Decarbonisation, Rail industry news (Australia, New Zealand), Fuel Alternatives, Sustainability, Freight Rail, Sustainability, Rolling Stock, Heavy Haul, Rolling Stock, Sustainability, Rail Express features

Back for the long haul

Downer Group has returned to the freight market with a focus on decarbonisation and working closely with customers and industry to deliver Australia and New Zealand’s specific needs.

Downer has made a return to the rail freight sector, identifying a need to support Australian and New Zealand rail freight companies to decarbonise and bringing a range of skills to the fore to support this transition.

The organisation is not looking to subtly re-enter the freight sector, but go on the decarbonisation journey, bringing the ZTR range of products for a here-and-now solution, while also looking to the future.

Rail Express spoke with Downer’s Troy Sparkman who is the executive general manager, Freight & Motive Systems to learn more about the company’s vision for the future of freight.

“While we have our manufacturing and overhaul divisions, our main focus on our return to the freight market is decarbonisation technologies,” Sparkman said.

“We all have an obligation to contribute to a cleaner environment for future generations.”

“As an industry we made the transition from steam to diesel, now it is time for the industry to look at the next advancements in technology, and Downer see ourselves as enablers to drive this change.

“If a partner wants to trial a battery locomotive, we want to go on that journey and to be a part of the solution and develop products that meet the customer’s specific needs, be it in Australia or New Zealand.”

Meeting the needs of the future

Downer believes it has the capabilities to meet the needs of the freight industry but is prepared to expand to encapsulate the diversity prevalent in Australia’s geographies.

“We have our manufacturing facility for narrow gauge in Maryborough, Queensland and for standard gauge in Cardiff, New South Wales,” he said.

Downer’s well-established footprint ensures it is prepared for any challenge that may come with supporting Australia’s freight network.

Downer Group is making a long-term commitment to supporting the freight industry in Australia and New Zealand. Image: Terence/

The challenge for Downer and the wider freight sector will be meeting the needs of the industry currently, while also keeping an eye on the future. 

The mature and well-established rail industry will not be looking to simply abandon every diesel locomotive for a new one. The decarbonisation journey will need to be mapped out and thoroughly planned in a collaborative manner.

“The question is: how do you achieve net-zero before 2050 with the existing locomotives?” Sparkman said.

“You need to start with modernisation of the current fleet and then transition to a net zero engine from there.”

Sparkman explained that decarbonisation needs to be an industry focus with all stakeholders maintaining clear goals to ensure success.

“We would like to partner with our customers for research, development and innovation so we can ensure they receive exactly what is needed for successful business outcomes,” he said.

“We have several products which we have developed, but we need to break that down to the individual customer needs and requirements.”

Sparkman explained that it will be critical to carefully consider which freight routes can decarbonise ahead of others.

“There are significant opportunities in the bulk commodities from pit to port right now,” he said.

“These are all cyclical in nature. This is where the focus on reduced emissions should be and then we can begin to consider ways to decarbonise on longer journeys such as across the Nullarbor.”

ZTR Partnership 

In January 2024, Downer announced they are the exclusive partner for the ANZ region with Canadian company ZTR. 

ZTR has built a reputation for developing innovative solutions that extend the lifespan of aging locomotives while simultaneously improving the reliability and availability of locomotives and railcars.

Among ZTR’s notable products are the SmartStart Automatic Engine Stop-Start system, KickStart, NEXSYS locomotive control systems, Pivot advanced rail car remote monitoring, and BOA II adhesion control systems. ZTR has been actively involved in the development of hybrid locomotive technology, positioning itself as leaders in this area of market expansion.

The organisation will be leaning heavily on its current experience in passenger freight to help its long term commitment to freight. Image: DOWNER

“The ZTR products can provide an immediate here-and-now solution on fuel emissions and fuel use,” Sparkman said.

“This is a win for an older diesel engine that may have a lifespan of another 10 plus years.”

Sparkman emphasised the importance of incremental changes as an industry. 

If the freight sector moves too slowly, it will reach a point that will create numerous challenges.

“A lot of companies are making the commitment of 33 per cent reduction emissions by 2035 and that is where the ZTR products tie in perfectly as they can give an immediate and sustainable saving,” he said.

“Once you bring that in, you can begin looking towards hybrid or battery locomotives and then even further ahead to what the next technological solution will be.” 

A product from ZTR that excites Sparkman is the SmartStart Automatic Engine Stop-Start (AESS) system. The SmartStart AESS system helps reduce and manage locomotive idling, and also delivers fuel savings. It has been doing so for more than 30 years across the globe.

SmartStart AESS can be applied to just about any locomotive – from relay logic to microprocessor – regardless of manufacturer, model, age, or usage. SmartStart AESS is a compact system designed to mount easily.  

The product:

  • Reduces emissions and exhaust smoke.
  • Provides consistent fuel management and verification of fuel savings.
  • Meets EPA locomotive emission requirements.
  • Reduces fuel and lube oil consumption.

The challenge for operators was the battery would often be drained when the AESS system kicked in, so operators isolated the AESS and as such did not realise the benefits, so ZTR developed the KickStart solution to rectify this.

KickStart uses supercapacitor technology to supplement the locomotive batteries during engine start, reducing the strain on the batteries. The result is less energy drainage, longer battery life, faster cranking speed, less time to recharge, improved cold weather starts, and ultimately, increased locomotive availability.

“The challenge this technology faced in the past was that when they went to restart the locomotive some hours later, it would not start,” Sparkman said.

“You would walk around rail yards and depots and see trains idling because they did not want to shut down the engines for various operational reasons.

“By putting these two systems on locomotives, you can see immediate fuel savings and a reduction in emissions.”

Partnering with ZTR was a no-brainer for Downer. The organisation had the engineering capabilities locally to tailor the solution to any fleet and to ramp up the rollout.

“We have a technical advisor from ZTR who is aligned to us here in Australia,” Sparkman said.

“We have our own in-house engineers trained in the ZTR products, meaning we have the local knowledge to support customers immediately, and can call upon further product expertise of ZTR’s engineers when needed.”

A diverse rail sector

Australia and New Zealand have some unique challenges when it comes to sweeping changes across the rail networks. 

“Every region has different requirements,” Sparkman explained.

“Whether you are in the Hunter Valley, Queensland or intermodal across the Nullarbor, there is not one size fits all in Australia.

“You could introduce battery electric locomotives into port shuttles tomorrow, but this is simply not an option for a lot of other areas of Australia’s rail freight sector.”

Sparkman detailed that this is why Downer is placing such an emphasis on collaboration with customers. A hybrid locomotive may be the solution for the next 15 years on specific routes and then battery electric after that, he explained.

“When we were considering returning to freight, we ensured we had the people in our business who had the expertise to help us succeed,” he said.

“We have 250 capable and experienced engineers and we have recruited globally for candidates with strong experience in the decarbonisation space to ensure we have the capability to ensure success.”

Sparkman believes that the Australian rail freight sector has a thirst for decarbonisation and Downer is primed to support this.

“Trucking has made great advances in this sector for short distances, but they are still to determine how to cover great distances in a sustainable way,” he said.

“Downer is in for the long haul, but we need to start now with incremental changes to ensure the rail industry remains the leader.”