Thursday, 1 November 2012

The New England Corridor - a new dynamic?

This is going to be one of those posts that will sit uncomfortably beyond the traditional industry field of interest. Yes, the New England corridor between Werris Creek, Wallangara and Toowoomba is beset with its own sets of restrictions - unfavourable gradients in both directions, some severe curvature in places not to mention a break of gauge, restrictive tunnels and several missing bridges in New South Wales. It is the lesser pick of the proposed inland rail routes. However it has one advantage that none of the other proposals have. It exists. As has been proven during the merger period of North American railroads during the seventies, the physical properties and long term advantages of a rail corridor get lost in decisions that dictate the cheapest choice at the time. The New England corridor fulfils the latter. Recovering it as the inland rail route between Brisbane and Melbourne is the cheapest immediate option. There are no missing links. It does have long tangents in places, and has far fewer height restricting structures than the existing North Coast Line. And in an era beset by the operating deficiencies of existing corridor owners, leasing or purchasing the New England Corridor could give QRN or PN the choice to move beyond the influence and costs of a non-operating corridor manager. But would it be worth it? In the end, it depends on what PN or QRN really want to do. At around 540km the Toowoomba-Werris Creek New England Corridor would cost around $700-million to upgrade to a standard for 1500-1800m standard gauge trains, double stack clearances would cost more. However once delivered this corridor would save all the time and costs encounted by trains from South East Queensland moving through Sydney to Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth. Long term it probably stacks up.

But there may even be a way PN or QRN could further maximise the corridor, and this is where I could well be speaking heresy. This is the age of the standard - if ever an interstate rail route will be built in the 21st-century it will be standard gauge, right? No arguments from me. But what if it were dual gauge? The biggest issue for the narrow gauge North Coast Line beyond Brisbane is the change of gauge at Acacia Ridge...any interstate freight originating south of Gladstone will almost certainly end up on road. And this at a time when similar irrigated horticultural regions such as Griffith can produce 1500m trains for Melbourne. On top of this there is nothing on the horizon for gauge converting the Queensland's North Coast Line so the problem will be continuing for decades to come. So what if the break of gauge could be moved further south? If it could be extended as far as Werris Creek, it would almost fall within the Sydney Basin - allowing narrow gauge freight from North and Central Queensland to reach Australia's largest consumer precinct without a change of train. Road hauling into Sydney from Werris Creek might be the best option, but since Sydney is the capital of shorter haul shuttle trains, perhaps rail-based shuttle services could work as well. In the end, the biggest operational issue for a project such as this will be how narrow gauge trains from Queensland's North Coast Line could reach Toowoomba...a complicated process beyond the scope of this current post...but not for the next.

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