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Trains on track to boost Australia’s competitive exports

The Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC) is on a mission to make rail the transport mode of choice in Australia. With billions of dollars worth of recent infrastructure upgrades in place, it is now set to further digitise network control and transform its operational efficiencies, offering the mining operations of the Hunter Valley the most cost-effective path to world markets, and providing manufacturers, agricultural producers and passengers a more efficient network.

Broadmeadow, in the east-coast port city of Newcastle in New South Wales is the focal point of ARTC’s Network Control Optimisation (ANCO) program. Headquarters for the Hunter Valley Network, it employs 80 professional network controllers who work with paper-based representations of sections of the network to make thousands of decisions every day that support the safe movement of 24,000 tonnes of freight per hour.

“The Hunter Valley rail network is one of the busiest and most complex in the country, supporting the largest coal-export port in the world,” says John Fullerton, ARTC’s managing director and CEO.

Demands will only increase as freight tonnage on the network — with its combination of single- and multi-track lines and multimodal trains — is forecast to grow steadily to 2025.

Wayne Johnson, group executive of the Hunter Valley Network, says, “Since 2004, train movements on the network have gone from around 150 a day at the Newcastle end of the Hunter Valley, to about 250.” Every increase in traffic increases the complexity of the controllers’ work: “The more trains, the more train movements and the more crossing of paths.”

He says, “One of the outcomes we’re looking for from this project is to create conditions more like cars enjoy on freeways; eliminating red-light situations to smooth the path of trains once they set off.”

“The Hunter Valley rail network is one of the busiest and most complex in the country, supporting the largest coal-export port in the world,” says John Fullerton, ARTC’s managing director and CEO. Image: courtesy ARTC.

The vision is that fewer locos will idle in sidings, waiting for an oncoming train to pass on their section of single track; that regional passengers on the multimodal network will spend less time clock watching on station platforms; and ultimately, that trains carrying bulk commodities will leave their loading station when ready — rather than adhering to a rigid schedule, they’ll automatically be integrated into a seamless flow of freight and folk moving swiftly toward their destinations.

The goal of train-movement planning in real time, safely achieving greater velocity to destination, reduced fuel consumption, and reduced wear on infrastructure as trains spend more time in motion (less time braking, standing still while waiting and then accelerating again), has been achieved using GE Transportation’s Movement Planner on rail networks such as Norfolk Southern in the United States. The Aurizon network in Queensland has also successfully implemented the first stage of this sophisticated digital rail-traffic-control and logistics-planning solution.

Such proof of concept — implementations which have yielded 5-10% improvement in network efficiency — was key to ARTC’s decision to partner with GE on transforming planning and control of its Hunter Valley Network.

Program manager for the ANCO project, Janelle Endacott, says ARTC undertook a worldwide search for the right digital-control solution. “We then did a due-diligence exercise with the top three contenders including workshopping how they would tackle a project like this.”

ARTC representatives also travelled to observe Movement Planner in action at both Norfolk Southern network-control in Detroit and in Australia at Aurizon. “The thing that sold us was GE’s demonstrated capability and their willingness to work with us,” says Endacott.

After a two-year period of defining the project, consulting with stakeholders, tendering, and evaluating vendors, ARTC announced GE as its preferred partner in December 2017.

Hunter Valley Network will implement two GE Movement Planner modules, Network Viewer and Network Optimizer. “Network Viewer will enable ARTC to move away from paper-based train graphing, and to observe trains moving in real time in a digital visualisation of the network. Network controllers will be able to foresee any conflicts and make decisions about which trains get right of way,” says Claire Pierce, commercial leader for GE Transportation in Australia and New Zealand.

Pierce recounts that one Hunter Valley Network controller said he could get through an eraser every shift under the current system: plotting and replotting the movement of trains through the system in response to delays, conflicts and changes to the schedule — in order to maintain safe operations on the network. Those days will soon be over.

“Network Optimizer,” Pierce continues, “multiplies the value of Viewer, because it takes into account the objectives and constraints of every train in the system.” That is, it considers passenger-train schedules, the need for a train to connect with a ship in port, or another train’s critical cargo bound for Sydney, “and calculates the optimal point for meets and passes, prioritising rights of way to maximise the effectiveness of the entire network throughout the day. It offers a view into the future, up to 12 hours ahead.”

The Australian Rail Track Corporation is transforming its Hunter Valley network, with the implementation of GE Transportation’s Movement Planner. It will remove the need for constantly revised paper-based scheduling, instead integrating existing digital aspects of today’s system (pictured) with a sophisticated digital rail-traffic-control and logistics-planning solution. Image: courtesy ARTC.

Teams from both organisations have begun work compiling accurate foundation data (such as distances from loading point to terminal, to siding, to station), “and identifying the operational processes that need to be aligned and codified within the system,” says Johnson.

Endacott expects her Hunter Valley Network project team will make constant changes to their own practices and process as the project is implemented. “Movement Planner is a true commercial off-the-shelf, tested system — and we’re using it and the wider ANCO project to keep challenging ourselves, asking how we can do things better,” she says.

As part of the Hunter Valley Network change-management process, two experienced and highly regarded network controllers have been recruited to the project team. That team, and the GE implementation team will now also be positioned with the broader group of ARTC network controllers, so that people who will ultimately work with the new system can ask questions and observe the project in development.

“There’s a high level of enthusiasm!” says Endacott.

“Movement Planner is the technology enabler of our program. Other technology will support our infrastructure. And we’ll build systems to interface with our stakeholders: the terminals, the Hunter Valley Coal Chain Coordinator and so on. But the GE component is the main enabler to change the way that we run the network,” she explains.

Johnson says GE’s technology underpins “our future ability to use existing infrastructure at greater efficiency, so it costs our customers and rail-haulage providers less to do business via rail than it did before. Particularly for our coal and freight customers, international competitiveness is key.”

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