How many train drivers does it take to drive a train across Australia?

Australia is a big country, with a transcontinental rail journey taking days – far long than an human can possibly stay awake. So how do these train keep running?

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

Asking why

I went down this rabbit hole after Philip Mallis asked on Twitter why The Overland stopped at Dimboola for a crew changeover, partway through the 10 hour journey from Melbourne to Adelaide.

10 hours without any rest breaks would be pretty full on, so how does it work?

But first: maximum shift lengths

The “Rail Safety National Law” spells out the maximum length 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 version:

Working hours for rail safety workers driving freight trains

The following work scheduling practices and procedures apply to a rail safety worker who drives a freight train–

(a) in the case of a 2 person operation where the second driver is a qualified train driver (including a qualified train driver who is learning a route or undergoing an assessment)–the maximum shift length to be worked is 12 hours;
(b) in the case of any other 2 person operation–the maximum shift length to be worked is 11 hours;
(c) in the case of a 1 person operation–

(i) the maximum shift length to be worked is 9 hours; and
(ii) a minimum break of not less than 30 minutes must be scheduled and taken some time between the third and fifth hour of each shift;

Working hours for rail safety worker driving passenger train–single person operation

The following work scheduling practices and procedures apply to a rail safety worker who drives a passenger train in a single person operation–

(a) in the case of an interurban or a long distance train–the maximum shift length to be worked is 10 hours;
(b) in the case of a suburban train–the maximum shift length to be worked is 9 hours;

Working hours for rail safety worker driving passenger train–2 person operation

The following work scheduling practices and procedures apply to a rail safety worker who drives a passenger train in a 2 person operation–

(a) in the case of a 2 person operation where the second driver is a qualified train driver (including a qualified train driver who is learning a route or undergoing an assessment)–the maximum shift length to be worked is 12 hours;
(b) in the case of any other 2 person operation–the maximum shift length to be worked is 11 hours;

So a maximum shift length of 12 hours when two qualified drivers are sharing the job, reducing to 9 hours for suburban passenger trains operated by a single driver.

So back to the crew changes

In the case of The Overland, Journey Beyond Rail contracts freight operator Pacific National to supply locomotives and train drivers.

NR60 leads the Melbourne bound Overland outside Werribee

Pacific National has a crew depot is at Dimboola, with Melbourne-based crews taking westbound trains to what is approximately the halfway point between Melbourne and Adelaide, swapping over with a fresh crew, take their meal break at the station, then meet the inbound crew of the next eastbound service, which they take back to Melbourne, where they finish their shift.

However customer service staff on The Overland have no such luxury – with only two trains each way per week, they need to work a whole day eastbound from Adelaide, stay overnight in Melbourne, then work all day back to Adelaide westbound.

The NSW TrainLink XPT service between Melbourne and Sydney operates on similar principles: train crew come from Junee, while the customer service staff are based out of Albury and work an “out and back” shift through Victoria.

Northbound XPT passes the grasslands of Sunshine

Pacific National freight trains do something similar on the busy Melbourne-Sydney freight corridor.

Indian Pacific liveried NR28 with AN6 and Ghan liveried NR75 on BM4 pass Tottenham Yard on the up

Melbourne-based crews work their trains as far north as Junee in New South Wales then work another train back south.

Looking down the line past the platforms at Junee

Crew changes for other services can be little ad-hoc: in the case of the Great Southern train that travelled down the east coast of Australia, it pulled up at Brooklyn in Melbourne’s west at midnight to swap over train crew.

Crew change for NR30 and NR31 on the northbound run at Brooklyn

And on this Melbourne to Deniliquin freight train, the crew changed over at Echuca.

Crew change at Echuca station

And when trains are delayed, crew who are approaching their maximum shift time sometimes just have to put their train away at a crossing loop, and await a relief crew to arrive by road.

Crew change for G513, S311 and BRM002 at McIntyre Loop on a southbound grain

Another way of splitting shifts for freight services on quieter routes is the “rest job” – where train crew take a train out of the city to the country. They stable the train at the freight terminal for loading, then head off to a local motel to sleep, then return later that day to take the train back to the city.

Reach stacker unloads containers from the train

And the tough transcontinental jobs

As for trains running between Adelaide, Perth and Darwin – better strap yourself in – you’re living onboard the train for the next week!

GWA001 leads FQ03 and VL353 on a northbound Darwin service out of Adelaide at Bolivar

Customer service staff on The Ghan and Indian Pacific work a week on / week off FIFO-style roster out of Adelaide.

Almost home: NR75 leads the Adelaide-bound Ghan through Two Well

Living onboard the train as it takes them all the way to Perth, Darwin or Sydney – and back.

Working one week on, one week off, commencing your week on either Sunday or Tuesday, you’ll be engaged part-time. The days can be long but will feel like they’re going fast. The job is physical but dynamic.

Train drivers on these routes also live onboard their train for days at a time, sleeping and eating meals in a self-contained carriage coupled up behind the locomotives.

SCT015 and SCT006 leads a crew car and online refuelling tanker on the SBR/SCT ore train

The practice is known as relay working, and dates back to the early days of the Central Australia Railway and North Australia Railway systems.

As they made their way to the north of Australia.

Relay vans were used on all narrow gauge trains operating on the CAR and NAR systems thus allowing for four engine crew and two guards to work between Stirling North and Alice Springs, Darwin to Larrimah and Frances Creek in relay without the need for rest houses being constructed.

However recent research has shown relay working isn’t conductive to quality sleep.

Relay working operations typically require two crews of train drivers to work a rotating 8-h schedule for two or more days. While one crew is driving, the other has the opportunity to sleep onboard the train.

The current study investigated the impact of relay work on drivers sleep quantity and quality. Fourteen drivers wore wrist activity monitors and completed sleep/wake diaries for 3 d prior to and during short (<48 h) relay trips.

Drivers obtained an average of 7.8 h sleep per night while at home, and an average of 4 h sleep per opportunity during the relay trip.

Sleep obtained in the relay van was associated with longer sleep onset latencies, lower efficiency and poorer subjective quality than sleep at home. During the relay trip, drivers obtained significantly more sleep during opportunities that occurred in the evening, than those that occurred early morning or during the day.

These findings suggest that while drivers are able to obtain sleep during short relay operations, it is of poorer quality than sleep obtained at home.

Further, the timing of the sleep opportunities during the relay trip impacts on the quantity and quality of sleep obtained.

But research shows that the poor sleep was still “good enough”.

Overall, drivers reported that they felt more alert following each sleep period.

Drivers were able to sustain attention during the 10-min vigilance tasks administered before and after each shift.

These findings suggest that the amount of sleep obtained in crew vans during short relay operations is sufficient to maintain alertness during the trip.

As you might guess, the push towards relay working came from train operators, not staff.

Relay operations are normally undertaken in remote and isolated areas, and generally involve trips that are greater than 30 h in duration.

In many Australian states, relay working has been introduced to facilitate the delivery of goods around-the-clock and year-round.

While relay operations are often considered cost-effective and practical, there is widespread concern that relay work has a detrimental impact on the drivers sleep and performance.

One rail operator justifying the practice to their employees in their enterprise agreement.

The following characteristics are used as a basis for but not the limit of any decisions to introduce relay working:
13.1.1 The remoteness of the operation; and
13.1.2 The distances travelled. Relay working is best suited to long distance trips; and
13.1.3 The viability of establishing crewing depots at appropriate locations and being able to staff those depots.

Relay working is not designed to eliminate existing depots or to force the relocation of existing employees.

With the reason for train drivers to adopt the practice – extra pay.

During a relay operation time spent working will be paid at the employee’s rate for the day inclusive of weekend work payment if applicable.

During the relay operation time spent resting or sleeping in the crew van will be paid 100% payment whilst resting.

Enough compensation from being away from family and friends for weeks – that’s your own choice to make.

Footnote: Metro Trains Melbourne

Metro Trains Melbourne does things a little differently – their rosters are grouped into day and afternoon shifts, with each one having a different start and finish time. The most visible shift changes are at Flinders Street Station, where trains sit in the platform for a few minutes.

Looking across 10 empty platforms at Flinders Street Station

But drivers also take over trains at stabling yards, when based at crew depots called “outstations”.

Comeng trains stabled in the yard at Calder Park

And despite a kerfuffle back in 2012 over the decentralisation of driver depots, changeovers also happen outbound at North Melbourne station.

Driver changeovers for Northern Group trains now occurs at North Melbourne station on the down

And at Clifton Hill.

X'Trapolis 1M arrives into Clifton Hill on a down Mernda service

Train drivers at Metro Trains also work shorter shifts than train drivers interstate, only 8 hours 29 minutes long, due to Victorian regulations that pre-dated the Rail Safety National Law.

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3 Responses to “How many train drivers does it take to drive a train across Australia?”

  1. Tramologist says:

    I’m surprised that Philip ever came up with the question. You don’t drive a car continuously for 10 hours.

  2. Paul says:

    Train drivers going to or from Melbourne to Dimboola or Junee go to rest at a motel or barracks before returning. Preparation or stabling time at Melbourne ensures the shift is too long to be doing a return trip in one go.

    Relay working has a time limit before the crews must completely leave the train. This means a late running Darwin train can see the Port Augusta crew replaced at Katherine by a Darwin crew on occasion, with the Port Augusta crew then going to a Katherine motel for rest. The luckiest time this happened was when the train got washed away at Katherine a few years back. The Darwin crew got through okay on their loco but the crew van was washed off the bridge and ended up submerged, wedged underneath the bridge. Lucky the Port Augusta crew was not on board or they would have drowned.

    Metro Melbourne drivers do have some shifts that are longer than eight hours. The times are gradually creeping up.

  3. Damien says:

    Only twice did we run a train that required us to work longer than 12-hour shifts, on both occasions this was because of loco failures (firstly near Elphinstone on the Bendigo line, the other on St.Arnaud bank on the Mildura line). in each case, we needed a relief loco/s to come from Melbourne/Maryborough to attach to our loaded train and provide enough horse-power to get us up the incline. Once the locos were attached and our shift time expired, we were just passengers really as the relief crew ran the train until we exited at Tottenham yard from the Bendigo run (it was a rostered Melbourne rest job), and the other at Maryborough, our home depot.

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