In a second-storey room overlooking the rail line in the backstreets of Broadmeadow, a small team works around the clock to make sure train traffic flows smoothly across a large chunk of NSW.
From this quiet command centre, specialist network controllers guide locomotives carrying coal, cargo and people between the Port of Newcastle, Muswellbrook, Narrabri and out to Ulan, as well as Moree and Dubbo.
For decades, they’ve painstakingly planned, compared and re-planned each train’s journey using set squares, pencils and erasers to graph data that’s fed into a computer to tell each locomotive’s crew whether to give way or proceed along a clear stretch of track.
Soon, these controllers will trade their pencils and set squares for a state-of-the-art computer system that will do the work that’s been recorded on large sheets of paper since the 1930s.
The Australian Rail and Track Corporation will announce today that it has signed a deal with Chicago firm GE Transportation to use its Movement Planner program, which will allow the team’s work to be completely digitised by mid 2018.
The ARTC invited the Fairfax Media into the command centre this week for an exclusive tour and pictures of the team’s operations for the first time.
ARTC group executive for the Hunter Valley network Jonathan Vandervoort said each network controller was in constant contact with the train drivers who were using their sections of track, as well as maintenance officers who wanted access.
He said the centre registered thousands of phone calls a day to keep rail traffic flowing safely and the new technology would make everything run more smoothly.
“At the same time, [network controllers] are working on graphs – paper graphs – to manage the flow of trains,” he said. “What we’re looking to do with Movement Planner, with GE, is replace those paper graphs with digital screens. That’ll allow them to focus more on forecasting and predictive work of the trains and give them more time to manage their phone interactions.”
Given the traffic generated by the Hunter coalfields and the Port of Newcastle, the region’s rail network is one of Australia’s busiest. The Broadmeadow control centre oversees the movement of 24,000 tonnes of freight every hour and about 250 train movements each day.
There are about 700 possible combinations for passing trains that the network controllers need to graph on a daily basis to avoid collisions and keep the locomotives – as well as industry and commuters – moving.
“As bulk freight demands grow, rail operators like ARTC and supply chains like the Hunter Valley coal network need to be creative in the way they respond so the Australian economy doesn’t miss out,” ARTC managing director and CEO John Fullerton said.
“That’s why we have conducted a worldwide search to find globally proven solutions that will improve our network productivity and efficiency.”