Last Friday’s announcement that the North Eastern broad gauge would be converted to standard gauge between Seymour and Albury was very welcome, if somewhat unsurprising news. The project has a great deal of merit indeed, and it is good to see it finally happening.
However, I was somewhat surprised to see that it’s going to cost $500m. I’m not advocating a lower standard upgrade – ultimately the whole line from Sydney to Melbourne should have high speed rail up and running – but we should still be aiming to get value for money. The reason the cost surprised me was that $500m for 200km of 130kph track seems excessive when the (heavily criticised) Regional Fast Rail track upgrades cost $750 million for 500km of 160kph track (plus other costs of $96m, operating costs of $73m and $550 million for rolling stock). Clearly this isn’t where all the money is going, as the ARTC are generally very good at project management. As I conclude later in the post, a lot of the cost seems to be reannounced spending for other projects, meaning the actual standardisation works will cost a lot less.
What exactly is the $500m buying?
The project includes quite a bit more than just gauge converting 200km of track. The $500m provides for the following projects:
Wodonga rail bypass
The long awaited Wodonga rail bypass is part of the project. The state government had already set aside $85m for the project, and the feds $45m (see media releases here and here). This is old money – the $45m federal commitment Anthony Albanese talked about is actually Howard era spending. But it still takes up $130m of the project cost.
Extra passing loops between Melbourne and Seymour
The media release is pretty vague about what this entails, saying only that it includes “Upgrades to the standard-gauge line between Melbourne and Seymour, including the construction of new passing loops as well as upgrade works already being undertaken by the ARTC”. The ARTC is quietly sinking over $2 billion into Melbourne-Brisbane rail upgrades, including $420m for passing lanes and $400m for concrete resleepering. I don’t know whether much new work is going to be done Melbourne – Seymour on top of this investment. The Albion-Jacana-city line needs a big upgrade if the project is to work, but I don’t know whether this will happen and how much of the upgrade is existing works and how much is reannounced spending.
Refurbishing 15 carriages and converting them – along with 3 locomotives – to standard gauge
Gauge converting the locos and carriages should be reasonably straightforward and inexpensive, and I was under the impression that carriage refurbishment was already happening anyway. I couldn’t find any reference for N-set refurbishment though, but even if it were new spending, it shouldn’t cost that much. Using the $10m budget for refurbishing 55 H carriages as a guide, we see that it costs about $182 000 to repaint and retrim a carriage. Given that 15 carriages are being refurbished under the project, we’re looking at a bit under $2.75m all up.
New platforms for stations on the standard gauge line
Only 7 stations will need new platforms (assuming Benalla and Wangaratta have their short SG platforms replaced). The most logical way to go is to put new side platforms to the west of the existing stations, in the former goods yards. This would mean the closure of the existing SG track to the east of the existing BG stations.
It’s a sensible idea for two reasons: firstly, it eliminates many curves in the existing SG by taking it straight through at the stations; and secondly, the new platforms would all serve up trains, meaning you could probably get away with just a platform and a bus shelter.
Gauge conversion and upgrade of 200km broad gauge track
Without knowing to what extent the existing SG upgrades have been reannounced in this project, it is difficult to know how much this part of the project will cost. Given that the Wodonga rail bypass is going to take up $130m, there’s only $370m left over for the rest of the works, a substantial portion of which may simply be reannounced SG passing lanes and concrete sleepering.
A rough calculation puts the capital cost of RFR at $1.5m/km (750/500) not including rolling stock. That’s $300m for 200km of new track. Given the potential for such a substantial portion of the NE standardisation costs to be for other things (like upgrading the existing SG track) and the known cost of $130m for the Wodonga rail works, it seems the actual conversion works are going to cost considerably less than $500m. This is a good thing, because I would have been rather worried if they cost more per km than RFR.
I hope to post shortly on the prospects for increasing track speed beyond 130kph and buying new rolling stock using the RFR costs as a guide, and whether such a project would be worthwhile at all.
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