Saturday, May 15, 2010

North/East ring line?

This is really my Dad's hobby horse. He and I usually end up discussing it any time we talk about the freight task, port access, standard gauge lines, the Dandenong lines, spark capacity, etc. It’s a great idea but it looks very difficult to pull off.

In brief, the idea is to carve a new transport corridor from Craigieburn to Epping, Pakenham and Hastings. This will provide:
- A link to the national rail freight network for the Port of Hastings
- A standard gauge freight line to the major industrial areas around Dandenong and Pakenham
- Potentially, an independent path to the city for Gippsland trains
- A "distributed load" for Melbourne’s intermodal freight capacity, allowing the vast section of high value inner city geography currently known as Dynon to be levelled and achieve its ultimate destiny, high density housing.

Dad got this idea after following the various heavy industries (who are his customers) from Noble Park to Dandenong South, then Berwick, and now Pakenham as suburbia has expanded and started to encroach on them. Similarly on the other side of town, from Williamstown to Altona to Laverton, and from Sunshine to Somerton. This has happened over at least 30 years of course. But he’s watching as companies keep slowly building up their fleet of B-Doubles simply because they have grown past the range where it’s feasible to run small trucks to a railhead and use rail for linehaul.

If you’ll excuse the parenthesis, the use of rail for medium-haul journeys is certainly feasible. Regular, frequent, fast shuttle trains could run between transport interchanges and smaller trucks could do the "last half-mile". Four interchanges at Laverton, Somerton, Dandenong South and Pakenham plus the ports would do the job. If industries knew they could truck a 20' container of freight from their warehouse in Altona North to the Laverton terminal, that it would be on a train (releasing the truck for other duties) within 15 minutes, that the train would depart within two hours, that it would arrive in Somerton 20 minutes later, and that they could book a truck to take the container to their customer in Craigieburn and the cargo would be there ready for it – well, there would be a lot less traffic on the Western Ring Road. The key is how to achieve that sort of customer confidence.

How intermodal freight works
I count myself highly fortunate to have seen the transport industry from the inside – it’s subtly but significantly different from the rail industry, and the knowledge comes in very useful. Facilities at the major standard gauge freight terminals today are fairly good. Containers for transport are logged through a web interface, which takes the details of destination, size, weight etc and then gives back a numeric code. This is radioed to the truck driver, who enters it at a toll-booth-like gate at the terminal. The driver is then given instructions as to where to park the truck waiting for unloading, and is usually not kept waiting more than 20-30 minutes before the container is lifted and transferred to the waiting train.

I believe this operation could be further improved with better infrastructure. Gantry cranes rather than mobile container forks will speed up the lift operation itself, and more of them (relative to train length) will reduce waiting time for trucks.

The trains themselves should be short and (by Australian standards) overpowered, to allow them to accelerate and run at high speeds – as is the practice in Europe and North America. Of course this is only for the terminal-to-terminal trains – interstate Superfreighters would still run long and heavy to pick up economies of scale. Incidentally in the absence of Dynon it’s probably most logical to put down a major interstate freight terminal at either Somerton or Laverton.

The Ring line
And now to the infrastructure requirements to make this happen. Terminal design doesn’t need to change much from the type of terminals we already have – the only thing is to ensure there’s plenty of space and that there are enough tracks to give each destination its own road. Length is not a major consideration – we are not going to run 1.8km trains every two hours from Somerton to Hastings.

The track linking the terminals obviously has to be standard gauge, built for high speeds/axle loads, double track, wide and high loading gauge (suitable for double stacked containers and US-style wide vehicles) and signalled for plenty of capacity (without reducing speed limits). For energy efficiency it should probably be electrified.

From Laverton to Craigieburn the reservation already exists but some trackwork is needed (including duplication).

From Tottenham to Port Melbourne the obvious solution is Phin’s freight tunnel. The actual path, in the absence of Dynon, remains to be seen (eg it might be worth popping out on the south side of Footscray Road) but should be relatively simple.

From Craigieburn to Pakenham, the North/East Ring, a new corridor needs to be made. That doesn't come cheap but is vital. From Craigieburn to Epping is fairly easy, I suggest running parallel to either Craigieburn Road or Bridge Inn Road, with wide curves to avoid pockets of population where they exist.

Then we start to run into mountains… and really, your guess is as good as mine for what’s the best way through them. Interestingly from a geological perspective, Coldstream-Yarra Glen is a small patch of flat land in between two mountain ranges – a patch of dirt between two rocks. Whether this helps find a path to Pakenham is another question.

At Pakenham we would skirt around the populated area and build a rail freight terminal in the south, near the industries. Not where existing rail facilities are, that’s an easy trap to fall into but we want to be near the customers.

From there it’s a reasonably simple cross-country path through Casey and Cardinia, around the populated bits of Cranbourne South, past Pearcedale and down the Westernport Highway (either beside it or in its median) to the Port of Hastings.

In order to serve Dandenong South it would be advantageous to run a spur line up Westernport Highway and put another intermodal facility on the fringes of the industrial development.

Additional benefits
We know that mixing freight traffic with suburban passenger trains is a major problem. However if we converted the Gippsland line (beyond Pakenham) to standard gauge we could run all the logs and paper around the ring line, and totally avoid the Melbourne suburbs. 22 level crossings (as at 2010 – some are slated for removal) will benefit. Noise levels for houses backing the rail line will be reduced to just sparks. And we might even be able to resurrect the old Gippsland Intermodal Freight Terminal, which died a grim death of trans-shipping for any freight not destined for Melbourne.

Of course unless we dual-gauge (technically nasty) or lay separate standard gauge tracks (expensive) we’d have to run the Gippslander V/Line services on the Gauge too. Probably the best option would be to run them past the Dandenong South terminal and up a standard gauge line parallel to the Cranbourne line to Dandenong station, from which they could take an express suburban train to the city. Buses could run from Nar Nar Goon to Pakenham and Monash University Berwick Campus for convenience.

The transport companies have realised that in order to provide themselves with capacity, high quality facilities and operating economies in order to provide the service their customers want, it’s necessary to up stakes and move to the fringes of suburbia. The rail industry, a natural partner of the transport industry, needs to follow suit.

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