Innovative Solutions for Rail Operations - Addressing the Problem of Australia’s Different Track Gauges

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At Network Rail Consulting (NRC), we passionately believe in utilising innovative approaches as a means of efficiently improving the rail network.

As an example, we are considering how different track gauges pose a problem to rail operations in Victoria, what action could be taken to address this, and what the likely benefits would be. The aim is to address the challenges which have arisen since the choice of broad-gauge for the state’s first lines in the 1850s. Our conclusion is that proven vehicle-based solutions should be explored, with potential major benefits to rail users.

Current Situation

The majority of Victoria's railway which is used by nearly all passenger trains and most intra-state freight is broad-gauge (1600mm). However, there is also a separate standard-gauge (1435mm) network which runs through Victoria, used for inter-state freight and a handful of passenger services. In many places this is a single standard-gauge track beside the broad-gauge main line.

This combination of two almost entirely separate sets of tracks, which together form Victoria’s overall rail network, causes the following problems:

  • There is far higher level of operational complexity for interstate services (both freight and passenger) than would be the case if gauge was not a factor. Specifically, interstate customers are directly impacted by Victoria's standard-gauge network having long single-track sections (e.g. much of Seymour – Melbourne and Geelong – Melbourne), speed restrictions and a more circuitous routeing into central Melbourne, when compared to the adjacent broad-gauge routes which cannot be used for these trains;
  • Extra barriers are imposed on the introduction of new services. For example, any new freight terminals on broad-gauge routes could not provide for traffic beyond the state’s borders. From a passenger perspective, constraints on the standard-gauge network complicate increasing the Melbourne – Albury frequency, or reinstating services on freight-only lines;
  • Victoria's rail network has more tracks and infrastructure than if there were just a single gauge. However, there is no more useable capacity arising from the long lengths of two broad-gauge tracks adjacent to a single standard-gauge track (when compared to a normal two-track railway and considering wider network issues), but more land and maintenance is required;
  • The separate broad- and standard- gauge train fleets (passenger and freight) must be maintained, with associated duplication in facilities such as locomotive depots. There is an ongoing operational cost premium to the state due to the “niche market” nature of the broad-gauge supply chain; and
  • Problems are caused in the critical Southern Cross station area in central Melbourne. In this location there is a low-capacity flat junction between the separate broad- and standard-gauge approach routes, inefficient platform utilisation (to allow standard-gauge trains to use the only two available platforms), and a need for complex dual-gauge infrastructure which greatly complicates track layout improvement options.

A Possible Solution to Consider

Gauge-changing technology could be deployed onto new vehicles, allowing through running from Victoria’s broad-gauge tracks onto the rest of the rail network beyond and within the state.

This approach would work by providing vehicle axles which are adjustable rather than requiring the rails to be a fixed distance apart. These axles would automatically change length as the train moves slowly along a short transition track section. The concept is well-proven in use in Europe to resolve similar problems to Victoria’s. In Spain, facilities allow direct trains from Madrid (using high-speed standard-gauge lines) to regional destinations on broad-gauge lines.

In Victoria, a Melbourne to Sydney service using this approach might operate on the existing double-track direct broad-gauge main line from Melbourne to the Seymour area, then continue onwards into New South Wales on the standard-gauge network. This more direct route has fewer operational challenges, should reduce journey times and eliminate the need for dual-gauge tracks at Melbourne's Southern Cross station.

Other Alternatives

The likely merits of this vehicle-based technical solution for Victoria’s rail gauges against potential alternative ways to move towards a single network are as follows:

  • An approach of physical conversion of Victoria's broad-gauge network to standard-gauge over time would be far too expensive and disruptive to implement on a state-wide scale, even if the Melbourne metropolitan area were excluded. Limited exceptions (notably Seymour to Shepparton) may exist, but even for these we consider that a vehicle-based approach could potentially provide more benefits at lower cost;
  • The need for inter-state traffic prevents an alternative “broad-gauge only” approach for Victoria; and
  • A "do-nothing" option, in which the issues continue to be managed as now would be an ongoing constraint to rail’s potential in the state. Specific concerns with this approach relate to the long single-track sections on the Melbourne – Sydney standard-gauge main line, the inflexibility created for future rail development in Melbourne’s rapidly growing west, and the challenge of retaining both gauges at Southern Cross and in the Port of Melbourne.

Can This be a Real Alternative?

Whilst our initial review has identified likely merit in introducing vehicle-based gauge-changing technology into Victoria, further assessment is required. A detailed feasibility study would confirm technical viability, costings, operational benefits and identify specific priorities. We anticipate that this would most likely align to train fleet renewal timings.

Network Rail Consulting

Innovative but technically proven approaches such as this example have been extremely successful used in the UK and Europe. Their application in Australia would have many benefits, assisting in ongoing increases in the use of rail across the country. Network Rail Consulting, with our offices in Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane, have an extensive understanding of UK, Australian and other rail systems. We bring an approach based on real-world experience in introducing such technologies as part of rail infrastructure and other projects. For details on how we can help visit www.networkrailconsulting.com.

Ben Craig
Associate Director, Rail Operations Specialist
Network Rail Consulting