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Technology | Transport & Logistics

A sustainable heavy haul sector – what to expect in the years ahead

11 Mar 2021, by Amy Sarcevic

Few industries are bracing for more innovation and disruption than Australia’s Heavy Haul rail sector. In recent years, advances in technology, manufacturing, and systems integration have helped the sector push new limits in terms of axle load and throughput efficiency. In years to come, surging demand and investment will continue to raise the expectations surrounding these – and other sustainability – metrics. Improvements in train controls, track materials and rolling-stock components will further fuel the sector’s success story.

But whilst the potential for disruption is certainly something to celebrate, many heavy haul operators are wondering what sort of future they need to prepare for. Is the declining performance of ballast networks heading down the road of obsolescence, or will advances in predictive maintenance help redeem their place in the market? Will the weight-bearing advantages of larger trains be countered by the shorter asset life of track materials? And will the rise of automation help or hinder efforts to meet ESG objectives and diversify the heavy haul workforce?

Ahead of the ARA Heavy Haul Rail Conference, Informa spoke with speakers Antonio Merheb of MRS Logistica (Brazil); Claire Pierce of Wabtec, Ravi Ravitharan of Monash Institute of Railway Technology and David Owen-Jones of Downer’s Research and development project into Embedded Rail track. They revealed their expectations in relation to four key sustainability themes.


With commodity demand and prices ever-fluctuating, heavy haul operators cannot afford to take their feet of the pedals when it comes to driving efficiency gains. And with this pressure to raise productivity and lower costs will come a wave of new technologies, said Mr. Merheb.

“[In Brazil] we are using systems for almost every efficiency objective we have. A system to measure the geometry, track stiffness, ultrasonic and fasteners. A system to measure the sleeper and ballast conditions. A system to understand where the trains are located. And importantly, a system to unite all of these tools into a single database. These have helped us quadruple our production in the last twenty years,” he said.

Whilst technologies that satisfy these objectives are already prevalent in Australia, the coming years will see significant upgrades in these tools. Notable advances in computer-aided train driving, track inspection systems and network communications are already on the horizon.

By 2030, Ms. Pierce sees a radical shift in the industry, summarising the outlook as: “Automated trains running with zero emissions, continuously – or as close to it as possible.”

“The enabling tech is already there – remote condition monitoring, automated driving solutions, signalling safety overlays and battery electric locomotive technologies. It is just a case of bringing it together in a viable way,” she said.

To get there, Mr. Ravitharan believes long term, targeted research is the answer.

“When heavy haul rail was introduced in 1969, Australia was not a global leader. It was only after a concerted effort to resolve key industry challenges [by research entities such as Melbourne Research Laboratories at BHP formed in 1972] that Australia came to the forefront of innovation and earned worldwide recognition. In my mind, targeted long-term research is a panacea for advancing heavy haul railways to the heights we want to reach in the future,” he said.


Mounting pressure to enhance axle loads and reduce maintenance costs will also see more operators, globally, turning their back on ballast networks in favour of concrete slab tracks, said Mr. Owen-Jones.

“The problem with ballast tracks is that they are exceeding their design life and reaching the limit in terms of what they can carry. How much stress can you really place on a ballasted track system that was developed over two hundred years ago?” he said.

Over the coming decade, this issue is set to worsen with various initiatives designed to boost maximum axle loading and circulate yet more rolling stock assets on the network at any given time.

“Nowadays, Pilbara axle loads are commonly scaling 36-38 tonnes, with network owners pushing track designers to come up with 40 tonne plus solutions. [On top of that], it is not uncommon for thirty loaded trains to pass in a 24 hour period, on some networks. These Iron ore trains can be up to 2.4 kilometres in length and weigh up to 30,000 tonnes meaning that – at almost 1 mega tonne per day – the ballasted track in the Pilbara is a highly utilised system,” said Mr. Owen-Jones.

“If maintenance falls behind schedule, the track condition deteriorates to the point where speed restrictions must be applied – negatively affecting throughput,” he added.

Iron ore producers have felt this throughput conundrum profoundly in recent years. In the face of added speed restrictions and increased maintenance, many have had to reduce their total predicted annual target. For some this has meant a two to three-billion-dollar shortfall in revenue.

High speed trains in Europe, China and Japan have further pushed development of slab track technology, to the point where it is now becoming a realistic alternative to the aging ballasted network.

If the slab track system is at the cutting edge of innovation, then the increase in available track time can easily outweigh the cost of investment, said Mr. Owen-Jones.

“The target for our team has been to identify a slab track system that really lends itself to high output track renewal techniques, then link up with research bodies that specialise in heavy industrial automation,” he said.

“By utilising high output track renewal methods, we can begin converting an aging ballasted track asset into a modern, reliable slab track system – at a similar price point, and within the same timeframe, as it takes to complete ballasted track renewals.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Merheb said his firm is using predictive maintenance tools, to optimise and extend the life of existing networks.

“At MRS Logistica, we are prioritising our using of maintenance technology to increase the axle load and the speed of rolling stock. We want to better understand the integrity of ballast, sleepers and rails; the stiffness of the track; and its effects for vehicle-track interaction,” he said.

“This will help us invest the correct amount of money, at the correct location, at the correct time. As an example, we have reduced geometry defects threefold, and rail breaks twofold, in the last seven years.”


Whilst rail is the most efficient method of hauling bulk materials from mine to port, there is always room for improvement. Ms. Pierce said driving this progress will be an ethical responsibility for all heavy haul industry players over the coming decades.

“When you look at the stats, transport accounts for 25 percent of all CO2 emissions and just 1 percent of that is from freight. It’s a relatively small portion – but there is still a lot of opportunity to get better. Thankfully at Wabtec we are seeing many of our customers focussing on what they will look like in ten years’ time and decarbonising their operations accordingly,” she said.

With many of today’s rail assets consisting of diesel electric locomotives, automation and alternative sources of green power are arguably the most obvious growth areas.

“In my view there is far more yet to be achieved in the digital and automation space – beyond rail assets, right through to their operation. Making sure networks are flowing as efficiently as possible will help the sector move to even greater levels of efficiency,” Ms. Pierce said.

“Moving to ‘green’ power – be it battery power charged from the energy associated with braking, renewable energy, or from the likes of green hydrogen fuel cells – will also be a game-changer for emissions.”

Technologies that help mine-to-port tracks support weightier, lengthier trains – and achieve greater velocity and flow – are also expected to make an impact.

In terms of the circular economy, operators and OEMs should be asking themselves how they can make better use of their waste materials when assets reach end of life, Ms. Pierce added.


Historically the heavy haul sector has relied on people remaining in the industry to meet its resourcing needs, but, in recent years, attempts to expand and diversify the workforce, have compelled a more rigorous recruitment effort. Whilst strong progress has been made, further work is needed to avoid workforce shortfalls in the future, said Mr. Ravitharan

“As investment into the sector grows, it becomes harder to recruit with just the modus operandi. We need to introduce more resources into targeted promotions and training that can heighten awareness of the innovations occurring in rail, and deliver the skills required for the railways of the future,” he said.

Additionally, further investment is required to promote and skill people migrating from other industries. “We cannot use the same amount of resources and hope that people from other industries will consider opportunities for working in the rail industry,” he added.

Where remote site works are required, adjustments may also need to be considerate of family life to ensure working away from home is not an inhibitor for people considering employment in the industry, he said.

Despite the challenges for heavy haul rail, Mr. Ravitharan, believes the outlook is rosy.

“I believe heavy haul rail is facing an exciting new era, with expanded horizons, and limitless opportunities. Through research and innovation, targeted workforce recruitment, and the unprecedented investment occurring in rail, the future is bright for all involved,” he concluded.

The 10th annual ARA Heavy Haul conference is due to take place on 14-15 April 2021at the Ritz-Carlton Perth.

Hear more from Antonio Merheb, Rail Specialist, MRS Logistica SA, Brazil, Ravi Ravitharan, Director, Monash Institute of Railway Technology (IRT), Claire Pierce, Executive Commercial Leader, Australia and New Zealand, GE Transportation, a Wabtec Company and David Owen-Jones Project Manager of Downer’s Research and development project into Embedded Rail track.

Learn more and register.


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