Standard Gauge on the North Eastern Line – is it really going to cost $500m?

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.




9 Responses

  1. So the conversion does not include any of the branches from the main line then.

    One idea I have seen floted is converting one of the tracks from Seymour to Craigieburn to standard gauge as well as the Albion Jacana line.

    If only New South Wales had been made to keep 5’3″ then we would not be in this mess.

  2. Phin I think the problem is that you and the rest of us are looking for evidence that it can be done as cheaply as possible, while the spinmeisters are looking for numbers as LARGE as possible, so they reannounce, include unrelated items and so on.

    The construction costs for removing the track and putting it back should be similar to the Bendigo RFR, the Wodonga bypass should be similarly priced to the Bungaree deviation, and the refurbs should be a similar price to other refurbs in train.

    I have seen little comment on the Page on the implications of having 130km/h N sets, and whether other N sets on the BG should also be done.

    I can see why generally improving the N set speeds has not been a priority; the lines they tend to run on are slow. But I see no reason why you couldn’t get Warrnambool times down, and if some money was put into the Shep or Bairnsdale lines it would not also help.

    However in the longer term I would prefer to see Velos on all these routes. They seem a reliable and comfortable set and only lack onboard catering for longer journeys, which I would remedy with a catering trolley.

    I will come up with 2 proposals – the bogan trolley and the premium trolley – which could be used in the economy and first sections respectively.

    At the end of the day, we should be thankful that they are converting the BG because it shows they believe the interstate freight market is on the rise. Remember, they could simply have abandoned it, and still run the passengers on the SG, if they believed freight levels were unchanged.

  3. Re the Albion Jacana line, Rod Smith posted on Railpage that it will be dual gauge and the speed restrictioins removed, but no sign that it will be lifted to 130kms. But given that the existing SG is bidirectional, it may not matter, if the faster trains are put on the existing SG and slower ones on the existing BG/future DG.

    There has been a lot of dribble on Railpage about this, but the comparison with the Essendon route is useless – this route has a high number of suburban trains, most stopping all stations, and the route is limited to 80km/h.

    The Albion to SXS route via Dynon is slowish, but sounds like some of the investment is there to help it improve. And past Dynon the only traffic is rural passenger trains, so the long distance Vlines will have the route largely to themselves.

    The Seymour all stations will continue to go via Essendon I suspect.

  4. Phin, Good post. I think that using the RFR costs per km is a good benchmark to use, as there will be a significant sum of the $300 million spent in making good deferred maintenance over the years. Although as an upper bound for costs, I would be looking back to the ‘One Nation’ Adelaide-Melbourne Gauge Standardisation project from 1993-1995. It faced ballooning project costs as the magnitude of deferred maintenance on the Victorian side became apparent.

    While ARTC has done well to remove many TSRs and PSRs on the NE SG, the fact remains that the line was built to a price, not a standard (yes, it was even done back in the late 1950s/early 1960s!) and there are some fairly major drainage issues to be dealt with. Equally, the BG line will also need to have the maintenance backlog caught up with.

    South of Seymour, it’s unclear to me whether the SG will be double tracked, or single track with long ‘passing lanes’, but there will be some major metropolitan works already completed or underway by the time gauge standardisation starts, such as the completion of Tottenham-Dynon duplication and bi-di signalling and the third leg of the Tottenham ‘triangle’ between Brooklyn and Sunshine. Obviously Albion-Jacana will get an upgrade also out of this though. All this makes me regret no having bought a house at Glenroy across the valley from the Maribyrnong River bridge!

  5. Phin,

    Re Melbourne to Seymour, a large ammount of re-sleepering had occured the last time I was up that Kilmore East way, and I understand that the passing lanes are currently under construction. From memory they are to be located between Tallarook and Broadford, around Kilmore East and between Wallan and Donnybrook.

    Re the construction of new SG platforms north of Seymour, the first question that popped into my head was why are new ones are needed at all? Why not use the current BG platforms?

    One final comment Re the speed of the Jacana – Albion section. The last time I rode the XPT (Feb 2005) we arrived a few munutes early after making up a lot of time in this section, more than we had made up in the run from Albury. We had run late from at least Campbelltown to Cragieburn. It says a lot for a segregated path through the suburbs for regional trains…

  6. Ben, there is currently only platforms on one track (BG) at most stations, at present. How are up trains on the “old SG” meant to stop at stations? Using crossovers to save building platforms at the likes of Springhurst etc would be moronic.

    The Albion-Jacana line has a 20km/h speed limit for BG, and something quite decent for SG. Ben, whgy would the XPT suddenly become on-time at Craigieburn? It is purely just another location which the SG passes, of no significance to that line.

  7. Thanks for the comments all.

    Tom, agree that converting one of the BG tracks to Seymour would be very sensible too. Even Converting the lot to Shepparton and beyond is well worth considering.

    Riccardo, couldn’t agree more re. our aims vs. politicians’ aims. Whilst I’d like to think we want to maximise utility, politicians want to maximise political gain, and the two often just don’t align very well. But if politicians are going to try and inflate costs, I’d rather it be done through endless renouncements than actually paying more than a project is worth.

    Agree Vlocitys would be good on the route, but as I worked out in my most recent post, they would cost about $90 million. It’s money that will have to be spent eventually, but if the N-sets have a bit of life left with a refurb then perhaps they could stay for a few years if the service isn’t being expanded.

    Albion – Jacana going double track dual gauge would be great news. I’d ultimately like to see Seymour services take this route – freeing up space on the Craigieburn line for a decent spark service.

    Loose shunter, I didn’t realise that the SG line had drainage issues – hopefully they’ll be fixed with the upgrade of the line. I might try to do some digging around to find the one nation upgrades.

    Ben and somebody, I reckon platforms are a better way to go than crossovers. If you put the new platforms in the old goods yards, they could serve down trains and you could get away with little more than a bus shelter on a block of concrete – really cheap. Also, it would remove those curves around the platforms – which would be good for line speed.


  8. Phin, See if you can track down a copy of ‘One Nation: Rail Infrastructure June 1992 – June 1995 – Completion Report’, published by NRC. I picked mine up on Ebay, but the State Library might have one or even the DOT library at 121 Exhibition Street.

    Appendix 2 of that document puts the price of Adelaide-Melbourne gauge standardisation at $192.3 million (including both the ‘One Nation’ works in Victoria and SA and AN-funded works between Adelaide and Wolseley. Excluded are the standard gauge rail links at Dynon and Outer Harbour at both ends of the project to give a straight cost for standardisation and dual gauging of Adelaide-Melbourne (excluding the grain lines in Western Vic.). Even so, the job was not done properly due to the financial constraints imposed by the then PTC’s lack of a master plan or an idea of project costs.

    Then you’ll need to add on at least another $50 million that ARTC spent on making good the things One Nation didn’t have the money to do (rerailing, rail rectification, ballast cleaning, drainage works).

    Hope this helps.


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