Saturday, 27 October 2012

Distributed Power - the no brainer

Distributed power is nothing new to Australia, QR introduced GE's Locotrol to the country in the early seventies and within 10 years had most of it's Bowen Basin coal trains running in 3+3 or 2+3 configurations. BHP followed suit in the Pilbara and in recent years we've seen PN adopt DP for its Queensland coal and magnetite operations, while QRN has extended modern DP operations to its standard and narrow gauge iron ore operations in Western Australia. Yet, despite the extensive experience the country's two largest rail operators now have with DP, they have not followed the recent rush by North American rail operators to convert additional corridors to DP (Union Pacific is now moving 70-percent of its gross tonne miles with DP), despite, in some cases severe capacity constraints.

Yes, DP can be inconvenient for crews dealing with distant remote locomotives, but the advantages are too many to be ignored. Most significantly DP reduces the lateral friction of a train, allowing the same number of locomotives to move more tonnes, use less fuel and increase velocity. Likewise rail wear is reduced as are braking distances. A case in point is the QR-owned capacity constrained crossing of the Toowoomba Range in South East Queensland. Here a rail route dating to 1867 - restricted by several heritage listed structures - forces rail operator QRN to run 41-wagon coal trains at axel loads of only 15.75-tonnes. Doubling train lengths would not only double capacity on this corridor, but using Canadian Pacific modelling, an 82-wagon train running in 2+1+1 configuration would produce only 10-percent more rail wear than an existing 41-wagon train. Double consists could be achieved by extending just five crossing loops and constructing a run-around road between Ipswich and Darra. Total cost would be less the $100-million while rail maintenance costs could be reduced by up to 40-percent while moving the same tonnage.

But it's not just coal and mountains that can use DP. PN and QRN experience considerable difficulty running 1500m intermodal trains on the east coast corridor where curves and grades are in constant supply. Converting these services to DP would produce fuel savings and increase velocity with the same horsepower by decreasing lateral friction on the ever present curvature. In the end, it doesn't matter how sharp a curve is...DP offers savings. This is literally the silver bullet for existing operations. An operator can increase the capacity of their existing locomotive fleet and reduce rollingstock maintenance simply by converting more operations to Distributed Power. It really is that easy.       

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