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We are here to lobby for better public transport and rail infrastructure in Tasmania. We aim to find solutions to allow all Tasmanians to have environmentally responsible and affordable commuting options to get around our state and towns. A more detailed mission statement can be found in the left column or <here>.

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Sunday, December 11, 2011

Upgrading TasRail -why not standard gauge?

Many people often ask why not re-gauge TasRail’s network to standard gauge if you are upgrading the tracks anyway?

Whilst it is true that most of the Australian interstate railway network is indeed standard gauge (1435mm, or 4’8.5”), as is all of NSW’s country network, many lines in Victoria are still broad gauge (1600mm), almost all of Queensland is the same as Tasmania (1067mm), and so is much of Western Australia’s (WA) railways. There are lines of all three gauges (standard, broad and narrow) in South Australia.

But this is really nothing to do with Tasmania. There are no roll-on roll-off freighters that carry trains, therefore there is no need to have a common gauge with the mainland. Containers are offloaded onto the docks where they are loaded onto trains or trucks. Some urgent freight is driven off the Spirit of Tasmania by truck where it continues to its destination. Very little of this freight would have started on a train, therefore the cost of purchasing such a ship and building the required connection would not match the current demand for it (which is nil).

Other Advantages

Standard gauge trains are larger and heavier.

Yes this is true, but many are not. In fact in Queensland there are 10,000 tonne coal trains operating daily on the same gauge as Tasmania. South African Railways broke the world record for the longest and heaviest ever freight train on 1067mm gauge. Even though the record has since been broken by a standard gauge train (in WA), the point is that there are few trains that are as big, even on standard gauge. Clearly ‘narrow’ gauge has plenty of unrealised capacity here in Tasmania.

Wouldn’t it be cheaper to buy standard gauge rolling-stock as that is more common?

Not compared to the cost of changing the gauge. The existing formation would have to be widened, every sleeper changed and new rail purchased for the entire line. Every culvert and bridge would have to be replaced. It would be a new railway virtually from scratch, as the line would have to bypass the worst parts of the old formation. The cost saving in rolling-stock would be very small. You could even purchase standard gauge bogies for many of the wagons and even locomotives to save money, but TasRails fleet is so old that this is really not worth doing. There are so many narrow gauge lines worldwide, that there is still a very large market for 1067mm gauge locomotives and wagons. New 1067mm gauge locomotives are still being built in Australia today for QR National and Pacific National.

TasRail is in fact about to place an order for new locomotives (finally!).

Could you add a third rail and thus ensure heritage trains can keep running?

Yes you could –but TasRail would have no interest in maintaining two gauges solely for tourist trains that provided them with little revenue. Converting to standard gauge would remove the possibility of heritage trains using the mainline. On a cost basis alone this would not happen.

Can’t you go faster on standard gauge?

Yes you can –the world record is 574km/h on standard gauge (the French Alsthom TGV). However the fastest train in Australia runs on narrow gauge, not standard gauge. The Queensland electric tilt train has the Australian rail speed record at 210km/h.

There is no technical reason why you could not have a faster train on narrow gauge.

However given that it is only 200km between Hobart and Launceston, there is no argument for even a 300km/h train for Tasmania, as the additional cost would not be justified by the potential patronage. The faster you want a train to be able to go, the greater the costs become.

Couldn’t you carry more freight?

The cost of upgrading TasRail’s tracks is far cheaper than changing the gauge. The freight demand does not warrant the cost. Even if TasRail carried 90% of the overall freight task in Tasmania (it currently carries less than 25%), it would have no problems catering for that demand on the current gauge, even though this is physically impossible due to the fact the lines do not cover all of the state. The only difference would be that TasRail would require more trains.

TasRail’s axleload is currently relatively low –however as the track is upgraded heavier trains will be possible, without needing to change to standard gauge.

Finally and crucially, no one in the rail industry is arguing for a change in gauge.

Once TasRail completes the upgrade of the tracks, the biggest issue is the tight corners and steep grades in certain sections. The cost of the deviations for these sections will be significant –but the time saved and efficiencies gained will also be significant. Once that happens, it will be possible for a fast passenger train service to compete successfully with road.

Why don’t they carry logs from forestry?

Unfortunately for TasRail they no longer have the capacity to carry logs. Most of the log wagons have already been scrapped as they were too old. Many of the forestry areas are nowhere near a railway line. Two of the lines are no longer in use (Derwent Valley and North-east – Scottsdale). Finally, the uncertainty surrounding the forestry industry means that at the moment, at least, TasRail must wait before it considers investing in new rollingstock that could cater for log traffic.

Why don’t they have more trains instead of heavy trucks?

The railways are stuck competing with a 20th century highway whilst using a 19th century railway that was built on the cheap. Because of this, truck companies can get freight around the state much faster than the railways. Unfortunately governments have favoured road transport for several decades, resulting in significant spending on roads and very little by comparison for railways, especially in Tasmania.

Rail also has to pay its way, whereas trucks to not have to pay anywhere near as much to use the roads. Despite this the trucking industry still struggles to make its services recover their costs, with owner-operator truck drivers in particular, frequently struggling despite working unbelievably long and dangerous hours to make ends meet.


  1. This is a most sensible approach to the so-called "standard" gauge myths. Thank you for summing all the relevant facts in these crisp and clear words.

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Toby Rowallan (secretary) 0418 997 069

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