Australia’s train radio “break of gauge”

It’s pretty common knowledge that Australia’s rail network is a mess of different rail gauges, preventing freight and passengers from travelling across Australia without changing trains. But did you know that’s not the only incompatibility holding back rail in Australia – there is also a mess of different train radio systems.

'Radio Equipped' sticker on DRC 43

How we got there

The story starts the same was as Australia’s rail gauge muddle, where each colony started building railways based on their own standards, never thinking the systems would meet to form a national network.

Static 'Common Rail Transfer' at the north end of dual gauge Southern Cross platform 2

But despite early trials on the Commonwealth Railways during the 1950s, the rollout of two-way radio systems was resisted by many Australian rail operators. Franklin Hussey, Crew Operations Manager for the National Rail Corporation, had this to say to the 2001 Special Commission of Inquiry Into the Glenbrook Rail Accident.

The introduction of train radio systems combined with track circuiting has been slow to develop in Australia, contrary to what occurred in the United States of America after World War II.

In Australia they were not contemplated until an incident in Victoria at Barnawartha in the 1982 when a freight train collided with the rear of the Southern Aurora.

He stated that New South Wales was the least developed of all the States until the development of the Metronet and Countrynet systems the mid-1990s.

So one might think the lessons of the past on rail gauge would lead to standardisation – but it didn’t.

Communications facilities and current call types have evolved due to the different safeworking practices of the rail authorities and their investment strategies. Each system has evolved to best meet the requirements of their operation and necessarily are influenced by the equipment capabilities which in turn depend on the level of investment. The differences between systems is a major inhibition to flexible locomotive operation on the interstate corridors.

And so each state-based rail operator adopted their own standards for radio communications.

And the mess

By the 2000s there were 20 different radio systems in use across Australia – most states using different radio systems for their suburban and country rail networks.


Australasian Railway Association diagram

To make matters worse, there was no single radio capable of supporting all 20 systems.

Whilst most areas are shown as requiring UHF radio, it should be noted that no single UHF radio can do the job.

The UHF radio used in the Perth Greater Metropolitan area is a trunked radio with narrow band operation. In general, radio transceivers that can provide the trunked radio operation cannot also provide the wide band conventional operation required for the rest of the country.

A standard, off-the-shelf conventional mobile radio can be used for the remainder of the UHF train control areas outside NSW. But in Victoria this radio is useless unless connected to a Motorola ASW or MDC600 unit.

In NSW, a special duplex radio is required for Metronet and Countrynet. There is only one source of duplex radio to our knowledge, although one can contrive a full duplex radio from two simplex radios.

Access to the Metronet system is limited to a particular brand and model of mobile radio. Although it is technically possible to implement the Metronet radio functions with other radio transceivers, the necessary information and approvals are not available.

Similarly, RIC is at present the only source of Countrynet equipment.

So a train travelling from Brisbane to Perth via Melbourne required six different radio receivers in the cab.


Rod Williams photo

Changing radio channels along the way.

NR55 and AN2 on the up at Gheringhap Loop

Yet unable to talk to the driver of a steam train up ahead.

The freight continues the chase

The driver of the suburban train running on the track alongside.

8173 and 8160 on a grain train chase down Siemens 734M on a down Sydenham service at West Footscray

Or the driver of a parallel V/Line train.

SCT liveried G512 leads CFCLA liveried G515 on MA2, overtaking N462 on a down Geelong service at Lara

In search of solutions

The formation of the National Rail Corporation in 1992 to take over the operation of interstate freight services on the railways of Australia provided an impetus to dealing with the mess of incompatible radio systems.


Weston Langford photo

They wrote in 1998.

Radio frequencies change frequently across the national track network, requiring complex radio equipment, and constant attention from drivers to ensure correct radio channels are selected for each task and area. The very large number of frequencies in use also places large demands on rail operators and track owners for provision of radio equipment and on controllers for attention to detail in its use.

So they patched over the problem with a system called AWARE – “Australia Wide Augmented Radio Environment“.


ATSB photo

It presented a single radio screen to the train driver, and managed a cabinet full of radio equipment, switching between them based on which systems were used at the current location.


ATSB diagram

But radios are still a problem

The inability for train crew from different operators to talk to each other in an emergency was a contributing factor to a number of rail crashes between trains during the 1990s and 2000s.


ATSB photo

At Glenbrook in NSW.

At 2 December 1999 a State Rail Authority interurban train collided with the rear of the Indian Pacific tourist train. The accident occurred because of a fault in an area of automatic signalling. As the signalling system was not functioning normally, control of train movements through the area was therefore managed by the signaller and drivers.

There is no single integrated system which enables communications between the various trains, signallers and controllers involved in operations on the rail network. In the case of this particular accident there were five different communications systems which were involved, namely, three different two-way radio systems (known respectively as Metronet, Countrynet and WB), dedicated line telephones at the bases of signals, called signal telephones, and mobile telephones operating on either the GSM terrestrial based network or by satellite.

Corio in Victoria.

On 1 October 1999 a freight train came to a stand at Corio station after an emergency brake application on the train. On investigation it was found that the train had separated, the rear portion of the train had six wagons derailed. The damaged wagons were fouling the Broad Gauge Line and the standard gauge line with severe track damage to both.

The report recommended that all locomotive drivers and train controllers to be instructed that immediately a train comes to a stand on a running line, the driver must inform the train controller who, in turn, must inform the train controller in charge of any parallel lines, so that all trains on the parallel lines can be warned.

Hexham in NSW.

On 12 July 2002 an empty coal train derailed at Hexham, fouling two out of the three adjacent railway lines. A short time later a passenger train collided with the fouling wreckage. The line that the passenger train was travelling on was track circuited but the track remained unbroken, preventing the automatic signals returning to stop. The crew from the coal train tried to contact the local signal box with no success.

And Chiltern in Victoria.

On Sunday 16 March 2003 a Pacific National freight train derailed south of Chiltern railway station on the standard gauge railway line. At about 1512 a V/Line locomotive hauled passenger train travelling from Albury to Melbourne on the broad gauge railway line, collided with wreckage from the derailed freight train. The collision derailed the locomotive and two carriages of train 8318

There was an about two minute window from the time train 1SP2N came to a stand, up to the time the driver of train 8318 applied the emergency brake, to try and stop train 8318 before the derailed train. In that time the drivers from train 1SP2N had repeatedly tried to warn train 8318, but were unsuccessful. The drivers also followed procedure by notifying ARTC train control but the message was delayed by four minutes before being relayed to the broad gauge train control (Centrol), not in time to prevent the collision.

And a solution

In 2007 the Australian Rail Track Corporation, announced that they would be developing a single National Train Communications System to be used on the interstate rail network.

Seventy-seven new Next G™ regional base stations will be built as part of an $85 million communications deal signed today between the Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC) and Telstra.

The agreement will see Telstra’s leading Next G™ network used to replace nine separate communications systems across 10,000km of rail tracks.

Replacing a series of old technologies, such as two-way radios and CDMA devices, the new network will provide telecommunications coverage for the interstate rail network – from Brisbane to Perth (via Melbourne and Broken Hill) and in the Hunter Valley. The agreement improves coverage in tunnels and across the Nullarbor Plain, introduces new communications equipment for more than 700 locomotives, and is backed up with Satellite if necessary.

Chief Executive Officer of ARTC, Mr David Marchant, said once completed all trains and train controllers would be able to use the one system to communicate with each other across the entire national rail network from Brisbane to Perth, as well as the Hunter Valley Coal Network, eliminating the inefficient nine different communications systems for train operators.

“ARTC is breaking new ground in Australian rail communications,” Mr Marchant said. “A single national communication system will greatly improve operational efficiency and reduce costs associated with managing multiple platforms.

General Manager Strategy Development and Chief Information Officer for ARTC, Mr Leon Welsby, said the new communications network will provide train controllers with real time GPS location of all trains, wherever they are between Brisbane and Perth.

Australian government funding under the Auslink National Transport Plan has been made available to provide this common communications system for the national rail network.

The new system supported four different data connections.

  • Satellite
  • GSM-R
  • UHF (analog, digital)
  • 3G (UTMS, HSDPA)

All controlled by a single ICE (In-Cab Communications Equipment) unit developed by base2 communications.

ICE radio terminal in the cab of TL152

The rollout

One the new system had been proven in trials, it was time to roll out a new radio to every single train that operated over the ARTC network.

ICE radio console in the cab of T413

An ICE unit in every cab.

ICE radio equipment onboard A66

And new radio antennas on every roof.

ICE radio antennas atop G532

V/Line’s fleet of VLocity trains didn’t miss out.

ICE radio console inside a VLocity train cab

Gaining an array of new antennas.

 ICE radio equipment on the roof of VLocity VL36

Melbourne’s restored ‘Tait’ set also received an ICE radio.

ICE radio console in the cab of Tait 317M

And even steam locomotives didn’t miss out!

ICE radio equipment in the cab of steam locomotive K190

Gaining radio antennas on the cab roof.

ICE radio antennas on the cab roof of steam locomotive K190

Positioning of the ICE unit presented difficulties for some steam locomotives.

Modern ICE radio system inside the cab of steam locomotive 3642

The radio equipment box on A2 986 ended up beside the coal bunker!

ICE radio equipment box on the tenter of A2 986

But in the end it was done – and the last of the legacy radio systems switched off in December 2014.

The Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC) officially switched off the last two of seven out-dated regional radio systems previously used on its network today, completing a seven year project.

“The ‘switch off’ of the old radio systems in NSW and Victoria means freight trains operating on ARTC’s national freight rail network now use a single, safer, digital radio system,” ARTC CEO John Fullerton said.

While the physical network including mobile communications towers and satellites has been in place since June 2010, the retrofitting and testing of ICE (In-cab Communications Equipment) units across the national locomotive fleet and multiple operators has now been completed.

Currently 900 trains with ICE units operate across the country, 704 units were supplied by ARTC as part of the NTCS project.

Around 1024 Telstra Mobile sites form part of the communications network along ARTC’s rail network. Telstra provided an additional 81 radio sites along the rail corridor comprising 70 macro base stations and 11 radio fitted tunnels.

The Next G system is for non electrified NSW, the Victorian tracks controlled by ARTC, SA, NT and WA tracks, excluding the PTA system.

Finally putting an end to a mess created during the 1980s.

Footnote: Victorian train radio systems

The original 1980s analogue radio systems in Victoria used Motorola Micor base stations and Motorola Syntrex radios, with the Motorola MDC-600 data system.

Suburban trains used the ‘Urban Train Radio System’ until it was replaced by the GSM-R based ‘Digital Train Radio System’ (DTRS) using Nokia-Siemens Networks equipment in August 2014.

Country trains used the ‘Non-Urban Train Radio System’ with which was finally replaced by the NTCS-based Regional Rail Communications Network (RRCN) from 2017.

Further reading

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9 Responses to “Australia’s train radio “break of gauge””

  1. Michael Angelico says:

    The current state of play with ICE radios is replacing the 3G equipment with 4G… At a not insignificant cost.

  2. Andrew says:

    Thank you. Very interesting. I knew some of it but not what a mess it was Australia wide.

  3. Matt says:

    … and after all of the upgrades V/Line drivers still can’t communicate directly with Metro drivers.

  4. Matthew says:

    Wonder if they will ever do a standard gauge from Geelong to Ballarat? I notice all the point are gone from the Warrenhiep junction and the two tracks separate so they must have it in mind ?

    • Marcus Wong says:

      The line through Warrenheip has been two single tracks since the entire area was resignalled and the station was abolished in 1995 – the line to Melbourne runs straight through, but there is an unattended crossing loop on the line to Geelong.

  5. Marcus Wong says:

    As for standard gauge from Geelong to Ballarat, it was supposed to happen as part of the Murray Basin Rail Project, but V/Line messed that one up so badly they didn’t even manage to convert all of the brand lines they intended, left along provide a shorter route from Maryborough to Melbourne than the roundabout one via Ararat.

    https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-10-20/244-million-dollars-needed-to-fix-troubled-murray-basin-rail/12785988

  6. […] shift that a train driver is required to work, but like everything railway related in Australia, each state does things slightly differently – so here is the NSW […]

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