The Hunter Valley rail freight network is to undergo a A$1.2bn upgrade over the next five years and will see a substantial increase in coal delivery capacity from the Hunter Valley coal mines to the Port of Newcastle in New South Wales, Australia.

The upgrade programme includes building a third track between Maitland and Whittingham, track strengthening, improving signalling and communications, rectifying the rail-head and bridge-strengthening works.

The Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC) has undertaken the upgrade to meet the growing transportation needs of the coal industry.

Under an agreement signed by the Australian Government and New South Wales in 2004, the ARTC will lease the state’s interstate and Hunter Valley rail networks for the next 60 years.

The ARTC formed the Hunter 8 Alliance with John Holland and GHD to design and construct the Maitland to Whittingham Third Track Project.

“Hunter Valley produces 36% of Australia’s total coal exports.”

The Hunter Valley rail network upgrade is part of the Australian Government’s Nation Building Economic Stimulus Plan. The entire economic stimulus project includes 17 sub-projects inlcuding the Sydney-Brisbane network upgrade, new Melbourne-Junee corridor lines, the Western Victoria track upgrade, the Seymour-Wodonga track upgrade and building extended loops on the Melbourne-Adelaide lines.

Hunter Valley Rail Freight Corridor project

The Hunter Valley Rail Freight Corridor project will increase the export capacity of Hunter Valley coal by expanding the rail capacity of coal delivery to the Port of Newcastle.

The Newcastle port is believed to be the world’s largest coal export port. In 2008, it exported 88.88 million tonnes of coal. The export volume is expected to reach close to 165 million tonnes per annum (mtpa) over the next five years.

Hunter Valley produces 36% of Australia’s total coal exports. The present export coal delivery capacity of the Hunter Valley rail network is around 107mtpa. By 2014, this figure is expected to reach 200mtpa.

Once the Hunter Valley expansion is complete, trains will be able to travel at a speed of 80km per hour, an increase of 20km per hour, and the upgraded bridges will take an axle load of 35t.

Hunter Valley rail network expansion

The Hunter Valley rail network constitutes a track from Port Waratah (Newcastle) to Werris Creek and Ulan via Muswellbrook. The expansion project includes the development of the Liverpool Range new rail alignment, signal system upgrades from Maitland to Branxton, the construction of a third track on the Minimbah Bank, the extension of a double track from St Hellers to Musweelbrook, the development of a third track from Minimbah to Maitland, and the construction of new passing loops at Bylong, Warondi, Aerosol Valley and Radio Hut on the Ulan and Muswellbrook line.

The Hunter 8 Alliance will upgrade the rail network between Maitland and Whittingham.

“The A$1.2bn Hunter Vallery upgrade will meet the growing transportation needs of the coal industry.”

The first phase of this project involves the construction of a third track from Minimbah and Whittingham, while the second phase includes the construction of a third track from Maitland to Minimbah.

Other projects include: the construction of a new arrival road and yard layout enhancements on the Koorang Terminal and Spur; grade separation at Sandgate to separate coal movements to Kooragang Island from the mail line traffic on the Islington and Sandgate track; bridge strengthening, including the replacement of Bowmans Creek Bridge on the Whittingham and Newdell track; and junction and yard improvements on the Whittingham and Newdell track.

Phase I

The $134m Minimbah Third Track was comlpeted in June 2011. It is situated on the eastern side of the Main Northern Line between the New England Highway and the existing track. The track extends for 10.8km from Minimbah Bank 16km south of Singleton, and travels north under the Golden Highway to Whittingham Junction on the north of Range Road crossing.

The track alignment was designed under the phase and a 10.8km drainage line was built. The Range Road level crossing will be closed and a bridge will be built over the rail line. Range and Golden Highway will be realigned and bridges will be built at Golden Highway and Mudies Creek. Signalling and service relocations will also take place during this phase. A new maintenance access track will come up on the western side of the existing mainline.

Phase I work began in July 2009 and completed by June 2011.

Phase II

The $362.8m phase II includes the construction of a 23km track and reconditioning of 9km of existing track from Maitland to Minimbah, passing through Lochinvar, Greta and Branxton railway stations. The construction is expected to be completed by late 2012.

Six overbridges, eight rail underbridges and one pedestrian underbridge will be built. The existing station platforms at Lochinvar, Greta and Branxton will be modified.

Hunter 8 Alliance has also made other proposals under this phase, including the development and modification of access tracks servicing existing rail lines, signalling and infrastructure relocations, and the modification of two existing overbridges and three existing road level crossings.

Hunter 8 Alliance carried out a detailed design and environmental assessment, which was completed and exhibited to public in May 2010.

Construction

“The Hunter Valley expansion will enable trains to travel at 80km per hour.”

The A$28m track duplication from St Hellers to Musweelbrook was completed in August 2009. This involved duplicating a 2km rail track south-east of Muswellbrook, building three under-bridges, track realignment at the Muswellbrook Yard and bi-directional signalling.

Hunter 8 Alliance has started major earthworks, including removing vegetation and installing erosion and sediment controls throughout the site to avert falling of sediment laden water into water courses.

The first turnout has also been installed to mark the start of phase I.

Minimbah Third Track environmental impact

A preliminary environmental assessment found that the development of the Minimbah Third Track will largely affect the aborigines in the surrounding area. This will lead to an increase in noise and vibration levels, and greenhouse gas emissions.

The A$134m phase I was, however, approved in May 2009 by the Minister for Planning under Part 3A of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act, 1979, considering that it would boost the economy by creating jobs and increasing the coal carrying capacity of the lines.