Monday, 5 February 2018

Tunnel safety improvements

Since the Pike River mine disaster about eight years ago a lot more attention has been paid to the safety risks of operating trains through long tunnels. Some particular examples of changes have been the need to have fire suppression fitted to locomotives hauling trains through these tunnels, and extra locomotives required where necessary on the trains as well.

An example that shows just how much change has happened in recent years can be seen from the comparison with the report into a locomotive fire in the Rimutaka Tunnel in 1995. The locomotive was hauling a passenger excursion from Wellington to Featherston and the fire was discovered while uphill from Upper Hutt in the tunnel. The action taken was to keep running the engine until the summit in the tunnel was reached, then shut down the locomotive and coast downhill towards Featherston.

The TAIC report is number 95-104 and can be found here. What I found astonishing was that it was considered acceptable to have no radio comms in the tunnel. The second much more serious issue that was not even acknowledged by TAIC was the risk of the train running away through lack of braking capacity. With the locomotive shut down there is no dynamic braking available, and the air supply from the locomotive will eventually run out if the air brakes are used, as they must have been in this case. 

This is probably some of the reason why passenger trains through the Otira Tunnel now have to have a locomotive at the rear as well as at the front.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Port development proposals for the West Coast

The South Island West Coast has had a problem keeping ports open that can handle large ships, which has become more of an issue since the 1960s in particular. There have been a lot of proposals to have better ports on the West Coast, including options that have been considered for a deep water port at Westport. Ones that I have read about recently were put forward in 1946, 1971, 1985 and 2005 in particular:
  • In 1946 F W Furkert, a former government PWD engineer, wrote a report suggesting an option for a deep water port development off Tauranga Bay. He discounted further extension of the harbour moles which was not giving long term outcomes. In the event, this option was not proceeded with and a small scale extension of the moles was constructed in the late 1960s. This appears to have been, as predicted, a waste of money, since the main problem with the moles has been the sand flow past them filling up the foreshore and making the entrance shallower.
  • In 1971, a government committee looked at the options for a deep water port development off the coast just north of Westport. The estimated cost at the time would have been around $500 million in today's dollars but even the cost saving of shipping 12 million tonnes of coal through this port would have paid for it within a few years (the peak coal traffic shipped on the Midland Line annually would have done this in about four years). But the politicians decided they did not want to spend this money so nothing was done.
  • In 1987 the port option was looked at again. Holcim (NZ Cement Holdings) proposed to develop a new terminal to enable its cement boats to have reliable operation from Westport. The company had previously examined options for relocating to Oamaru. In the event, it was apparently economic conditions prevailing at the time and the closing of the competing Golden Bay Cement works at Tarakohe that stopped this development from going ahead. The development at Cape Foulwind would have only handled 10,000 tonne ships and its deepwater potential would appeared to have been limited. With the shelving of Holcim's proposal the rail network was developed to handle larger locomotives and wagons. From this has come the 30 wagon trains hauled by DX locomotives that we have today, and the replacement of electric traction with diesel haulage through the Otira Tunnel. However although the cost of rail haulage per unit of weight has come down, the capacity limit has been reached at the Otira Tunnel and Kiwirail is not making any money on coal haulage. There are also serious concerns over the safety of the Otira Tunnel banking operation.
  • West Coast Regional Council has continued to push the cause of port development and it commissioned a report in 2005 which put a case.
Now I believe WCRC has correctly addressed the issue in that there are no major ports in the West Coast region. And in fact further research tells me the dispute between shipping and rail has been a longstanding one, and led to a standoff between Solid Energy and Tranz Rail from 1994 to the early 2000s when the former was successful in forcing TRL to lower its haulage prices for the traffic. However the cost of long distance rail haulage remains a significant sticking point for the development of the West Coast region. Quoting the study, "the West Coast is a region disadvantaged by its location, which is further from ports and population centres than any other region in New Zealand. It is the only major region further than 150 km from a major port or population centre. "

Unfortunately a continued lack of commitment from politicians has led to the situation where the failure to develop a proper port for the West Coast is strangling its economy as the high cost of land based transport causes industries to be mothballed. 

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Kingston Flyer future hangs in the balance

There have been a couple of news reports lately, see links below.

It is technically feasible to restore the Flyer to operation, what actually happens from here will naturally depend on available finances. However, at present, rail heritage in Southland is divided between a number of small groups spread over a wide area and it is difficult to get enough on the ground support and finance to operate something on the scale of the Flyer as a heritage railway, let alone a commercial outfit. The previous collapse of the Fiordland Vintage Machinery Museum's railway section, which formerly owned K 92, and the Ohai Railway Board Heritage Trust, are examples of this. K 92 has been sitting at Mandeville outside where a heritage railway is being established at a very slow pace, an indication of the challenges facing rail preservationists in the area, although the locomotive has recently been relocated to Invercargill and is now being restored to running order. At Lumsden a local trust is setting up its own displays at the old railway station.

Southern Steam in Invercargill is doing the work on K 92, they have the most credibility in what is a lightly populated region with very few people outside Invercargill/Gore. If they are not involved in this new development then the resources are now split between two different groups. In recent years the Flyer has been a financial basket case as a seasonal commercial tourist operation, epitomised by the carriages' deteriorating woodwork being covered over with steel sheet panelling, and one of the AB steam locomotives being out of service requiring a significant overhaul. The track is said to be in poor condition using very old rails and sleepers.

This is why most successful steam train operations are in major centres. The Kingston rail line is very long by heritage standards which makes it a hard ask as well. I think given its failure to fly in more recent times it is going to be interesting to see what will happen at Kingston.