The effect of extreme weather on rail and track infrastructure

As severe weather events become more intense and frequent, rail infrastructure owners and mangers are responding to this new reality.

Documenting the risks that climate change poses to the Australian rail sector, the Australasian Railway Association (ARA) listed six types of impacts. These were: track failures due to extreme temperature days, increased risk of flood and storm damage to track infrastructure, sea level rise flooding coastal tracks, yards and other infrastructure, wind damage to overhead lines, track failure due to decreased soil stability and increased erosion, and increased bushfire damage risk.

During the summer of 2019-2020 the rail industry experienced almost all of these impacts.

In New South Wales, bushfires closed multiple major train lines, including the Main Western Line through the Blue Mountains, the Southern Highlands Line between Goulburn and Macarthur and the Unanderra Line between Moss Vale and Unanderra.

Rail infrastructure owners around the country felt a number of these impacts, and Arc Infrastructure, the manager of the WA rail freight network, was no exception.

“This summer we have seen bushfires in the South West, Mid West (Mogumber) and Kalgoorlie/Esperance cause interruptions to rail traffic, heavy rainfall impacting track infrastructure, and an electrical storm in the Mid West affect signalling and communications infrastructure on the Eastern Goldfields Railway,” said an Arc Infrastructure spokesperson.

Sydney Trains also acknowledged how the weather can impact infrastructure.

“Extreme weather events, such as high temperatures, strong winds, lightning, bushfires, high rainfall, and flooding, can have a significant effect on the performance, efficiency and operation of Sydney Trains’ infrastructure,” said a Sydney Trains spokesperson.

With these increasingly severe and frequent weather events recognised as constituting a new normal, rail network managers and infrastructure owners are having to grapple with what this means for their assets.

BUILDING RESILIENCE

In Infrastructure Australia’s Australian Infrastructure Audit 2019, resilience was a key theme. The report acknowledged that although Australia’s extremes have been well known – floods, drought, fires, and cyclones being an almost yearly occurrence – resilience, the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties, was not reflected in planning processes.

Resilience takes a different kind of thinking than had been previously reflected in planning documents. Although methods and protocols to repair damaged infrastructure were established, the data to be able to predict future events was not always available.

“Timely access to evidence that aids the evaluation of likelihood and consequence can help the planning of construction, maintenance and resilience. However, evidence about the scale of risks, their impacts and the costs of addressing them is often weak or not accessible,” write the authors of the report.

In this context, climate change becomes a compounding factor. The modelling of risks is based upon events that have happened in the past. When events start becoming more frequent and outside the historical range of severity, these models have to be re-evaluated.

“In a rapidly changing environment, risks shift in nature and severity, complicating assessment. This can lead to reactive, rather than proactive, responses to both short- and long-term risks to networks,” write Infrastructure Australia.

The report notes that there is much to be done.

“Australia’s infrastructure sector lacks clear, publicly available guidance on how to manage risk and plan for greater resilience in the future.”

Image credit: Sydney Trains.

THE RAIL INFRASTRUCTURE OF 2100, BUILT NOW
While Infrastructure Australia’s assessment was made for Australia’s infrastructure as a whole, rail itself has some key challenges. Rail networks are expected to last for up to 100 years, with some track in use today laid in the early 20th century.

The longevity of rail infrastructure presents a critical issue, as the cost of relocating infrastructure has been so high as to be prohibitive. However, as noted in Building resilient infrastructure prepared by Deloitte Access Economics for the Australian Business Roundtable for Disaster Resilience & Safer Communities, the increased cost of natural disasters will lead to the replacement of damaged assets becoming equivalent to the entire cost of large infrastructure programs, suggesting that resilience building is a nationally significant infrastructure project on its own.

Within this context, the rail infrastructure being built now has to account for changes expected to occur in the next 100 years. In the best-case scenario of global temperature rise being kept to between 1.5 and 2O°C, sea level rises of up to a metre are predicted. The knock on effects of this on rail track infrastructure have been catalogued by the ARA.

Sea level rise will directly impact low lying sections of track, particularly those freight lines that carry bulk cargo for export. Increases in extreme rainfall, leading to flooding, can cause assets to be inundated and landslides. With sea level rising, coastal and inland areas will be vulnerable to inundation, and increased frequency and severity of heat waves will cause track buckling and brownouts and blackouts.

With these risks in mind, the ARA calls for the industry to look at mitigating risks via a long-term program of activities. Whether collaborative or led by individual organisations, the ARA notes that successful planning will require the embedding of adaptation and continuity into planning, development, maintenance and improvement programs of all major rail infrastructure owners.

Some infrastructure owners are already planning of how to respond to this changed environment.

Sydney Trains, whose network was significantly affected during the summer of 2019-2020, is building resilience into the physical nature of the network.

“In recent years, Sydney Trains has undertaken a number of initiatives to protect the network from weather events. These include replacing timber sleepers with concrete to reduce the likelihood of significant rail head movement, tension- regulated overheard wiring, improved lightning and surge protection at assets like control centres and substations and improving advanced weather warning systems,” said a Sydney Trains spokesperson.

These works are part of a $1.5 billion annual program of routine and periodic maintenance across the network.

In Western Australia, Arc Infrastructure is currently looking into how to build in resilience to its network, as Arc Infrastructure CEO Murray Cook, told Rail Express.

“We have an innovative research project underway across our network to prevent the risk of derailment through the use of research, data and technology, supported by the deep knowledge and experience of our people.”

Arc Infrastructure is currently in the process of building a system to predict, detect, and prevent derailments that occur as a result of track section washaways, said an Arc spokesperson.

“In order to predict washaways, we are using various sources of information (including historical track washaway data, historical rainfall data and topographical data) to understand and quantify the potential damage caused by various intensities of extreme weather across our network. This data is then being correlated with realtime rainfall data to generate alarms for probable washaways on specific sections of track.”

So far, the project is being tested on historical events, with results showing that of the washaway events that occurred in February 2017, 47 per cent of the locations were predictable, based on the analysis.

Across Australia, a combination of planning, technological innovation, and consistent maintenance will be required to ensure that the rail netowrks laid down today can be used safely and efficiently in 2100.

Sydney Trains misses punctuality target in February

Sydney Trains and NSW TrainLink have recorded below target punctuality performance in February 2020, with only 83 per cent of services arriving within five minutes for Sydney Trains services, and 6 minutes for NSW TrainLink services.

The target for both services is to have at least 92 per cent of peak services arrive within these benchmarks.

The February target is the lowest out of the publicly available monthly data going back to July 2018.

A spokesperson for Sydney trains said the result in February can be attributed to severe weather.

“There were multiple weather related events across the rail network in February, including electrical storms causing a tree to falling on overhead wiring at Blackheath, landslips at Artarmon and Leura, flooding at Olympic Park and on the South Coast, elements affecting infrastructure at Hawkesbury River, Lidcombe and on the Southern Highlands, and ongoing bushfire recovery work on the Blue Mountains Line between Mount Victoria and Lithgow.

“This is in addition to a power supply issue at the Hornsby Maintenance Centre, a train requiring mechanical repairs at Lidcombe and a medical emergency at Erskineville,” said the spokesperson.

Services on the T1 line had the worst punctuality result across the network in February, with only 77 per cent of services meeting the benchmark. Within the T1 network, western line services recorded the lowest performance, at 74 per cent reaching the on-time benchmark.

T3 Bankstown services were the best performers during February, however at 87.2 per cent still did not reach the benchmark.

Services were generally closer to being on time in the afternoon peak than in the morning peak. Overall punctuality for the financial year ending February 2020 is 90.9.

Sydney Trains serviced 420 million trips in the last financial year, a 35 per cent increase from 5 years ago. 3,200 services provide 1.4 million people’s journeys each weekday.

Building human and customer focused digital rail systems

As rail organisations around Australia move towards their digital future, ways of working and approaches to implementation will vary, as has been the case of Australia’s distinct rail network since its foundation.

During the second day of the Train Control and Management Systems summit, these divergent paths towards digitalisation were laid out.

Showcasing what this means in New South Wales was Andrew Constantinou, deputy executive director of Digital Systems Business Integration at Sydney Trains.

Constantinou outlined how the newly opened Rail Operations Centre (ROC) near Green Square in Alexandria, Sydney is one element of digitalisation in rail. The ROC is designed to organise the complex Sydney Trains network which condenses 15 train lines running 120 trains per hour into six CBD tracks.

The purpose built control centre being outside of the traditional location of alongside the rail corridor introduced a new concept of operations, which, according to Constantinou, “Starts with bringing all your people together”.

Beginning from a human factor driven design principles, the team utilises a systems engineering approach to organising the new centre. Constantiou acknowledged the human element of shifting operations control.

“One of the biggest challenges was simply bringing everyone on board for the concept of operations,” he said.

This challenge was in part resolved through technology, and in part through understanding how people would respond to their new environment.

The concept design was driven by simulated scenarios which could demonstrate how a new operational layout would affect performance. Current operations staff used a VR walkthrough to determine what their future workspace would look like. This approach would overcome the issue of distinct rail operations control centres effectively competing with one another.

At the other end of the scale, Gary Evans, operational readiness manager of ARTC’s Advanced Train Management System (ATMS) showcased how the new system would allow Australia’s vast freight network to increase frequency, throughput, reliability, service reliability, while reducing operational and maintenance costs.

The new system, which is currently being trialled, enables virtual block authority management. However, rather than being an end in itself, the system can allow ARTC’s customers to find efficiencies.

“ARTC wants to be an enabler for its customers,” said Evans.

Rooty Hill station upgrades increase accessibility

Station upgrades have been completed at Rooty Hill Station, in Western Sydney.

The station, located on the Main Western Line, now has four new lifts to make each platform accessible. Family accessible toilets have also been installed on each platform, said a transport for NSW spokesperson.

“The upgrade also includes a new pedestrian footbridge with new stairs to each platform, larger platform canopies for better weather protection and upgrades to CCTV and lighting to improve customer safety and security,” said the spokesperson.

In addition to the work on the station, a new commuter car park, with 750 car spaces, 16 accessible spaces, 10 motorcycle spaces, and 10 electric vehicle charging spaces, opened in early January.

Power for the vehicle charging ports will be locally sourced.

“The power requirements for these facilities are supplemented by sustainable features built into the car park design, including a rooftop solar system with 1140 solar panels. These also efficiently operate the car park lights and lift,’ said the TfNSW spokesperson.

Included in the upgrades are artworks produced by the local Aboriginal community, and pavers have been installed with the handprints of 450 school children from the local area.

The station’s heritage as the original terminus of the Western line’s extension to Blacktown, and its subsequent role in Sydney and NSW’s rail heritage is acknowledged in the station’s footbridge.

The upgrades to Rooty Hill station are part of TfNSW’s wider Transport Access Program, which is making stations more accessible around the state.

Sydney Trains seeks suppliers for UPS network

Sydney Trains is searching for suppliers to replace its network of uninterruptible power systems (UPS).

The 40 systems are spread around the network which are a mix of new and aged units.

These systems supply power to the Sydney Trains electrical network, signalling location in particular, in the case of utility power failure. If these systems lost power there would be significant disruption across the train network.

The tender documents outline that a successful tendered will be able to provide installation, commissioning, and maintenance services.

The UPS systems range from 10-25-kVa 1 phase 240V input and output with 110VDC Bus, to 25 and 30kVa 3 phase 415V input and output with 110VDC Bus, and 40kVa 3 phase 415V input and output with either 110VDC or 400VDC Bus.

Tenders close on February 20 at 2pm and can be submitted via NSW’s online tender process.

Weather destruction is flooding NSW network with repairs

The Blue Mountains in New South Wales has been hit with catastrophic weather in the past 48 hours, heavily disrupting the Sydney Trains and NSW Trainlink network in the region.

Signal boxes and thousands of kilometres of signal wiring is currently being replaced on the Blue Mountains line.

NSW Minister for Regional Transport and Roads Paul Toole said Sydney Trains had secured the track infrastructure and were now working to stabilise the land.

Sydney Trains stated in a social media post on Monday that heavy rain has led to land-slips, fallen trees, flooding, and damage to infrastructure.

“It’s been a really tough 48 hours.”

The heavy rain resulted in a land-slip that occurred between Leura and Katoomba last Sunday afternoon that forced the closure of the Blue Mountains line between Springwood and Mt Victoria.

“Re-opening the line is a huge job – engineers need to rebuild the embankment and infrastructure, including earthworks, track reconstruction, signalling and overhead wire repairs, however we are confident this work will be completed in a matter of weeks, weather dependent,” said Toole.

Toole stated earlier this month that it would be months before part of the Blue Mountains line would reopen again due to bushfire damage.

On Wednesday, Toole said repair work at Leura wasn’t expected to delay reconstruction works taking place further up the line.

“At the end of last year, 25 kilometres of track was significantly damaged by bushfires between Mount Victoria and Lithgow, with thousands of kilometres of communication, electrical and signal wiring lost,” he said.

Engineers have developed temporary systems to allow limited rail connectivity and safely operate some freight and passenger services on Tuesday.

Transport for NSW said they are working closely with freight operators to provide alternate routes.

Sydney Trains said that its frontline operational staff from the network and NSW TrainLink have been working on the line, but that forecast rain will continue to impact the network in the coming days.

Sydney Metro’s underground tunnels are also suffering from the torrential rain in the CBD.

Over a million litres of rainfall flooding has occurred in the 10-year-old tunnel between North Ryde and Chatswood that relies on pumping methods to eliminate excess water.

The 15 kilometre new metro tunnel features waterproof gaskets to prevent flooding.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the water pumps have not malfunctioned but the volume of water limited their effectiveness due to the rainfall in Sydney last weekend.

Other services in Sydney have been impacted by the flooding, including light rail and infrastructure damage on the Central Coast and Newcastle line.

NSW government praised for resumption of services on Blue Mountains line

After fires forced the closure of the Blue Mountains line in late December and early January, limited services resumed between Mount Victoria and Lithgow on the evening of Monday, January 21.

Bushfires in the Blue Mountains area laid waste to a 25 kilometre stretch of railway, damaging signalling equipment and rail infrastructure. In early January services between Mount Victoria and Lithgow were expected to be closed for months, after being suspended since 19 December.

Minister for Regional Transport and Roads, Paul Toole, highlighted that crews have been working on restoring services since the closure.

“Sydney Trains’ engineers have worked tirelessly to develop temporary systems that will allow us to restore rail connectivity and safely operate a limited number of freight trains from Monday evening and passenger trains from Tuesday 21 January,” he said.

“We recognise how important this rail connection is to passengers travelling to and from the west and to moving freight and we are doing everything possible to resume full services as soon as possible.”

Freight on Rail Group (FORG) of Australia chair Dean Dalla Valle, praised the NSW government for its swift resumption of services, noting that without the rail line, more freight had to be moved via roads.

“NSW Minister for Regional Transport and Roads Paul Toole MP and Sam Farraway MLC – both Bathurst boys – immediately understood the urgent need to restore rail freight services along the bushfire impacted section of track between Lithgow and Mount Victoria.”

The damage was so extensive that significant parts of the line will need to be wholly restored, said Toole.

“This will be a long recovery process as we are essentially rebuilding some parts of the operating system from scratch.”

Sydney Trains staff have removed over 300 trees and relaid kilometres of communication, electrical, and signal wiring.

Dalla Valle highlighted the nature of the NSW operator’s response.

“I’d also like to call out Sydney Trains Chief Executive Howard Collins OBE for rolling up his sleeves, quickly travelling to bushfire impacted zones to assess first-hand what needed to be done, and liaising closely with industry,” said Dalla Valle.

Schedules are still be altered to account for maintenance, said NSW TrainLink chief executive Pete Allaway.

“The first Bathurst Bullet, the Broken Hill XPLORER and most Dubbo XPT services will resume to a slightly altered timetable, with the remaining affected services to continue to be replaced by coaches and buses while repair work continues.”

T6 Carlingford Line permanently closes for construction

Parramatta Light Rail and Sydney Trains commenced decommissioning works on the T6 Carlingford Line on January 5 as part of its conversion to dual-track light rail last Sunday.

The Parramatta Light Rail team are currently undertaking decommissioning works on the rail track at Clyde Station and near the Parramatta Road intersection at Granville for the next few weeks. 

The $2.4 billion Parramatta Light Rail will connect Westmead to Carlingford via the Parramatta CBD and Camellia

From January 10th the high priority has been piling works, installing rail signage, and assembling construction cable routes and pulling at Rosehill Station to Clyde Station within the rail corridor.

24/7 operation works will commence between January 18 and 19 that will involve track removal, construction of concrete wall, rail cutting and welding, and reconfiguration work at the level crossing on Parramatta Road.

Parramatta Light Rail said equipment will include, but is not limited to, concrete saws, boring machines, jackhammers, compactors, power tools, trucks, light vehicles, light towers, and vacuum excavation trucks.  

Member for Parramatta Geoff Lee said Greater Parramatta will see new light rail bridges built, 60,000 tonnes of concrete poured, and more than 215,000 tonnes of earth moved to make way for the Parramatta Light Rail.

Hi-rail equipment will include excavators, dump trucks, and elevated work platforms. 

“The community will start to see work ramping up with fencing and hoardings installed along the future light rail route, and construction sites established,” Lee said.

Decommissioning works are due to conclude at the end of the month.

Over 1,000 people attended a farewell event hosted by Sydney Trains and Transport Heritage NSW to ride a historic Red Set F1 before the closure of the rail tracks on January 5th.

The light rail is expected to open in 2023 and transport around 28,000 people through the Parramatta CBD every day. 

Shorten promises $20m for TAFE-focused rail technology campus

The Labor Party has proposed that it will invest $20 million into a Rail Technology Campus (RTC) at the Chullora rail precinct in New South Wales if it wins the federal election on Saturday.

Labor said that as a federal government it would partner with the rail industry and unions, as well as the NSW Government to establish a TAFE-focused campus complete with digital learning labs, VR simulators, mechanical plant and workshops, welding facilities and more.

Labor stated that the initiative would be co-funded by the NSW Government, with the RTC operating as a partnership between TAFE NSW, NSW rail agencies, Sydney Trains, and rail vendors, contractors and unions

The investment is part of $1 billion of proposed TAFE funding set out in Labor’s Fair Go Budget Plan.

Rail, Tram and Bus Union (RTBU) National Secretary Bob Nanva said that Labor’s plans would “fill a critical gap in the rail sector’s skills development framework”

Nanva added that rail training systems and institutions needed to keep pace with the development of the industry, which he said was rapidly changing. He also criticised the Coalition Government’s approach to public policy

“The jobs of tomorrow on the railways will bear little resemblance to the jobs of yesterday,” Nanva said.

“But there will always be a need for skilled workers who understand the technicalities of rail, and the complexities of modern transport networks.”