Rail maintenance, upgrades getting ahead of schedule

Major rail projects are completing extra works while Australia and New Zealand are under lockdown measures.

In Sydney, a number of projects are taking advantage of lower commuter numbers and relaxed regulations around work hours to progress ahead of schedule.

In Parramatta, work on the light rail project is running seven days a week after the NSW government introduced changes to legislation to expand standard construction hours on weekends and public holidays. Works are being conducted from 7am to 7pm Monday to Friday, 7am to 6pm on Church St, and from 7am to 6pm on Saturdays, Sundays, and public holidays.

According to a Transport for NSW (TfNSW) spokesperson, all works are being done to minimise the impact on the local community.

“All reasonable measures to reduce noise impacts will continue to be implemented, including using the quietest equipment possible, placing machinery and vehicles as far away from properties as possible, conducting high noise generating activities during weekdays where possible, and implementing respite periods as required.”

In Parramatta, disruption is being minimised by scheduling utility works in non-peak periods, using sound blankets, directing lighting towers, and turning off equipment when not in use.

With the Sydney CBD experiencing extremely low traffic volumes during the lockdown period, work on the Sydney Metro City & Southwest has been able to increase. Lane closures previously only possible on weekends have been implemented on weekdays and extended work hours are in place at Central Station.

In Chullora, the construction of the new Digital Systems facility has extended hours over one weekend and will use extra hours where necessary.

Elsewhere in NSW work hours on the New Intercity Fleet maintenance facility have been extended to 7am to 6pm, seven days a week. Extended working hours are also being looked at for station accessibility upgrades at Fairy Meadow, Mittagong, Hawkesbury River, Wyee, and Waratah.

“All community members and stakeholders are thanked for their patience as work continues on important transport infrastructure across NSW,” said the TfNSW spokesperson.

Across the Tasman, KiwiRail has been conducting a significant maintenance program on the Auckland network. Lower commuter numbers during lockdown have allowed KiwiRail to lay over four kilometres of new rail on the Eastern line, said KiwiRail chief operating officer, Todd Moyle.

“We are able to use this time to carry out a great deal of work in a short timeframe. Normally this work would need to be completed during weekends across several months.”

Works will continue until Monday, April 27 and include replacement of worn rail between Glen Innes and Sylvia Park. The Eastern line not only serves commuters but freight rail services from the Port of Auckland.

“We’ve worked closely with Auckland Transport to arrange for this work to be done now so there will be a more reliable network for commuters once COVID-19 levels fall and businesses reopen,” said Moyle.

The slowdown in traffic on the commuter network allows a rare opportunity for continuous track work that would normally be done at weekends or overnight to minimise disruption.

“We’re doing this work now, while we have the opportunity, to avoid future disruptions to commuters and to ensure they get a great service once they return to work,” said Moyle.

Physical distancing measures are in place at all work sites.

Daytime freight services are being rerouted via Newmarket while commuter services are replaced by buses.

Thales ensuring capability and safety

Thales is committed to the continued delivery of capability to our customers while minimising any risk to the safety of our employees and the broader community.

In early March, Thales implemented social distancing and enhanced hygiene measures across all of our sites. At production facilities a number of measures were implemented including: staggered shifts, staggered breaks, closure of canteen facilities, expanded break rooms, increased hand washing and the cleaning of rooms between use. Concurrently all non-production staff moved to ‘work from home’. All sites have also identified and secured a bio-cleaning company for deep cleaning as necessary.

We are closely monitoring impacts on our supply chain, actively seeking advice from key suppliers to ensure we have the ability to mitigate any potential impacts. Thales takes seriously our responsibility to maintain employment and supply chains through the current crisis and have taken a number of steps to assist our partners as the situation has evolved.

Notice to proceed issued for HS2

The UK government has issued a ‘notice to proceed’ for companies to begin work on High Speed 2 (HS2).

The decision ensures that construction will go ahead on the controversial project, and confirms that work will progress while the country grapples with the coronavirus (COVID-19) and associated lockdown measures.

The ‘notice to proceed’ is the formal approval for the construction of stage one of the project, from London to the West Midlands. This stage project is split into four work packages awarded to four separate joint ventures. Awarded in 2017, the joint ventures are:

  • SCS Railways (Skanska Construction UK Ltd, Costain Ltd, STRABAG AG);
  • Align JV (Bouygues Travaux Publics SAS, a subsidiary of Bouygues Construction, Sir Robert McAlpine and VolkerFitzpatrick, a subsidiary of VolkerWessels UK);
  • EKBF JV (Eiffage Genie Civil SA, Kier Infrastructure and Overseas Ltd, BAM Nuttall, Ferrovial Agroman); and
  • BBV JV (Balfour Beatty Group Ltd, VINCI Construction Grands Projets, VINCI Construction UK Ltd, VINCI Construction Terrassement).

HS2 Minister, Andrew Stephenson, said that the decision is an assurance to the rail industry.

“Following the decision earlier this year to proceed with the project, this next step provides thousands of construction workers and businesses across the country with certainty at a time when they need it, and means that work can truly begin on delivering this transformational project.”

HS2 Ltd, the public company overseeing HS2, estimates that 400,000 supply chain contracts will be created in phase one of HS2.

“In these difficult times, today’s announcement represents both an immediate boost to the construction industry – and the many millions of UK jobs that the industry supports – and an important investment in Britain’s future: levelling up the country, improving our transport network and changing the way we travel to help bring down carbon emissions and improve air quality for the next generation,” said Mark Thurston, CEO of HS2 Ltd.

The UK government has also published the full business case for the project.

Operators meeting strengthening demand for rail freight

Figures released by Aurizon show that there has been greater demand for rail freight services in the March quarter of 2020.

The Queensland based business, which operates the Central Queensland Coal Network, as well as coal services in NSW and South East Queensland and national freight services, saw a 2 per cent increase in total above rail volumes when compared to the 2019 March quarter.

The growth was driven by a 12 per cent increase in bulk volumes, however coal volumes remained flat.

In an ASX statement, the company attributed the growth to strong volumes of iron ore from Mt Gibson, in the Kimberly and Mid West of Western Australia. However, the overall level of growth in the bulk sector was affected by the flooding of the Mt Isa line in the March quarter last year, which restricted volumes in that period.

The flat demand for coal volumes were affected by the ramp down of New Acland mine, industrial action and adverse weather in February and march which impacted the Centre Queensland Coal Network.

Aurizon also noted that there has been greater demand for freight rail services from Linfox due to increased demand for consumer goods during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Aurizon has put in place extra preventative measures and there have been no cases of COVID-19 among Aurizon employees.

Linfox has been redeploying some of its workforce from affected operations to manage this demand for grocery products and the company is ensuring that supply chains remain open, said Linfox Logistics CEO Australia and New Zealand, Mark Mazurek.

“It is critically important that Linfox’s warehousing, road and rail networks continue to function safely and efficiently and that we can work collaboratively to deploy our people into new roles.”

Moving freight by rail is easing Australia’s strained supply chains

Australia’s rail network is ensuring the nation’s supply chain stays intact.

People are working around-the-clock to ensure safe passage for 1,800-metre freight trains carrying essential products for all Australians.

John Fullerton, ARTC CEO said in a recent interview that was broadcast on Sky News that transport companies are moving as much as they can to boost the flow of essential goods and services.

“Rail is no different, we move around five million tonnes across the continent from the eastern seaboard to WA and a lot of our product involves groceries and the hardware that sits on those supermarket shelves,” he said on Sky News.

Fullerton said the sector is crucial and rail freight movements on the ARTC network are up approximately 14 per cent due to the unprecedented demand for goods.

“The COVID-19 outbreak has sparked an unprecedented challenge for Australia’s freight and transport industry, with the country’s demand for critical supplies prompting a surge in rail freight,” he said.

“The rail freight sector has stepped up to ease Australia’s strained supply lines.”

The ARTC CEO leads a team of more than 1600 employees to manage and maintain 8500km of the national rail network.

ARTC employs more than 300 people at its Keswick headquarters in South Australia including network controllers who ensure coordinated passage for the country’s freight trains.

“Freight trains are playing a crucial role in Australia’s response to the coronavirus pandemic – and our frontline teams are really part of a group of workers making sure the economy and society is able to keep functioning during these difficult times,” Fullerton said.

Moving freight has been highlighted by the government as an essential service. Fullerton says the sector has never been more important “which is putting a lot of responsibility on our shoulders”.

However, in collaboration with rail freight customers, government, and industry partners, Fullerton said it’s been wonderful to see teams rise to the challenge to keep Australia’s supply chain intact and the nation’s economy moving.

“We’re really proud to be able to keep freight trains moving and do our bit for Australia, but like other essential service providers, these are testing times for everyone and there’s still a long road ahead,” Fullerton said.

The company also has teams maintaining rail assets across the nation, including in the middle of the Nullarbor, to help move vital freight to its destination.

“There’s definitely a lot of uncertainty surrounding COVID-19, but we’ll continue to work hard with our customers and partners to ensure supplies continue to ride the rails and get to where they need to be,” he said.

ARTC is continuing to implement strict hygiene protocols and preventative measures to protect the health and safety of staff and local communities in which it operates. 

International bodies urge continuity in public transport

An international group of transport organisations have issued a statement urging that public transport services must run despite coronavirus (COVID-19) mitigation measures.

The group includes the International Association of Public Transport (UITP), the International Union of Railways (UIC), United Cities and Local Governments, and the International Transport Workers Federation.

In the statement, the group calls for continuity in public transport, particularly so that key workers can keep getting to and from work.

“Ensuring continuity of public transport and local mobility services is essential for society and the economy. This will ensure that the health crisis does not turn into a social one.”

The statement identifies measures that need to be taken to ensure that services continue, including the provision and supply of protective equipment for transport staff and operators. This will ensure the health and safety of staff and passengers.

The statement notes that in some cities, patronage has dropped by 90 per cent, and this can have a devastating impact on operators which rely on passenger revenues.

The authors call upon governments to rapidly adopt measures including financial support which supports the preservation of jobs and the industries which supply the transport networks.

Some best practice measures outlined in the statement include providing accurate and up to date information, conduct regular deep cleaning and disinfection, adapting service levels to passenger demand while ensuring continuity, and providing dedicated services for healthcare personnel. The implementation of these measures is of benefit not only to the networks themselves, write the authors.

“Bearing in mind that passenger transport systems are vital to the regular functioning of the economy, these measures would not just support the sector in question but the whole of society.”

Increase in freight services to meet consumer demand

Pacific National has increased key interstate freight services by up to 15 per cent to meet consumer demand.

According to Pacific National CEO, Dean Dalla Valle, extra services have between all mainland state capitals.

“For example, in terms of goods trains operating back and forth across the Nullarbor between Melbourne and Perth, we have lifted the number of services by 15 per cent in the last two weeks,” he said.

“Similarly, to meet customer requirements, Pacific National had increased rail freight services between Melbourne and Brisbane by 8 per cent.”

Pacific National has also been looking to streamline operations due to the unpredictability of current conditions.

“A zeal for constant innovation and a laser-focus on customer needs, both in frontline operations and the corporate centre, is vital,” said Dalla Valle.

“In these rapidly changing times, management and frontline staff must explore every operational and commercial angle to maintain an edge in the marketplace.”

To accommodate the increase in services, operating hours at freight terminals have been extended, consolidated assembly and staging of goods trains at Port Augusta, in South Australia.

“Port Augusta is at a key crossroad in the national supply chain, acting as an ideal launch pad location to provide high capacity rail freight services to every corner of the continent.”

Each of the 40 rail services that Pacific National have been operating back and forth across the Nullarbor have ensured that Western Australia remains connected to the rest of the nation, with 60 per cent of goods arriving in the state carried by rail.

Rail freight services have been particularly key during the coronavirus (COVID-19) lockdown as they operate on separate corridors, reducing the potential for contagion.

“The health and safety of our train crews are paramount, and I’m immensely proud of their ongoing efforts and dedication,” said Dalla Valle, who noted that hygiene and social distancing procedures are strictly adhered to.

Increased appetite for air to rail switch

If concerns around climate change were not enough, modelling by Swiss bank UBS is showing that more people will be looking to switch from air to train travel in Europe following the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

The report, released by UBS Evidence Lab, highlights that a number of air routes within the EU are at risk of losing passengers to rail. Those most at risk include routes from Berlin to Frankfurt and Munich, London to Paris and Edinburgh, and Madrid to Barcelona.

While most of the routes most affected are relatively short, the report notes that travellers are having an increasingly higher tolerance to longer rail journeys, which could be taken faster by plane in the same corridor.

“Data from a UBS Evidence Lab survey of 1,000 people in four European countries and China suggests leisure travellers would tolerate 5-6 hours on a train, and EU business travellers up to four hours vs the general consensus of 2-3 hours.”

The report notes that service and frequency are drivers for demand for longer train journeys, and that competition among operators can often encourage improvements in these areas.

The report links the growing appetite for rail to current concerns about COVID-19, as well as wider demands for net-zero carbon by 2050.

“The Covid-19 outbreak is showing industrialised countries not only what clean air means and how to cope without travelling, but also how a cleaner environment and healthier populations cope better with diseases.”

While the report authors note that some low-carbon investments may be diverted to support the transport and travel industries, countries will continue to push towards net zero by 2050, while consumers will continue to look for travel options that take the least time. Increased funding to meet these twin demands will grow the market for European high-speed rail and associated supplies of rollingstock, signalling, controls, and brakes.

Source : UBS Evidence Lab

Real time data assisting social distancing

To enable commuters to continue travelling safely and to protect the health of staff, Auckland Transport (AT) has updated the AT Mobile app to allow train passengers to see if physical distancing will be possible before they board the train.

The app displays a live occupancy status, whether the train is likely empty, likely space available, likely near the limit of safe distancing, and likely not accepting passengers. The live data is drawn from tap on and off points, where travellers have used their AT HOP cards.

Across the AT network, 15,000 trips are being made per day, despite the New Zealand government’s Level 4 restrictions. These journeys are being made by essential workers, those needing to travel for medical reasons, or to access essential services.

According to Auckland Mayor Phil Goff, the solution was developed in a rapid time frame.

“It enables AT to ensure that it meets the rule of trains as well of buses running at no more than 20 per cent capacity to ensure passengers can maintain 2 metres of separation. This allows passengers travelling to essential work or to access essential services to know that they will be safe using public transport,” he said.

Once the lockdown period is over, users will continue to have access to the service, to avoid crowding and provide better customer information.

The service was previously available on buses, and was rolled out to trains this week, noted AT chief executive Shane Ellison.

“Those who are travelling on trains for essential trips are now able to make an informed decision about which service to take for their health and safety. I’m very proud of the team for making this update happen so quickly.”

Other updates are providing clearer information on updates to the transport network.

In Australia, while Transport for NSW (TfNSW) is not currently considering using real time data to assist passengers with social distancing, there are other ways for passengers to learn about train occupancy levels.

“TfNSW already provides passenger load data for bus and train services to apps such as TripView and NextThere which can assist customers with selecting the most suitable service to board,” said a TfNSW spokesperson.

Although patronage dropped by 75 to 85 per cent in the four weeks to March 31 across all modes in NSW, services are continuing to be maintained.

“TfNSW understands the important role public transport plays in the daily lives of commuters, especially in the regions, and there are currently no plans to reduce services of trains, buses and ferries across the vast network,” said the spokesperson.

“By maintaining the existing level of service on the NSW public transport network, customers are able to better practice social distancing when using the network for essential travel.”

Rail R U OK?Day updated with COVID-19 resources

The importance of looking out for friends, colleagues, and mates in the rail industry has only been further highlighted this year with the impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

As routines are upended and social distancing is adhered to, loneliness and isolation can be further compounded, while obligations to look out for family members, partners and, friends outside of work can increase.

With these factors in mind, the TrackSAFE Foundation has reaffirmed that Rail R U OK?Day will continue as scheduled on Thursday, April 30. In addition, TrackSAFE has released additional materials relevant to the current working environment.

Resources that TrackSAFE have collated include updates to the RailRes App, as well as support and counselling services provided by Lifeline, Beyond Blue, and the National Mental Health Commission.

Additionally, R U OK? CEO, Katherine Newton has released a special message to encourage people to stay connected and give practical tips to stay in contact despite physical distancing laws. This messages has been supplemented by Connection Cards, which can be distributed without contact.

Materials to encourage electronic communication and online events have also been uploaded to the TrackSAFE website.

Ahead of this year’s Rail R U OK?Day organisations and participants can draw on the five years of successful R U OK?Days since 2015, with 55,000 rail employees participating in 2019. Over 70 rail companies are registered for the initiative and 105 Champions will facilitate the day.

This year, the two interactive question marks, Quentin and Quinn, departed from Canberra, with Major Projects Canberra, Canberra Metre Operations and Transport Canberra and City Services hosting the beginning of the seven week journey. This year was the first time that organisations in Canberra had participated in the Rail R U OK?Day.