Aurizon coal train

A digital revolution coming down the freight-rail track

Hundreds of thousands of tonnes of coal a day rumbling out of 50 mines, along a network of some 2,700 kilometres of heavy-haul track to three coastal hubs for export. Aurizon’s Central Queensland Coal Network (CQCN) is one of the largest coal rail networks in the world. It carries dozens of trains running mine to port and port to mine—around 85 services daily—aiming to synch with the movements of ships bound for Japan, China, South Korea, India and Taiwan. Now, consider that most of that rail line is single track. Let’s pull over for a moment.

This month, Aurizon announced successful implementation of GE Transportation’s Movement Planner into its Rockhampton control centre. It’s the first digitisation phase of the company’s broader Advanced Planning and Execution System (APEX), which will optimise functionality and enable increased transport volumes. Freight-rail infrastructure can cost around $5 million per kilometre to build, so before expanding networks to provide for growing demand, rail operators are increasingly seeking to optimise traffic on the track they have.

“We looked for a system that would assist in unlocking latent capacity in our network and support our network controllers to deliver better customer service,” says Clay McDonald, vice president, Commercial, at Aurizon Network.

“Movement Planner was selected by Aurizon as part of a global tendering and search process that sought a solution that delivered value to our customers and enabled improved performance of our Network operations into the future,” he adds.

Network complexity increases by the tonne

Forecast increases in travelling tonnage require greater complexity of movements within the system. And it’s not just a question of avoiding bumper-to-bumper stand-offs between sometimes two-kilometre-long trains on one-track line. The burden of fuel costs demands that, as much as possible, trains should maintain steady velocity on their journey—it takes a lot of diesel and electricity to get a train consisting of 100-plus 106-tonne coal wagons up to speed again after it’s been sat in a siding to let another loco haul on by.

Aurizon’s Central Queensland Coal Network
The rail lines of Aurizon’s Central Queensland Coal Network (CQCN). In August Aurizon implemented the first phase of digitising and optimising train movements using GE’s advanced Movement Planner solution. Image: Aurizon

Until recently Aurizon’s network controllers used paper-based systems and diagrams for planning and recording train movements. The nine network hubs, including Goonyella West, Blackwater South, Newlands and Moura, are now digitally represented on screens for each controller by GE’s Movement Planner, an advanced software solution that provides real-time interactive overview of the system. It considers multiple factors including train schedules, train movements relative to each other, options posed by junctions and sidings and alternate routes, and develops an optimised traffic plan for the trains running throughout the network, offering visibility 12 hours into the future.

“The tool allows controllers to consider train movements and the impact their decisions may have prior to making them.”

“We now have all nine control boards linked up,” says McDonald of this milestone in a rollout of digitisation that began in April. “The effects of a change in one region can immediately be seen in the adjacent region. The tool allows controllers to consider train movements and the impact their decisions may have prior to making them.”

Emma Irvine, and network manager, Tamara Wood
Aurizon network controller, Emma Irvine, and network manager, Tamara Wood, with Aurizon’s implementation of Movement Planner, which enables them to visualise the CQCN in real time, and test options for routing and planning train movements before implementing decisions that can have multiple knock-on effects. Photo: Aurizon.

Aurizon has become a top-50 ASX company since it was first floated on the exchange in November 2010 (when it was known as QR National). Originally part of Queensland Rail, the freight assets were transferred to QR National in 2004. Rebranded Aurizon in 2012, the company, which now employs some 7,000 people, has expanded to provide integrated freight transport solutions on rail and road networks that traverse coastal areas from Cairns in Queensland to Geraldton in the West.

Integrating data into a digital system for Central Queensland operations posed some challenges. Among them, a legacy of mapping and infrastructure from the days when the track was developed over decades by Queensland Rail. Employees used to joke that they had to deal with the concept of long kilometres and short kilometres, sections of track that had originally not been accurately measured.

“When you’re talking about an automated system, you have to be accurate,” says Claire Pierce, Aurizon account director at GE Transportation. “You have to know exactly how far it is from one crewing point to the next, between one siding and the next, and how long each siding is. So there was a lot of collaboration in working through those anomalies in data.”

Software enables decisions with foresight

This first module of Movement Planner is known as “Network Viewer”.  Pierce explains, “It will tell you there’s going to be a conflict between two trains at 1 o’clock, and the controller needs to decide which one needs to go first.” But, as McDonald touched on, using Movement Planner the controller can test various scenarios before actually implementing any particular option.

“Remember,” says Pierce, “that train that gets right of way, or that train that’s sitting in the siding, will experience follow-on impacts with the next train it meets and the next train after that, so there’s this ripple effect across the network. But the system will calculate that for you, and you can explore options to find the best outcome for the overall network.”

McDonald says, “Controllers have appreciated the ability to look 12 hours into the future, and to spend more time on planning rather than manually recording past train movements.”

Movement Planner also allows greater transparency of reporting to customers on those past movements and why certain decisions may have been made. The rolling stock on the network is variously owned, by transport companies, by coal companies and by Aurizon itself and, understandably, on a one-track line conflicts of interest can arise. Movement Planner will allow miners, shipping companies and other interested parties to see how the network is run to benefit the majority of stakeholders.

Central Queensland Coal Network
In freight for the long haul, Aurizon is optimising its Central Queensland Coal Network with GE Movement Planner advanced software. Benefits will include increased capacity and lower fuel consumption. Photo: Aurizon.

Over the next two years, Aurizon plans to add additional optimising modules to its Movement Planner software that will allow coding of a multitude of objectives into the system: these might include optimising fuel economy, meeting shipping schedules, avoiding potential over spend due to crew overtime and so on. Says Pierce, “There’s a whole bunch of reasons and variables that can be coded in so that the system decides which train gets priority in certain circumstances.” One train may be running late and need to make up time. Another may be running slow because there’s something wrong with the train and it will never make up the loss, so shouldn’t be allowed to block other trains from completing their journey on time. Whatever the situation, GE Movement Planner’s algorithms work to calculate the most advantageous outcomes according to the programmed objectives.

“We look forward to connecting the planning and scheduling module into Movement Planner,” says McDonald. “Our ongoing development of the software will provide controllers with decision support that considers all the factors and inputs required to deliver to plan.”

The benefits, as Aurizon moves to transform its operational efficiency through cutting-edge software solutions will include decreased delays, the ability for trains to travel at greater velocity, improved data collection on behalf of supply-chain stakeholders and potential for some 850 additional network paths—all without laying a single extra kilometre of track.

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