Regional Rail Link connects Southern Cross Station to the outskirts of Werribee, allowing V/Line services to Ballarat, Bendigo and Geelong to avoid the congested suburban railway tracks. However the new section of track via Wyndham Vale and Tarneit has also found a second use – a diversionary route for freight trains.
Planning the new railway
During construction of the new railway, the Regional Rail Link Authority was selling a “no freight trains” message to interested parties, such as former PTUA president Daniel Bowen:
Freight will not be permitted on the new line between Manor and Deer Park – sounds like the relevant authorisations under noise standards only cover passenger trains.
The Regional Rail Link Authority “Noise Impact Management Report” dated 9 December 2010 intentionally ignored rail freight, as freight trains were not intended to use the new railway (bold is my emphasis):
This Noise Impact Management Report is for Section 2 of the RRL, from the Deer Park
Bypass to West Werribee Junction. This section of the RRL is predominantly a greenfield
corridor, with no existing railway infrastructure, except near the tie-ins to existing track
infrastructure at each end.
Rolling stock that will use the RRL alignment will include:
- VLocity and Sprinter diesel multiple units (DMUs)
- N class locomotives
- P class locomotives
It is expected that newer VLocity type rolling stock will eventually replace the older N and
P class locomotives and carriages that are currently being used. Freight is not proposed for the RRL and has not been considered as part of this study.
The noise impacts of the project was also examined during the planning and approval process, with an advisory committee was established by the Victorian Minister for Planning. Their final report dated 23 January 2012 raised a number of concerns:
The Draft Noise Management Plan does not provide an appropriate response to operational noise impacts; planned future stabling yards have not been accounted for. The noise consequences of possible freight traffic on RRL2 received only scant attention.
Four submissions to the committee referenced rail freight noise, with the submission from the Dennis Family and Davis Family stating:
The community investment in this rail infrastructure carries the reasonable expectation that it would be used efficiently in order to maximise its utility. It will not always be just a regional service.
Activities and operations that have the capacity to operate on the RRL2 without further approval (for example, metro and freight trains, and increase in frequency) will increase the noise levels experienced and should be addressed
A submission from the Wyndham City Council also held concerns:
The operation of freight trains along the RRL corridor cannot be prevented and rail freight noise mitigation measures need to be considered in the Noise Management Plan, given that Section 251B of the Victorian Transport (Compliance and Miscellaneous) Act 1983 does not apply to any noise emanating from freight rolling stock.
However the Regional Rail Link Authority still dodged the subject of rail freight noise:
The RRLA expressed the view that it is important to distinguish between what is currently proposed and the reservation of capacity by the RRL2 designers for possible future rail infrastructure and submitted that:
- The EES referral explains that RRL2 ‘makes provision’ for the future construction of two freight tracks between Deer Park and Truganina but to ‘make provision’ only means to ensure capacity within the rail corridor
- RRL2 does not include freight train infrastructure nor was such infrastructure included in the EES referral
But the advisory committee called them out, quoting the RRLA’s own Environment Effects Statement referral document:
It is noted that the above description indicates that:
- The works required to extend the metropolitan train service may be completed after the initial construction but there is no suggestion that such an extension will not occur
- The works required will be within the project area and will include construction and use of rail tracks, a station, stabling facilities and depot facilities
- The level of detail provided is equal to, if not greater than, that provided on the proposed regional passenger train infrastructure and services
- The construction of additional tracks for freight at the northern end of the
project area is likely.
In light of the above, we are convinced that a reasonable reading of the project description would lead to a conclusion that the extension of the metropolitan train service and the additional tracks for freight trains are part of what is being proposed.
Again, these are facilities that might be constructed and used without the need for further planning permission. While the RRLA has suggested that this could only occur if a revised or new noise management plan was prepared and approved, as we have said, we do not believe that the provisions of the Incorporated Document guarantees this. We are therefore of the view that the extension of the metropolitan train service and the additional track for freight trains should also be considered to be part of the project.
Following the advisory committee report recommendations, the Minister for Planning issued a set of directions to the Regional Rail Link Authority to revise their noise management plan, but the requirements didn’t touch on rail freight at all:
The Noise Management Plan was required to:
- Identify the locations where future predicted noise levels at residential dwellings exceed an average of 55 decibels (LAeq,9h) at night or 80 decibels (LAmax) from the loudest train movement and
- Identify the noise treatments required to mitigate noise.
As a result approval came easy – the “Regional Rail Link Update to Noise Impact Management Report” was published in February 2013 and then approved by the minister in June 2013.
V/Line commenced operating test trains via Tarneit and Wyndham Vale in October 2014, with Geelong line passenger services switching to the new route in June 2015.
And the freight trains roll
On 30 March 2016 saw the first freight train use the Regional Rail Link tracks, when the Pacific National operated a Warrnambool to Melbourne service passed through Wyndham Vale and Tarneit just before midnight on the Wednesday, followed by the return movement a few hours later in the early hours of Thursday morning.
These services are normally operated by a single ~3000 horsepower diesel locomotive, leading around twenty container wagons.
Pacific National ramped up their usage of Regional Rail Link a month later, when in the early hours of 20 April 2016 they commenced driver training operations along the route, sending a light engine consist on three return trips between Sunshine and Little River, with a number of freight train drivers onboard to learn the new line.
In the months since, a number of other freight trains have used the Regional Rail Link tracks, including empty wagon transfers between the Port of Melbourne and North Geelong Yard in daylight.
Given the Regional Rail Link Authority instance that freight trains would not use their new line, on 30 April I emailed Public Transport Victoria a list of questions:
- are freight trains currently authorised to use the Regional Rail Link tracks via Tarneit and Wyndham Vale?
- between that report dated 2010, and completion of the project by the Regional Rail Link Authority in 2015, was a decision made to permit freight trains to use the new railway line via Tarneit and Wyndham Vale?
- if the decision was not made before the line opened, has such a decision been made since, and by who?
- was the freight train I saw a one off event, or will it be a regular occurrence?
- if freight trains are going to use the Regional Rail Link tracks via Tarneit and Wyndham Vale on a regular basis, how many freight trains will there be, and at what time of day?
- if freight trains will be using the track on a regular basis, will any enhancements be made to the existing noise mitigation infrastructure?
A week and a bit later, I got my response:
I forwarded on your feedback to our Network Product Development team and ave been informed that:
The freight service was using the RRL for locomotive transfer purposes, although the move was also designed to keep the knowledge of this route by freight drivers up-to-date.
There is no intention to regularly run freight trains via the RRL, although it may be necessary on occasions to direct them via the RRL when the Werribee line is out of action due to trackwork or incidents.
It should be noted that this was not the first time that this type of irregular locomotive move has taken place, and that there may be occasion in the future when it will occur again.
So in the end it appears that common sense has prevailed, with freight trains being able to use the new railway line if there is a need to do so – and the Regional Rail Link Authority has been exposed as telling porkies.