Hyperloop. Artist's impression: SpaceX

The future of rail travel, and why it doesn’t look like Hyperloop

As the world’s population becomes increasingly urbanised, it is estimated that the number of journeys measured in passenger-kilometres will triple by 2050. Roads simply can’t absorb this increase, but what can? Roberto Palacin investigates.


Railways, with their greater capacity for carrying more people, quickly and with greater energy efficiency, are the best bet to become our mobility backbone. Of course, engineers’ imaginations have created many alternatives to the original steel-on-steel approach to the railway. Maglev and the much-publicised but so far theoretical Hyperloop are often regarded as the ones to watch – but do they really represent the future of rail travel?

 

Maglev

Magnetic levitation (maglev) uses powerful magnets to propel the train along dedicated lines that are as straight as possible. The attractive forces between electronically controlled electromagnets in the vehicle and the ferromagnetic guide rails pull the vehicle up, while additional guidance magnets keep it laterally on track. This version of the technology was developed in Germany and is currently used to link Shanghai airport with the city centre at speeds of 430kph (267mph).

However it’s perhaps Japan that is most associated with maglev. The nation that established the modern era of high-speed trains is also attempting to define the next chapter. Superconducting magnetic levitation (SCMaglev) has been in development for decades but was recently approved to run from Tokyo to Osaka from 2027, when it will complete the 500km (311 mile) journey in just over an hour. Unlike the Transrapid system in Shanghai, the Japanese maglev principle uses more powerful “superconducting” magnets and a guideway design based on repulsive rather than attractive forces.

But while maglev is technically possible, its commercial viability is questionable. There is an extremely high initial infrastructure cost – Japan’s SCMaglev line is expected to cost ¥9 trillion (US$72 billion). It also cannot be integrated with existing rail networks and has a phenomenal energy demand, during both construction and operation. This casts serious doubts about maglev’s true potential as an alternative to conventional high-speed technology.

 

Hyperloop

Hyperloop is an elegant idea: travelling seamlessly at 1,220kph (that’s right, 760mph – just under the speed of sound) in gracefully designed pods that arrive as often as every 30 seconds is very appealing. The concept is based around very straight tubes with a partial vacuum applied under the pods. These pods have an electric compressor fan on their nose which actively transfers high-pressure air from the front to the rear, creating an air cushion once a linear electric motor has launched the pod. All this would be battery and solar powered.

Technically it’s a challenging design, although if someone can make it happen it’s the man who proposed the idea, Elon Musk, the man behind SpaceX and Tesla. However, Hyperloop is not rail travel. It is, as Musk puts it, a fifth mode of transport (after trains, cars, boats and planes). It’s designed to link Los Angeles to San Francisco; cities hundreds of miles apart that can be connected in an almost straight line over a relative flat landscape. This simply isn’t an option in much of the world.

Ultimately, if Hyperloop happens at all it will be a stand-alone system. It’s no substitute for rail.

 

What else?

In practice, the vast majority of us will continue to travel on trains that are not dissimilar to those that are around today. The UK is about to take delivery of 122 trains that will be the workhorses of most intercity travel for decades to come. They could still be in service come 2050, albeit following several refurbishments.

Greater automation are expected to dominate not just rail but all types of travel. Automatic train operation is already used in some urban railways which allows for shorter distances between trains on the same line. It is anticipated that in the future all mainline trains will be able to communicate with each other, meaning significantly more trains on the track, increasing capacity and service levels.

This in turn will make physical line-side signalling equipment redundant, leading to more simple layouts for new lines. Better use of energy on electrically powered intercity rail travel will likely play a significant role. For instance, energy storage systems and advanced substations will allow a shift to smarter rail systems.

Future predictions are to be treated with caution. But state-of-the-art railway investment around the globe is still largely based on the steel-on-steel principle of trains on tracks. And there’s no reason to doubt that this will be the define future of rail travel in coming decades – just as it has done since the birth of rail nearly 200 years ago.


Roberto Palacin is senior research associate, Railway Systems Research Group at Newcastle University. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article here.

TasRail Wagons. Photo: TasRail

Rail bests road in Tasmania, study shows

A major TasRail study has suggested moving freight by rail rather than road will deliver an estimated $159 million in savings to the Tasmanian economy over the five years to 2019.

Freight rail saved the state $26 million in 2013/14 alone, through savings over road, the TasRail study found.

The study, commissioned by the Tasmanian rail freight business and undertaken by infrastructure consultant Pitt&Sherry, found savings were generated by reducing costs related to road accidents, pollution and road maintenance, as well as the operating costs of industry and commerce.

TasRail boss Damien White said the purpose of the study was to quantify the underlying benefits of the state’s rail freight system at a time when it was enjoying significant growth.

White said the essence of the study findings was that on major freight corridors, such as between Brighton and Burnie, rail was the most efficient freight mode.

“While there is an investment cost in rail – as there is with roads and shipping – it delivers statewide benefits that are significantly greater than the investment costs,” White said.

“The study highlights one of TasRail’s important competitive advantages, which is to help industries strengthen their social licences by moving freight by rail rather than by road, is providing vital social, environmental and economic benefits,” White said last week.

“Over the past five years, the Tasmanian and Australian Governments have provided the funds to rejuvenate the state’s rail system, which they clearly recognise as a critical part of Tasmania’s transport infrastructure.”

Statistical data was drawn from a range of official government studies and reports.

In 2013/14 the use of rail freight in Tasmania rather than road freight saved around $7 million in road accident costs; $1 million in environmental costs; $9 million in road maintenance costs; and up to $9 million in the operating costs of business and industry, a Pitt&Sherry spokespan said.

The Spokesman said the savings were forecast to rise over the five year period to June 30, 2019 and continue well into the future

“The report shows freight transport efficiency is maximised when freight can be moved at the lowest possible cost to customers (senders and receivers) and the community at large,” White added.

“It explains that a single train can move hundreds of tonnes of freight and the rolling resistance faced by a steel wheel on a steel track is small compared to that of a rubber tyre on a road.

“These physical and economy-of-scale advantages translate to very low overall costs on a per tonne kilometre basis.”

White said the study justified investment in TasRail’s infrastructure.

“Track upgrades improve the performance of Tasmania’s rail network to an acceptable level that enable rail to compete with road for certain freight tasks,” he said.

“The result is an overall increase in Tasmania’s transport system efficiency, delivering lower costs in two major ways. The most obvious effect is lower costs to freight customers, which in turn reduce the drag of freight costs on the whole economy.”

The study concludes over the next five years, the total government investment in TasRail will be approximately equal to the total benefits to the Tasmanian community in dollar terms.

From that point on, it suggests, savings will far exceed investment.

Anthony Albanese, ASA

Albanese pits Tasmanians against Government

Shadow transport and infrastructure minister Anthony Albanese has called upon the Federal Government “to actually take Tasmania seriously,” by funding new infrastructure.

Albanese has been in Tasmania this week to meet with officials over infrastructure and transport in the state. “I think Tasmanians are entitled to be very disappointed at the Abbott Government,” he said on Monday.

“At the last federal election they elected three new Coalition members for the five House of Representatives seats that are here in Tasmania. You would have thought that might have resulted in something positive for Tasmania.

“However what we’ve seen is not a single new road or rail infrastructure project here in Tasmania over both budgets that the Coalition has handed down.”

Instead of infrastructure money, Albanese said Tasmania has been rewarded with cuts to funding.

“$100 million cut from the Midland Highway, $30 million cut from the rail revitalisation program funded by the former government,” Albansese said, “and a series of re-announcements by the Abbott Government … pretending that other projects that have occurred are somehow new.”

Albanese said Sid Sidebottom, former member for Bratton, Tasmania, “was annoying to the point of driving me crazy,” when he was urging Albanese – then the minister for infrastructure – to fund the West Coast Wilderness Railway in western Tasmania.

“What we saw from the previous advocates was people who were prepared to stand up for their electorates,” Albanese said.

“The three Coalition members haven’t basically troubled the scorers in Canberra. Let’s hope the Australian cricket team do a bit better than they are doing when the Third Test begins tomorrow night.”

Melbourne traffic. Photo: Creative Commons / Michael Coghlan

Don’t panic! Traffic congestion is not coming for our cities

COMMENT: There is a new fear on the block. Not just ISIS, home invasions, wind turbines and the budget deficit, but now we must fear … traffic congestion, Peter Newman writes.

The Infrastructure Australia report on the future needs of our cities emphasises the growing problem of urban traffic congestion all over the country. It is echoed by the State of Australian Cities report.

Congestion, it warns, will overwhelm our futures, making them unlivable, uneconomic and ungovernable as we fight for every piece of road space.

But do we have to accept that congestion trends will overwhelm us? Is it really right to fear congestion?

 

The fear

According to the IA report travel times are going to increase by at least 20%. The total cost of such congestion will increase from A$13.7 billion a year to A$53.3 billion by 2031, an increase of nearly three times. The loss of time will apparently cripple us.

The public policy reaction to fear is to jettison economic analysis and throw money at it. No benefit-cost ratio is needed as we need to act now or it will overwhelm us. Kneejerk reactions like this are usually regretted in hindsight but at the time we have no choice, it must be done.

In this climate of congestion-fear big roads are not being assessed, just announced. The congestion peril is coming. We must honour the Abbott government’s election commitments to around A$40 billion of high-capacity roads such as the East-West Link in Melbourne (now discredited and dropped by the Victorian Government), the Connex West system in Sydney (causing similar pain with communities subject to its impact) and most recently the Perth Freight Link (which looms as the biggest election issue facing the Barnett government that never actually wanted it). All of these roads have benefit cost ratios that make them very questionable.

Long-term plans are being drawn out of old cupboards for road projects dreamed up in the 1960s – like a plan to build a 10-km tunnel under Perth’s Swan river to link the city’s leafy western suburbs with the similarly well-heeled area around Applecross. Good luck with that one.

 

Peak car

The congestion trends being used to scare us are not based on actual data but on projections. They come from a model that is now discredited. In reality Australian cities peaked in car use per person in 2004, like all developed cities across the globe.

The chart below shows that peak car occurred in all Australian cities, regardless of their level of congestion as Canberra, Hobart and Darwin also peaked.

Peak car use in Australian cities. Credit: Newmand and Kenworthy, 2015
Peak car use in Australian cities. Credit: Newmand and Kenworthy, 2015

 

Around the world there is a new dynamic in our cities as the young and wealthy are moving back into cities where they do not need to use a car and they are preferring fast trains and buses over traffic wherever they can.

Rail patronage is booming way beyond predictions as the speed of rail leaves traffic behind. The table below shows the relative speed of public transport (bus and rail) which is gaining but still loses to traffic, and rail to traffic which is now beating the traffic in all cities in our global sample.

 

Comparative speeds of public transport (bus and rail) to traffic and also rail to traffic in global cities. Credit: Newman and Kenworthy, 2015
Comparative speeds of public transport (bus and rail) to traffic and also rail to traffic in global cities. Credit: Newman and Kenworthy, 2015

 

Predicting the traffic

For decades the transport planning profession has used what is known as the Four Step model to predict traffic and hence provide road capacity. It does not suggest any other options than increasing road capacity such as public transport or land use changes that reduce the need to travel.

It has been put aside by most European cities who quickly saw what it did to rip the heart out of American cities. Despite its obvious simplicity it remains one of the modernist tools that are used to explain the future of cities. Most of all it is a tool to create congestion-fear.

But the Four Step model now has revealed one major failing: it assumes that as wealth rises then car ownership and car use will also rise. As the data above suggest if we look to the future we can confidently predict that wealth will rise but we cannot predict that this will automatically mean more car use. They are now decoupling.

The young and the wealthy are buying locations where car dependence is minimised and where sustainable transport options are easily available. Freedom and connection is now based on smart phones and social media and these are easier to use where you can walk, cycle or use a bus and train.

In the US the cities that are decoupling GDP from car use the most are the cities which have invested in rail, such as Washington DC and Portland, as you can see in the chart below. In cities that are emphasising sustainable transport modes the economic benefits are increasingly being demonstrated (see also the book and this article by urban theorist and professor at University of Toronto Richard Florida) as the knowledge economy requires dense centres and spatially efficient modes – walking, cycling and rail transit.

Decoupling wealth from car use in Washington DC and Portland, Oregon. Credit: Newman and Kenworthy, 2015
Decoupling wealth from car use in Washington DC and Portland, Oregon. Credit: Newman and Kenworthy, 2015

 

This global trend is also not just a phenomenon of wealthy cities. Rail projects are dominating the transport agenda of Chinese cities (building metros in 82 cities) and Indian cities (51 cities are building metros now since Prime Minister Modi declared any city over a million needs quality transit).

Even if we were faced with a mountain of traffic congestion we should not be building high capacity roads as they are no longer working to deliver the transport outcomes once expected. The Texas Transportation Institute has compared miles of freeway against delay in the top 20 American cities and found no correlation, as you can see in the chart below.

Freeways and delay in American cities. Credit: Texas Transportation Institute, Urban Mobility Information
Freeways and delay in American cities. Credit: Texas Transportation Institute, Urban Mobility Information

 

The latest data on American cities shows that the top six most walkable cities have 38% higher walkability. Australian cities have been showing this in their city centres as well (Gehl, 2011). This is now the real competitive edge attracting capital for the knowledge economy and to retain the young talent. This is how we should be facing the future not quivering in fear about congestion.

It’s time to change our traffic prediction models.

It’s time to support global trends towards transit, walkability and urban regeneration.

It’s time to drop the big road fetish.

It’s time to stop fear of congestion as the core issue facing the future of our cities.


Peter Newman is Professor of Sustainability at Curtin University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article here.

WICET stockpiles. Photo: WICET

From rail to sea: Dust control at Queensland’s new coal terminal

PHOTOS: Environmental impact on the surrounding community was a key consideration during construction of the new Wiggins Island Coal Export Terminal (WICET). So from the rail unloading facility, all the way to the shiploader, the site is built to limit dust.

WICET made its first shipment of coal, amounting to 73,000 tonnes, in late April. A $3bn, 27mtpa facility, with considerable scope for expansion, WICET is built to provide additional export capacity at the Port of Gladstone, to service new mines and expansion of existing mines in the Surat and southern Bowen Basins.

It’s a green field coal terminal on Golding Point, located west of the existing RG Tanna Coal Terminal. The offshore wharf and loading facilities are situated north of Wiggins Island, adjacent to the Targinie Channel.

The rail unloading facilities are located immediately south of the North Coast Line and are connected to the Golding Point stockyard via a long overland conveyor.

The new WICET terminal was deliberately situated outside the built-up areas of Gladstone in order to reduce community noise and dust impacts. Coal trains to and from WICET bypass built-up areas of Gladstone.

The rail receival station is enclosed in order to increase operational efficiency and uses duplicated negative pressure bag filter systems to optimise air quality.

 

WICET rail unloading facility. Photo: WICET
Photo: WICET

 

An on-line moisture monitor analyses all arriving coal. When required, automatic sprays apply additional recycled water before coal is transported along the overland conveyor to the stockyard.

The overland conveyor structure, which transports up to 8250 tonnes of coal every hour, includes a tight-fitting wrap-around roof along its entire 5.6km length, to prevent strong winds creating dust. In fact, most elevated conveyors at the site are fitted with roofs, floors and walls on the windward side to shield product coal from strong winds.

 

WICET conveyor. Photo: WICET
Photo: WICET

 

WICET’s current stockpile area is around 1.25km by 535m, and is configured for 12 notional stockpiles in 2 rows, with an on-ground storage capacity of roughly 1.89 million tonnes of coal. The facility’s gantry stacker can automatically place coal anywhere on the footprint, and telescopic chutes which deposit the coal are fitted with internal counter-flow misting sprays which use recycled water to control dust during coal placement.

51 hi-flow water cannons are situated around the perimeter of the stockyard and along both sides of the central gantry, and are used to control dust in dry and/or windy weather. The stockyard’s water cannon control system uses real-time data such as wind-borne dust levels, and meteorological data such as wind speed, direction, air temperature and relative humidity, to activate groups of water cannons in defined patterns or sequences.

 

WICET water cannons. Photo: WICET
Photo: WICET

 

The final stage of the export process is the 1.8km jetty conveyor, which is fitted with a roof, a wall on the windward side, and a floor. The shiploader can operate at 8500 tonnes per hour, and its boom is also fitted with a roof, a floor and a wall.

All wharf conveyors are fitted with floors to catch coal spills, and the wharf conveyor tripper discharge chute contains a dust control spray system, which treats coal before it passes onto the ship-loader boom conveyor, and then down the loading chute into the ship’s hold.

 

WICET shiploader. Photo: WICET
Photo: WICET

 

This article originally appeared in Rail Express sister publication, the Australian Bulk Handling Review.

Brisbane suburbs and coal corridor. Graphic: The State of Queensland (Department of Natural Resources and Water) 2007

Mining body slams community train dust study

Community action group Clean Air Queensland will continue its fight against coal trains despite the Queensland Resources Council attacking its trackside dust study.

Clean Air Queensland (CAQ) released the results of its air quality monitoring study in early May.

The organisation says that, using industry-standard air quality monitoring equipment, its members monitored particle pollution levels along the Brisbane train line at Wynnum, Fairfield and Morningside.

CAQ is concerned that with an expansion of coal mining in south east Queensland, increased coal train traffic to the Port of Brisbane will have a deleterious effect on residents’ health.

The group says its study found “alarming rates of pollution in Brisbane associated with dust from coal trains travelling to the Port of Brisbane.”

According to CAQ’s publicity: “The study   ‘Health Hazard in our Suburbs’ – shows coal train pollution readings of 900 per cent above normal levels.”

CAQ spokesperson Michael Kane said the study showed coal trains were emitting “alarming amounts of pollution” as they passed close to homes, schools and workplaces.

“The report shows that coal trains are regularly emitting dangerous levels of air pollution in Brisbane suburbs and the government must now act to protect the community,” Kane said.

The day after CAQ’s study was released, peak state mining industry lobby group Queensland Resources Council (QRC) said it was deeply flawed and misleading.

QRC chief executive Michael Roche said the monitoring carried out by CAQ was unsound and the report wouldn’t stand up to peer review.

“It’s hardly surprising that this group, which includes anti-coal activist groups including Lock the Gate, 6 Degrees and Friends of the Earth would come up with such a report,” Roche stated.

“I would challenge them to undertake independent and peer-reviewed monitoring, which the coal industry has been doing along the rail corridor to the Port of Brisbane for more than two years.

“They undertook only nine monitoring sessions, utilising a method that is not consistent with the Australian air quality standards.

“They admit themselves in the report that they don’t know the distribution of air particles beyond the railway line.

“It’s also telling that they ignored some results from coal, freight and passenger trains that passed during the monitoring period. One would have to wonder why.

“In addition, the study included no wind direction monitoring, which means they would have no way of knowing the origins of the dust measured.

“More than two years’ worth of data from industry-funded monitoring, using methods consistent with the National Air Quality Standards, is in the public domain. I would urge people interested in learning more about air quality along the corridor to visit the Queensland Government’s air quality website where the results of the independent monitoring are reported in near real time.

“Industry has nothing to hide, as evidenced by the fact that since the start of continuous monitoring, the only instances where recorded air quality was above the national standards were independently found to be unconnected to coal-dust emissions, and usually a result of either bushfires, dust storms or track and road maintenance.

“Veneering, which is used on all Queensland coal trains to minimise dust emissions, is world-leading practice and the Queensland Department of Health noted in the 2013 independent dust monitoring findings, that ‘for people living along the rail corridor, the dust concentrations measured during the investigation are unlikely to result in any adverse health effects.’

“I would urge the Queensland Government to see this report for what it is – just another attack by anti-coal activists on our coal sector, which in 2013/14 directly employed more than 26,000 people full time, spent more than $15 billion in the state and contributed almost $2 billion in royalties to the government.”

Clean Air Queensland appeared undaunted by Queensland Resources Council’s salvo.

It said that “instead of trying to shoot the messenger, the Queensland Resources Council should support community efforts to keep Brisbane free of coal dust pollution.”

Community efforts to directly monitor coal dust are only set to grow.

A recent post on the home page of Clean Air Queensland’s web site said that “We are using the same Osiris dust monitors used in the last study and are looking for people to assist who can give 4 or more hours a week.

“Volunteers will be trained to become community scientists and use the Osiris monitoring equipment to collect data on passing coal trains. No experience is necessary.”


This article originally appeared in Rail Express sister publication, the Australian Bulk Handling Review.

South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill. Photo: Creative Commons / Bilby

SA could trial usage-based road charges

The industry has welcomed South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill’s push for a national scheme of usage-based road charges, saying such a scheme will help level the playing field between long distance road and rail freight.

Weatherill told the National Press Club this week that South Australia would be willing to trial such a scheme – as a guinea pig for the nation – in order to address a significant need for more infrastructure funding.

“I don’t think Australians care too much who builds our roads,” Weatherill said.

“They just want them built in a timely fashion, according to some rational set of priorities and at a reasonable cost.”

But it’s not that simple, the premier conceded; general taxation revenue is not enough for governments to cover the rising cost of infrastructure.

“Roads remain a sector that relies heavily on taxpayers to fund new projects,” he continued.

“Under [the proposed] plan, state-based registration and federal-based fuel excise charges are replaced by a charging system based on mass, distance and location, a system that reflects actual use of the road network.”

Weatherill said South Australia would be willing to trial different options for usage-based road-user charging, and would collect data across the state with the view of guiding a national scheme in the future.

Australasian Railway Association acting chief executive Phil Allan praised the premier’s comments, saying all rail freight operators have long been calling for such a scheme, which will provide “a strong incentive for freight businesses to improve the efficiency of their freight supply chains”.

“The interstate rail network has already operated with a similar regime of mass-distance charging for over a decade,” Allan said.

“The rail industry welcomes proposals for road-user charging as a way to level the playing field, meaning many types of freight will become more contestable between road and rail, ultimately lowering costs of transport for getting essential goods between ports, factories, shops and households.”

If it’s implemented in a timely and appropriate manner, the ARA believes Weatherill’s plan can reduce urban congestion, improve efficiency, and drive productivity growth.

“The ARA congratulates Mr Weatherill on his proposal,” Allan concluded. “Introducing heavy vehicle road-user charging is at the forefront of the next wave of economic reform in Australia.”

Toorak terminus. Photo: Yarra Trams

Public opinion asked for on new tram platform

Yarra Trams and Public Transport Victoria (PTV) say the proposed new terminus and level-access platform at Toorak Road is necessary for the continued modernisation of Melbourne’s tram network.

The new platform stop will replace the current combined kerbside tram stop and terminus located on the corner of Toorak Road and Glenferrie Road, the sides said.

The current Toorak Road terminus is the only unprotected terminus remaining on Melbourne’s tram network, and a safety risk assessment completed by Yarra Trams ranks the terminus in the top ten hot spots/stops for severity, with vehicle-to-passenger near misses recorded on an “almost daily basis”.

“It also doesn’t allow for easy boarding and alighting for the elderly, people with prams or people with disabilities,” Yarra Trams said in a release.

The planned new platform will include easier and safer access to trams, increased protection from road traffic, real-time passenger information, and improved passenger amenity including shelters, seating and lighting, Yarra Trams outlined.

Seeking public opinion on the proposed changes, Yarra Trams is hosting an information session on Thursday, July 16, from 6pm to 8pm at the Kooyong Tennis Centre.

Those willing to provide feedback but unable to attend the session can call 1800 800 007.

Pyramid Hill derailment. Photo: ATSB

Report questions buried track at unsealed crossings

The 2013 derailment of a Pacific National train in northern Victoria raises several issues over the construction, monitoring and maintenance of buried track at unsealed level crossings, a report has found.

Pacific National train 9054 derailed at the O’Tooles Road level crossing, at Pyramid Hill, in the early hours of March 5, 2013. The train’s three locomotives remained on the track, but 19 of the first 20 wagons derailed, resulting in severe damage to wagons, a significant loss of grain load and damage to about 270 metres of track.

The train’s crew was unharmed.

A recent report from the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) found the train derailed at a fracture in one of the rails, most likely created by a passenger service which had gone through the crossing earlier that night.

The ATSB found the fracture was a result of the rail’s heavily corroded and wasted condition, and said the poor condition of the rail had not been detected by the rail operator, V/Line, nor by V/Line’s ultrasonic testing contractor, Speno Rail Maintenance.

Examination of the track following the incident found it had been heavily corroded – over a number of years. The rail web was most severely wasted in a horizontal band approximately 20mm wide, commencing about 50mm below the top surface of the rail head, the ATSB found.

Based on established corrosion rates and local conditions, the wasting of the rail must have occurred over several years, the Bureau said.

But walking and ultrasonic inspections by V/Line and its contractor – which took place a maximum of 12 months apart and had most recently occurred 10 months prior to the derailment – had not shown the rail to be in need of replacement.

“Level crossings at unsealed roads can present difficulties for automated ultrasonic testing due to contamination of the rail head and the presence of corrosion on the underside of the rail that can disrupt return signals,” the ATSB explained.

Also contributing to the corrosion going unnoticed was the method with which the rail was installed at the unsealed crossing.

“Covering of rails, fixtures and track support with loose road material increases the potential for corrosion and more rapid track degradation,” the ATSB found. “It also limits the ability to conduct efficient and effective visual inspection.”

Moreover, the Bureau found the network standard for level crossing construction did not directly address the challenges of unsealed roads.

“The standard primarily addressed crossings at roads with paved (sealed) surfaces, other than a reference to the application of a bituminous coating to rail that would contact fill material,” the ATSB said.

“The particular challenges related to drainage, the rail and track environment and the mechanisms for inspection, were not addressed within the standard.”

After the derailment, 126 higher risk sites were inspected from a total population of about 1000 unsealed road crossings on Victoria’s regional network. A more careful, detailed assessment of the rail, sleepers and fastenings was undertaken at these locations.

Of the sites inspected, 111 had sufficient data for assessment and analysis.

Two were identified as having priority faults due to web reduced thickness, and 58% were found to have foot height loss meeting the criteria for priority attention.

Deterioration was also found in fixtures and about 25% of crossings had sleepers identified as ineffective. On the Bendigo-Swan Hill section of track, which includes Pyramid Hill, 30% of unsealed crossings were inspected, of which 21% were identified as requiring immediate remedial works – this compares to 12% across the full sample set, the ATSB said.

The Safety Bureau also found that V/Line, and Transport Safety Victoria (the regulator at the time) missed an opportunity to potentially fix these issues following an earlier derailment, at Warracknabeal two years prior.

“In response to the [Warracknabeal] incident, the frequency of ultrasonic inspection on freight lines was increased from every three years to every two years [annual inspections on passenger lines remained in place], and Speno re-emphasised with its operators the requirement to hand test if indications of corrosion were identified during automated ultrasonic testing.”

These ATSB found these changes were not sufficient, however.

“An opportunity was missed to undertake a wider review of track condition monitoring at unsealed crossings and to review the standard of construction at such crossings,” the Bureau found.

Overall, the Bureau found a trio of safety issues associated with the derailment.

One issue was classed as a contributing factor to the incident:

  • The track inspection regime did not identify the deteriorated rail condition at the O’Tooles Road level crossing. The regime placed an over-reliance on ultrasonic testing and did not include sufficient supplementary systems for monitoring the condition of buried track at unsealed level crossings.

The other two identified safety issues were defined as increasing risk in the lead-up to the incident:

  • The ultrasonic testing regime was not effective in consistently identifying corrosion and wasting of the rail web at unsealed level crossings.
  • The method of constructing crossings at unsealed roads heightened the potential for corrosion and track degradation and limited the opportunity for effective visual inspection. The network standard for crossing construction did not directly address the particular challenges of unsealed roads.

Read the full report at http://www.atsb.gov.au/

Kwinana Freeway. Photo: Creative Commons / Arno Kohlem

Road users must pay, sooner rather than later

COMMENT: The idea of motorists paying for the roads they use beyond tolls, fuel excise or registration fees has taken hold in Australia, Michael de Percy writes.

A user-pays system might replace existing fees with charges based on motorists’ actual use of roads. New technologies would allow charges to be applied at different rates during peak periods in the same way we pay for the use of telecommunications or electricity networks.

The Henry Tax Review, the Harper Competition Review, the Productivity Commission’s Public Infrastructure Inquiry, last week’s AFR National Infrastructure Summit, and now the Australian Automobile Association, agree it’s time. But politicians aren’t sure it will pass the “pub test” with voters.

A user-pays system is necessary to reduce congestion on our roads and improve productivity into the future. We must have a debate over how, not if, we should implement a road user-pays system. But chances are political debates will send the user-pays idea down a rabbit hole before it even begins.

Can it pass the “pub test”?

No politician wants to be the one who implements a user-pays system for roads. But while the jury is still out on whether motorists support the idea of user-pays, the current fuel excise hits those who can least afford it the hardest.

A well-designed user-pays system would be fairer. And road users would know exactly what they were getting for their money.

There can be no such thing as a simple debate about transport reform. A debate about user-pays must cover:

The debate will be intense. But business-as-usual will only lead to mounting congestion in our cities, decreased productivity and ultimately a decline in our standard of living. And it will be very difficult to implement the necessary reforms without a user-pays system.

Pricing and charging are not the same

Two important issues must be considered separately in the debate: pricing and charging. First, there needs to be a way to recognise the price – the amount consumers are willing to pay for using roads – relative to the costs associated with the funding, construction and maintenance of roads. Second, there needs to be a way to charge users for actually using the roads where the amount charged reflects the price.

Much of the political debate will likely focus on charging, though pricing will be the major reform. Even though voters are already paying for roads, they don’t really know how much and the contribution has little to do with their actual use of roads.

Without accurate pricing, we can only guess at how to prioritise road construction and maintenance. In the absence of such market information, simply building more roads will not address the underlying issues.

Although a simple per kilometre charge is supported by many, accurate pricing would mean different charges to reflect demand. This may require a combination of per kilometre and congestion charging. Also, charges would need to vary to reflect how much motorists would be willing to pay under different circumstances. A broad user-pays system might even encourage more flexible work practices as the cost of commuting becomes more transparent.

But there are many sticking points. For one thing, the Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party is opposed to any user-charges for existing roads, even though road pricing may make it fairer for motorists in regional areas.

We can’t afford another GST ‘birthday cake’

The introduction of road pricing may prove as difficult – if not more – than the introduction of the GST. That took 30 years to happen. Can we really afford to wait that long?

At 650 pages, the Coalition’s Fightback! policy was known as the “longest political suicide note in history”. But more than two decades later, most of Fightback! has been implemented.

However, the GST debate was less complex than the road user-pays debate is shaping up to be. For one thing, John Howard had the backing of the States to introduce the GST. The introduction of road pricing will require getting the States on board again, but in an area that is clearly within the States’ constitutional powers.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s relationships with Queensland and Victoria are far from congenial. And transport reform is shaping up to be a major issue for all levels of government. So it is not difficult to see why politicians “are wary of a voter backlash ” over transport reform.

Media one-liners will hinder reform

To make matters worse, the complexity of transport reform will be more difficult to explain in media-grabbing one-liners than the impact of the GST on a birthday cake. And history suggests that another “birthday cake” incident has the potential to put transport reform on hold for several years.

We cannot put all of the responsibility on our politicians. Sensible debate with large-scale community support for reform is essential. Otherwise, achieving transport reform will make the implementation of the GST look like a political cake-walk.

In the meantime, whether user-pays happens now or in the future, the longer we wait, the more we will pay.The Conversation


Michael de Percy is Senior Lecturer in Political Science at University of Canberra. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article here.