Moving containerised logs by train

Since the first railways were built in Australia, timber has been moved by train – a traffic that still exists today, but somewhat hidden thanks to the rise of containers.

Loader ready to push another pile of logs into a container

In the old days

Timber tramways would transport freshly cut logs to sawmills deep in the forest.

Museums Victoria image MM 5821

With the sawn timber then being loaded onto main line trains for transport to the construction industry.

Photo by Weston Langford

But by World War II the timber tramways were gone: replaced by road transport, and supplying a network of town based sawmills established following the 1939 Black Friday bushfires.

Enter woodchips

In the 1960s the timber industry switched from sawlogs to clearfell logging for export woodchips.

Initially this traffic was by road, but in 1999 newly privatised freight operator Freight Australia started to move this traffic to rail.

Awaiting departure from the log yard at Bairnsdale

Logs were loaded onto flat wagons at Bairnsdale and Wodonga.

Loaded log flats at Bairnsdale

Hauled by train to Geelong.

X43 powers over the hills towards Hillside

Where they were unloaded at the Midway woodchip plant and sent through the chipper.

H3 heads back out of the Midway Siding

To be loaded by conveyor into ships.

New Woodchip loader at Corio Quay North

Bound for Japanese paper mills.

Sun goes down over Corio Bay

These log trains continued running until 2009, when the Black Saturday bushfires burnt out the source of the logs.

And now containers

In the 2000s another way of moving timber by rail emerged – sawlogs stuffed inside standard ISO containers, ready to be exported by sea.

Logs are delivered to the rail terminal by truck and then stockpiled.

Loader goes back for another claw full of logs

The loader grabs a claw full of logs, and loads them into a cradle.

Loader delivers another claw full of logs into the cradle

Once the cradle is full, it is placed in front of an empty 40 foot container.

Front end loader pushes logs into a 40 foot ISO container at Bordertown

A specially fitted loader then pushes the logs into the container.

Specially fitted loader pushes the logs into a 40 footer container

Them the forklift takes the empty log cradle away for reloading.

Forklift moves the empty log cradle for reloading

And so the process repeats.

Specially fitted loader pushes the logs into a 40 footer container

Current containerised log rail services include:

Footnote: log wagons

Moving logs by container on standard flat wagons is a lot more flexible than constructing dedicated log wagons, which Freight Australia discovered when trying to expand their fleet.

Freight Australia found a new emerging market in transporting plantation logs and to capitalise, the Sale to Bairnsdale line had to be reopened. For the log business to expand, wagons that could carry logs were in urgent demand.

In order to satisfy this demand, older disused container flats, open wagons and louvre vans were all identified as having the potential to be converted into log wagons by having their sides and canopies removed. Further checks were undertaken to determine the suitability of each wagon to support the load where the stanchion cradles were to be attached.

The container flats and the open wagons proved straight forward, however, the VLEX louvre van design had to be analysed as its canopy needed to be fully removed. The analysis revealed, as with many of the original PTC wagons, that the center sill on the vans actually took 95+ % of the load.

The cradle frames for the logs were then designed so that they could be huck bolted onto the various wagon classes, this allowed for easy replacement if damaged and the ability to convert these wagons back to container flats if the need arose.

Flexibility and the ability to convert wagons readily for any commodity was a bonus for these wagons however, unlike previous log wagons built, these wagons were not fitted with bulkheads. To fit bulkheads to these wagons would mean excessive extra costs, shorten their effective carrying load length and reduce their flexibility. To enable these wagons to be accredited for operation in Victoria, Freight Australia had to demonstrate the safe securing of the logs namely in the longitudinal direction without bulkheads being fitted.

The ROA Manual of Engineering Standards and Practices requires an overall load sustaining minimum capacity in the longitudinal direction equal to the gravity force of the load multiplied by 4. i.e. survive a 4G de-acceleration. Freight Australia demonstrated the safety of these wagons, loaded with logs and why bulkheads were not required by: –

• Carrying out impact trials of Log wagons to determine the load movements at speeds between 8kph to 15kph. These dramatic test could not replicate 4G as to do so would have meant destroying a wagon however, it did demonstrate the controlled way the load shifted. The mass of the logs tied down and jammed between the stanchions and the friction between the logs meant the log movements were contained within the outline diagram and none of the logs broke away from their total mass;

• Modelling the forces and the loads required to move the loaded logs between the stanchions and calculating the sufficiency of the log restraining systems;

• Reviewing other Log Transporters and their practices. This included the American Railroads, who are governed by the AAR guidelines, and more importantly our competitors in the road industry who follow the Department of Transport Guidelines. Both operations aren’t required to operate their vehicles with bulkheads.

Further reading

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7 Responses to “Moving containerised logs by train”

  1. Michael Angelico says:

    I wonder how the logs are unloaded from the containers at the other end. They look like they’re packed in fairly tightly in those photos.

    When I was at FCL Transport we did a trial of shipping tree ferns in a refrigerated container on a tipper wagon for a nursery in Moorabbin. The ferns settled so much on the journey that they jammed in solid and wouldn’t tip out. Eventually the nursery’s forklift was brought over to unjam them but the tynes damaged several of the ferns and even so it took 45 minutes to unload them.

    I guess timber isn’t as squashy as tree ferns so it’s probably not as big an issue.

  2. Lachlan says:

    Very interesting Marcus!

    I’ve always been interested in the trains that ran to mount gambier and the Millicent Kimberly Clark (previously known as Apcel) mills from Victoria up until the mid 90s when the broad gauge was cut from the standard gauge. From memory coal briquettes were sent to the pulp mill boiler (from where?). and paper sent back in VR vans. From what I understand now all the pulp is imported. But into where, Melbourne / Portland / Geelong? Must be a massive task to haul the pulp in and paper out by road. What a shame rail can no longer serve this mill.

    • Marcus Wong says:

      I’ve found some more details about rail traffic to the Kimberly-Clark factory at Millicent here:

      And here’s a 1977 photo of the Mt Gambier freight – plenty of box vans in the consist:

      But plenty of other general freight as well:

    • Michael Menzies says:

      Paper was railed from South East SA to Melb, Sydney and Park Road (Brisbane). I may have some details filed somewhere from a survey that I did back in the 1980’s. The briquettes for mill boilers came from Latrobe Valley in Vic. Some cement traffic and empty wagons also passed between Vic (Fyansford) and Adelaide via Mt. Gambier, because (I think) it helped balance out train loads, with empty cement pots back from Adelaide to the Mount, then the empty wagons plus loaded paper and chipboard into Vic. Likewise loaded cement and briquettes and empty flats and vans for the paper and chipboard ex Vic to SA. Around 1 million tonnes of traffic on rail in and out of Mt.G at that time.

      Total madness that funds were not provided as part of the One Nation conversion of western Vic to SG. From memory, at that time, it was about another $8-10 million to convert Heywood – Mt.Gambier. V/Line Freight did the sums and under the leadership of Marinus van Onselen, convinced the feds to fund converting Dimboola – Yaapeet and Murtoa – Hopetoun with a fairly simple calculation that showed that local, state and federal governments would be up for far greater expenditure to upgrade and maintain the roads to handle the traffic if they did not spend less to convert the rail lines, so the money came very quickly! Lined up the combined support of local councils, grain growers, etc, to lobby for the funding. Shows how it can be done!

      Late 90’s, I was involved in a look at converting Mt. Gambier – Wolseley to sg, but governments, both labor and liberal in SA and their bureaucrats have no interest nor understanding of rail these days. Was an easy relatively cheap project and could then be run as a short line trundling up from MT.G to interchange loading in and out, east and west at the national Meld -Adl line.

      • Marcus Wong says:

        Thanks for the extra info Michael – I knew that the western Victoria branch lines being a late addition to the gauge conversion project, but didn’t realise how cheap Mt. Gambier could have been.

  3. Michael Menzies says:

    Heywood – Mt. Gambier sg conversion cost in 1995 would be around somewhere, but I guess comparable per km to the Yaapeet and Hopetoun conversions. Those costs will also be around, but no time to dig them up. I have a vague idea of $40 million, but it may have been much less?

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