AusRAIL, Market Sectors

Gauging Galilee correctly and boosting productivity

<span class="" id="parent-fieldname-description"> Often overlooked in the discussions on the development of the huge coal reserves in Queensland’s Galilee Basin are vital details relating to transport infrastructure, former Deputy Prime Minister Tim Fischer* argues that a key aspect of that remains as yet unresolved. </span> <p>The Galilee Coal Basin presents enormous opportunities for Queensland and Australia, but decisions on rail infrastructure need to be very carefully considered by all stakeholders and mistakes must be avoided, especially over the choice of the optimum rail gauge.</p><p>Fifty years ago, consideration was given to a major upgrade of the Townsville – Cloncurry – Mt Isa railway line, which crosses the Burdekin River near Charter’s Towers. Visionaries decades before had built the large Burdekin railway bridge with both narrow gauge and standard gauge capability, but Brisbane decided to stick with narrow gauge for that upgrade.</p><p>Subsequent state governments continued to allow Queensland Railways (QR) to develop the Bowen Basin coal lines as narrow gauge, resulting in huge limitations on transport efficiencies, although the introduction of 25kV AC overhead electrification of much of the coal network was the right call. </p><p>Worse still though, Port Clinton, located north east of Rockhampton on the edge of the Shoalwater Military Training Area, a natural large port with huge potential and complete with a natural access channel that avoids sailing through the Great Barrier Reef, was neglected and bypassed. </p><p>Now the only state government in Australia with an administrative structure featuring a coordinator-general is on the cusp of locking in some huge decisions, with ramifications for decades and with a big impact on that much sought after economic ingredient, productivity.</p><p>What is at stake here is exemplified by one simple question. In the 21st century do you want to load around 75 tonnes of coal per wagon on narrow (1067 mm) gauge for a maximum of 14,000 tonnes of coal on each train or might you want to load 120 tonnes of coal per wagon for up to 25,000 tonnes of coal on each super train, by using heavy haul standard (1435mm) gauge?</p><p>Standard gauge would also have the advantage of helping to supply some missing links on Australia’s interstate rail network and help provide some cost savings in equipment purchases. It is a no brainer and to be fair most proposals for new railways in the Galilee are being planned for standard gauge.</p><p>But, in all of this there is a nasty little twist. The reasonable sounding bid of Aurizon to build a large dual gauge Central Queensland Integrated Rail Project, which has the interesting acronym CQRIP, would appear to be an attempt to creep narrow gauge into the logistics of Galilee, thus sadly limiting productivity.</p><p>The real danger lies with the current slow phase for big mine projects and related infrastructure with financiers moving ever more slowly and cautiously. The existing Aurizon narrow gauge add-ons may be built first to Galilee and then arguably it will be too difficult to move to standard gauge at a later stage, meaning another opportunity lost.</p><p>John Monash of Hamel, Jerilderie and Melbourne in his role as outstanding engineer and expert court evidence giver always wanted harmony and maximum linkages with his various projects.</p><p>If Monash was alive today, I think he would say, “Do not let narrow gauge anywhere near the new and huge Galilee Coal basin or you will greatly regret the productivity limitations,”. </p><p>History favours getting things right first up, in this case going 100% standard gauge with the Galilee. I might add this is the case not only for Galilee, also if not too late it should be first choice for the new Surat Basin railway. Surat done in standard gauge would help afford a seamless rail linkage Gladstone-Moree-Parkes-Melbourne, a foundation for the Brisbane Inland Route.</p><p>In a previous life, the now Queensland premier Campbell Newman masterminded the use of standard gauge from the Rock-Lockhart-Boree Creek NSW branchline direct to Appleton Dock for grain exports, showing boldness and lateral thinking, a holistic Monash type approach. I would hope he sits down with the deputy premier, transport minister, and the coordinator-general to sort something with Galilee while it can still be sorted, in favour of maximising rail productivity.</p><p>At the very least, some dual gauge capability Goonyella to Abbot Point could be an interim solution, in any event Aurizon must be challenged and asked to justify in chapter and verse the use of narrow gauge along any part of the Galilee driven rail network expansion. Otherwise it will be RIP for boosting productivity in CQ, rather than a productive CQRIP.</p><p><strong>*</strong><em>Tim Fischer – Former Deputy Prime Minister is the author of several rail books, including “Trains Unlimited in the 21st Century” ABC Books.</em></p>