8 months ago


North West Frontier –

North West Frontier – Revisited Text and images by Alan Graham On a purely personal level, 2014 was an extra special time for rail adventures that will be long remembered. I rode aboard the last steam-hauled train into the now closed Newcastle station, and finally made the effort to book a sleeper berth aboard Queensland Rail’s Westlander, travelling to Charleville barely a week before the M series sleeper cars were withdrawn from service. But ranking highly amongst life’s best moments was the very rare privilege of experiencing loco cab rides aboard some of the iconic iron ore trains of Western Australia’s Pilbara Region. Perhaps near the pinnacle of many a rail enthusiast’s fantasy bucket list? Some readers may have read an account of my 2014 Pilbara trip featured in the ‘North West Frontier’ article, published in the April 2015 edition of Railway Digest. In my closing remarks I hinted that another visit might be possible if the right circumstances permitted. By mid-2016, thoughts of returning to the Pilbara became more compelling after renewed contact with my long-time good friend Greg who continued to be employed by the Fortescue Metals Group (FMG) as a locomotive driver based in Port Hedland WA. Being one of the few remaining resident FMG drivers, he conveyed that I was welcome to again stay at his home if I made the decision to trek back over before he and his wife Julie made good on their intention to move back to Queensland. Not only would I again have free accommodation for a week, he would kindly arrange more locomotive cab rides on FMG iron ore trains for me! Given the certainty of cab rides, including perhaps a journey along FMG’s scenic 123 km-long Solomon line, I would be exceedingly foolish to not take advantage of such an amazing opportunity before Greg succumbed to joining the popular ranks of the Fly In – Fly Out (FIFO) brigade. Changes At FMG Since 2014 Iron ore prices throughout 2014 remained reasonably healthy (up to US$90 per tonne), although a very long way short of the US$187 per tonne peak being achieved in February 2011. Many FMG rail employees Above: As seen from the purpose-built lookout constructed by FMG on the western side of the Great Northern Hwy overpass, EMD SD70-705 and GE Dash 9-013 lead an empty FMG train out of Herb Elliott Port as it approaches the nearby Kanyirri depot, at 11.46am on Wednesday 31 August 2016. at that time continued to be encouraged and generously assisted to live locally in Port Hedland as residents, helping to provide maximum benefit to the local community. But a sudden collapse in iron ore prices (down to a low of US$40 per tonne in December 2015) led to selected company-provided benefits and ideals being curtailed. The downward trend in prices were in part caused by the big two players, BHP Billiton Iron Ore (BHPBIO) and Rio Tinto, choosing to over supply the market and make life tough for their smaller rivals. But those tough times led to greater resilience amongst the surviving companies which are now better able to weather future upsets. FMG itself reluctantly adopted a greater preference for FIFO workers rather than continue to provide the subsidies necessary to retain them as residents. As was originally feared by the company when first founded, the inevitable consequence of a FIFO workforce is that the sense of community in Port Hedland has diminished along with property prices, which have crashed due to a housing glut. Very little of the money earned by the workers finds its way to the local economy when virtually all their needs are provided for by the company at the camp. Despite political calls for the practice to be discontinued, FIFO is an Australian lifestyle that is well and truly here to stay. As an aside, it is intriguing to learn of the distances travelled by the Pilbara’s mobile FIFO workforce which number well into the thousands. Many ‘commute’ via Perth to and from Australia’s east coast either weekly or fortnightly, depending on their occupation. But living overseas presents no obstacle for the more adventurous either. Remarkably, countries such as the Philippines and Bali have become the home of choice for some, despite the seemingly long journeys involved. 26 RAILWAY DIGEST

That said, Bali is in reality just three hours flying time from Perth, closer than the Australian east coast centres. Since the tough days of late 2015, the iron ore price has bounced between US$55 and US$70 per tonne for an extended period, and is expected to remain within this range as long as demand from China’s insatiable steel mills doesn’t diminish. But despite the changes in philosophy due to financial considerations, to its credit, FMG has continued to maintain an indigenous workforce level of at least 15%. This factor being a firm commitment initiated by the FMG company founder and chairman Andrew Forrest that will likely stand in perpetuity. The company also respects the diverse cultural needs of its indigenous employees, which can sometimes make filling shift rosters a challenge. Tuesday – Arrival In Port Hedland With anticipation replacing the trepidation that was felt last time while travelling alone to this then unknown and distant destination, I landed in Port Hedland on Tuesday 30 August 2016 after once again taking the weekly five hour direct Qantas flight from my hometown of Brisbane. That afternoon was spent simply socialising and settling in at Greg and Julie’s South Hedland home. No sight-seeing was planned until after a good night’s rest. Helping to lull me off to sleep in a strange bed that night, BHPBIO’s Finucane Island line being just a few hundred metres away, provided the soothing sound of hundreds of ore car wheels humming along on well-grinded rail every hour or so. Wednesday – Taking In The Local Sights Wednesday provided the chance to be reacquainted with some familiar local places of interest. Fortunately my hosts very kindly made their faithful Ford Ranger utility available to me for touring the region as I pleased once more. But a close eye needed to be kept on the time, as later in the day Greg had offered for me to join him during the early part of his overnight shift as an acting driver supervisor at FMG’s Kanyirri depot beginning at 5pm. Compromising Greg’s perfect punctuality record would be a blight on the friendship. Success was achieved in seeking out the new Roy Hill marshalling yard and loco depot (anything to do with their railway or mine is always referred to by locals as ‘Gina’s’) on the south-western outskirts of town. GE ES44ACI series loco RHA1001 bearing the name ‘Ginny’ was found conveniently parked where it could be readily seen up close, albeit behind a fence. Twenty one of these 4,400hp locos were constructed by GE Transportation in Erie, Pennsylvania, USA and shipped to Port Hedland in 2015. Company chairman of Hancock Prospecting, Gina Rinehart, named RHA1001 after her loyal youngest daughter, Ginia. RHA1002 is also named, bearing the identity ‘Ginbata’ after the Roy Hill mine airport. Roy Hill employ 232 ore car rakes in a 2 x RHA locos + 116 car + 1 x RHA loco + 116 car distributed power arrangement. Loaded trains are banked using two RHA locos at the rear for the first 30 kms from the mine. An annual export figure of 55 million tonnes per annum (mtpa) is expected, with each trainload delivering just over 31,000 tonnes of ore, five times per day. Located a further 8 kilometres west of the marshalling yard are Roy Hill’s ore car dumping and iron ore stockyard facilities. Ore from the stockpiles is sent 3.2 km kilometres to their two shipping berths on the harbour by a very prominent overhead conveyor system. The extensive bridge-like structure dominates the flat landscape and has you pondering at the first sighting as to what it actually is. Similar to Roy Hill’s major competitors, virtually all functions performed at the port end, except for the loading of the ships, are conducted from a remote operations centre in Perth. Autonomous train operations between the mine and port have been hinted as a possible future development, but it is likely Rio Tinto’s difficult experiences with their still ongoing and very expensive long term development of such advanced technology will determine that outcome. Although, it is claimed by manufacturer GE that their new RHA locos were delivered with the ability to be locally operated by a driver on the ground using a portable remote control unit when required. Recapping from my previous article, both FMG and BHPBIO each have lookouts and picnic shelters to allow tourists to observe their trains passing by at close quarters. The long-established lookout at the Redbank Bridge is far more popular as it carries the main road into Port Hedland over the BHPBIO rail line very close to their extensive Nelson Point yard. From here, BHPBIO’s exclusive fleet of EMD SD70ACe/ LCi 4,300hp locos in their attractive ‘Bubble’ livery, or simple BNSF orange which is better known as ‘Pumpkin’, are regularly seen with a loaded train waiting to enter the busy yard. Their 268 car consists use distributed power utilising two locos up front and two mid-train. In years past, 336 car trains were once commonplace until the majority of the 426 km line south to Mt Newman became duplicated. The 3.5 km long, 336 car consists also employed distributed power, but with locos at the lead of each of three 112 car rakes. However, unreliable communications between the lead locos and slave locos would often challenge drivers to avoid trains being broken apart and result in costly delays. Sadly, the trusty old iconic ‘Pilbara Cab’ CM40-8M locos from that era, better known simply as Dash 8’s, no longer feature, having all been withdrawn in favour of new SD70’s. But I can be grateful quite a number of them were still operating back in 2014. FMG’s lookout is located on the side of the relatively new Great Northern Highway overpass, which was constructed in partnership with the state government as a condition of FMG’s large $8.4 billion expansion program. It was dubbed ‘T155’ and completed in early 2013. The end result of the project was production capacity being tripled from 45mtpa to 155mtpa. If your timing is right you can witness trains arriving or departing, plus perhaps a light engine movement or two within a short space of time. At 10.44am on Wednesday 31 August 2016, at the southern end of Roy Hill’s Port Hedland marshalling yard, GE ES44ACI series locomotive and class leader RHA1001 Ginny sits alone and shut down. FEBRUARY 2018 27

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