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Innovations in heavy haul operations

Full ore wagons being unloaded through tippler rail

Rail Express talks to Ken Devencorn, Aurecon’s Technical Director, Resources & Manufacturing Services about key attributes and innovations that drive efficient planning and development of remote heavy-haul rail operations.

In the second wave of a resources boom, what do you think are the most challenging aspects of heavy haul operations?  

I believe one of the greatest challenges to heavy-haul rail will be keeping pace with demand.

As demand increases from India and China for coal to feed their rapidly growing energy needs, what until recently might have been considered “marginal” reserves are now under serious consideration.

Credit Suisse recently reported their count of Indian coal-fired power projects at 86; with 29 already under construction and another 28 at the development stage awaiting government approval. Not surprisingly, the Indian power industry will be heavily reliant on imported coal for decades to come whilst, at the same time, India's steel industry – another big consumer of metallurgical coal - is forecast to triple its output within a decade.

The numbers are equally as large when acquisition turns to development. For example, Adani have flagged in their recent Terms of Reference that the Carmichael Coal Mine Project will cost AUD10 billion and produce up to 60mtpa (million tonnes per annum) from open-cut and underground mining. 

What are key ways to improve heavy-haul operations in Australia?

Australia is at the leading edge of heavy-haul rail - and has been for many decades. Our expertise is sought after all over the world - from South Africa to Mongolia. Where Australia fails is to expedite the development process. Rail, as land-based fixed infrastructure, comes under many jurisdictions and typically lags well behind the approvals process of its attendant infrastructure - mines and ports; which are largely remote and removed from the “transient” nature of rail infrastructure. In short, we’re respected internationally for our technical expertise but, as a country, we don’t capitalise upon those skills to expedite domestic projects.

From an Australian heavy-haul rail perspective, we see the challenge is to develop and improve the efficiency of the network without burdening the owner of the infrastructure with an investment for which it can never make payback, or establish a reasonable return. As opposed to a capital solution - spending more to acquire more capacity - we see the opportunity to operate both rolling stock and infrastructure as efficiently as possible to provide the best possible return before resorting to significant further investment. The key metrics of:


  • total cost to market 
  • time taken in transit  
  • reliability of service


are thus seen to be the imperative. 

Something which we as an industry have typically taken as a foundation element of rail development seems to have been overlooked in this current drive to get more to market - Railway Master Planning. In the past, railways were typically developed as part of a larger overall network solution. Now, each individual railway sees itself as a stand-alone, servicing one mine to one port, for the commercial term of that mine or port. 


  • Railway Master Planning contemplates a broader commercial and operational solution to rail development, hence:
  • Assessing the base traffic requirements - the “Freight Task” - how much of what, from where to where, 
  • Determining future requirements for rail traffic - what else, who else, and when; 
  • Evaluating the capacity of the existing rail system or infrastructure, or the capacity for the proposed new system to meet capacity demand; 
  • Evaluating and unlocking the rolling stock, infrastructure and operational constraints to capacity growth; 
  • Assessment of alternative capital investment options, or staging options to deliver overall system financial viability; 
  • Static and Dynamic Modelling of the system to prove logistics chain viability, and; 
  • Capex and opex evaluation to provide a “whole of life” costing on such elements as fuel burn, train crew costs, capital reinvestment.


What can a good operational performance model provide?

Everything - operations is what railways are all about.

Having the best rolling stock and infrastructure counts for little, if you can’t make it work efficiently.

Performance modelling can indicate important issues that have the capacity to negatively impact the railway. The reliability of any modelling is, of course, dependent on each of the quality of the inputs, the integrity of the model, as well as the skills of those interpreting the results. For this reason, understanding the rolling stock and infrastructure characteristics and limitations of the railway are key to successful Rail Performance Modelling. 

What can we learn from global best practice? 

Benchmarking is what railways do well.

The industry has shown a strong interest in comparing operations, costs, cycle times, and efficiency across railways all over the world. As specialist technical consultants we are constantly prompted by clients to explain why so-and-so railway is able to deliver their product for $X per tonne. However every railway is different. It is often very difficult to compare elements of each even within the same freight task. An iron ore railway in South America might be a similar haul distance to one in South Africa, but that’s as far as the similarities go.  

For example, the specific operational complexities of a coal rail network in Australia are very different to that of a “similar” coal rail operation in Nigeria. Aurecon discovered this recently when we were contracted to investigate restarting a coal railway in that country. The environmental and operating conditions are so different in so many ways that any comparison becomes irrelevant.

I suggest that the best we can hope to learn from global best practice is how others have solved their problems - and perhaps try and see a similarity in the problems we face.

What are the opportunities to incorporate sustainability into rail operations planning?

Railway Master Planning is the key to making heavy haul rail development a part of sustainable development - beyond the term of the initial project for which it was initially developed to support.  Hence, this concept supports that heavy-haul projects which show a benefit beyond their initial phase, be favoured or facilitated by government support over shorter term, less widely beneficial proposals.

How does Rail Operational Modelling serve as a Foundation to Infrastructure Development?Rail line in Mozambique

Rail Operational Modelling can provide the asset owner or developer with a clear understanding of the issues to be considered and managed – long before the intensive process of infrastructure design is commissioned. Complex processes can be modelled and assessed.

Simulation can also provide a valuable insight into a refined design solution - where a mature design solution can be “stress tested” under a variety of scenarios. We typically model Risk and then simulate the mitigation strategy so as to “proof” the Risk Assessment.  

The reliability of any modelling is, of course, dependent on each of the quality of the inputs, the integrity of the model, as well as the skills of those interpreting the results. For this reason, we hold that Rail Operational Modelling should be undertaken by a team which both understands the operational and infrastructure characteristics and limitations of the railway. 

Our experience has shown that nothing should be taken for granted - everything should be assessed and modelled before committing to the significant investment of an infrastructure solution. Modelling the capital and operating cost implications of different scenarios is imperative when developing new rail infrastructure and operations. Very often, what should occur doesn't; and common-sense is displaced by “expediency”.

As Albert Einstein once remarked, "Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I'm not sure about the universe." In that humans play an intrinsic role in rail operations, and as humans we feel the need to adapt our environment as much as we in turn adapt to it, the operation has to be continually reviewed and assessed to ensure that the railway is being operated to its optimal. For better or worse, operations often change over time (for very good reasons) – often to the point where the railway is being operated in a way it was never designed to. 

What are recent international projects where Aurecon has added value?

In 2006, work began on a Bankable Feasibility Study (BFS) to evaluate the transport of coal from the Moatize Coal Mine in Tete Province to the port of Nacala Velha in Mozambique, approximately 1000 route kilometres. During late 2008, Aurecon Australia working alongside our African office, reviewed the findings of this BFS - in particular those relating to the railway operations - to assess a number of alternative alignments for the corridor. 

Using our Static Modelling the six alternative alignments were promptly reduced to three - with the shortlisted alternatives subsequently Dynamically Modelled to determine which alignment provides optimal operational characteristics. This combination of Static Modelling, and Dynamic Simulation was used to assess the operational characteristics of each alignment and determine the operationally preferred option based on factors such as - permissible train size, annual fuel usage, system flexibility, rolling stock capital investment requirements, and optimisation of passing loop locations.

Ken Devencorn, AureconAbout Ken Devencorn

Ken Devencorn is Aurecon’s Rail Leader. He has over twenty five years experience in business and project management and has occupied a number of senior positions in the public and private sectors over the past 15 years, building a strong reputation for delivering complex and difficult projects on time and on budget.

Ken has extensive experience with asset valuation (DORC/ORC), competition reform and competitive access, and rail accreditation including corridor sub-lease.



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