical freight. It also offers customers a reliable alternative supply chain to markets, strengthening the resilience and consistency of existing supply chains.

Heavy lifting in decarbonisation

Jones said the Australian rail industry was well-positioned to contribute to the decarbonisation of Australian supply chains by doing more of the heavy-lifting on key corridors – using existing assets and the emerging technology of battery and hydrogen powered locomotives.

Using rail for heavy freight is already the safest, most environmentally-friendly mode of land freight transport, with an estimated 75 per cent fewer greenhouse gas emissions generated by rail per tonne of freight compared with road.

 Rail also delivers road safety outcomes because one train can carry up to the equivalent of 150 standard semi-trailers.

 Aurizon has a dedicated $50m Future Fleet Fund to drive short and long-term decarbonisation initiatives for its locomotive fleet. The aim is to deliver low or zero-carbon supply chains, with locomotives using renewable energy sources from the electricity grid and/or hydrogen fuel cells.

Investing in high-performing rail infrastructure

Aurizon manages an open access regime between Tarcoola and Darwin through a concession agreement with the AustralAsia Railway Corporation. 

This gives all rail operators a chance to negotiate access to the railway infrastructure.

Aurizon will maintain and invest in the rail infrastructure under a long-term lease with the Corporation that runs until 2054.

 The Tarcoola-to-Darwin Railway is 2244km of track. The 824km standard gauge route between Tarcoola and Alice Springs opened in 1980. It was not until 2004 that the final 1420km stretch of the north-south connection between Alice Springs and Darwin was completed.

Maintenance of the railway infrastructure was originally contracted out to a consortium comprised of a joint venture from the original construction contractors.

In December 2012, the previous lease holders Genesee & Wyoming brought maintenance in-house. This has continued under Aurizon.

Some of the key works in recent years include:

Upgrading track with 60kg rail between Chandler and north of Kulgera to enable long-term Temporary Speed Restriction (TSRs) to be removed. TSRs have decreased from 40km to 14km since maintenance was in-sourced

Many level crossings have been upgraded to active crossings, in conjunction with the NT Government, to improve safety for motorists and rail employees.

Installation of detectors and associated indicators to alert trains prior to reaching significant waterways of the presence of high water levels. CCTV has been installed to remotely monitor water levels during adverse weather.

THE GHAN

The Ghan uses the corridor for its premium multi-day journey through Australia’s Red Centre, connecting Adelaide and Darwin and travels between March and November each year.

On average, the train has 25 Premium Service and 258 Gold Service beds over three to four days.

Journey Beyond recently launched a new ‘Gold Premium’ due to start in 2024, a new style of travel between Gold and Platinum service levels, along with newly designed contemporary cabins.

On board, the 36-carriage, 1km train offers a choice of suites or cabins, the Platinum Club, Queen Adelaide restaurants, Outback Explorer lounges and luxury service. 

Guests on each journey enjoy off-train experiences, such as dinner at the Telegraph Station in Alice Springs and an underground lunch in Coober Pedy.

Shields said The Ghan connects with a range of tailored travel experiences and links with several cruise lines, including the Australian-owned and flagged Coral Expeditions, and other Journey Beyond brands such as Outback Spirit.