7 months ago



Alternatively, BHPBIO’s Finucane Island provides an ideal opportunity to motorcade trains for several kilometres in or out of their facility on the western side of the harbour. You just have to be careful about keeping out of the way of the endless procession of big 82 wheeler road trains delivering iron ore and other minerals to the port for export. There was not a lot of time to spend time watching some of the big ships coming and going from the busy harbour, but a harbour cruise to see the vessels at close range later during my stay was planned. But a must-see sight is the former ‘General Pershing Zephyr’ rail carriage situated in a park off the main street of the central business district. Peter Clark’s fine article that appeared in the October 2017 Railway Digest revealed its intriguing history. At the time of my 2016 visit the car was just an empty shell, having been gutted pending a refit. I took the opportunity to crawl a short way underneath the car to photograph its disc braking system, which must have been advanced for the 1930s. Sentimentality is not a priority in the mining game as I was to discover that the large collection of withdrawn BHPBIO SD40 and AC6000 locos I had stumbled across by chance in August 2014 were shredded into tiny pieces at a local Wedgefield recycling yard just two months later. What had been a full and very satisfying day passed by very quickly, but as arranged, I was home in time for a very early dinner before accompanying Greg into work for what was anticipated to be an interesting evening. Wednesday Night – An Evening At The Port Walking in the door at the FMG depot your attention is immediately drawn to the several large wall-mounted monitors which show a schematic layout of the FMG rail system, and most importantly, the real-time whereabouts of all trains. My fascination is then diverted by Greg’s day shift counterpart wasting little time to enthusiastically inform him during the handover that the crew of the day’s fuel train just reported several wagons had developed ‘flat wheels’. I wasn’t privy to the actual cause or the eventual outcome to resolve that little problem, but Greg took the news in his stride, treating the situation like it being nothing that hadn’t already happened before. Just another one of those challenges to be swiftly confronted and overcome, the same as inevitable locomotive failures, or broken couplings between ore cars. Certainly not the job for someone with a fragile temperament. Another development that had occurred since Greg’s last shift was the short term closure of one of the port’s three dumpers (each known as a Train Unloader or TUL) to allow for planned maintenance, significantly limiting the daily tonnage delivery target which the rail employees take very seriously. Before an FMG employee’s shift can begin, everyone must undergo a mandatory breathalyser test and the results recorded. Regardless of being a visitor, my participation was also required. Then to permit me to undertake a loco cab ride, an “Authority to Travel on Railroad” form is signed off. It is imperative to be aware that the signed authority indemnifies the company against any misfortune that a non-employee may suffer. It doesn’t bear thinking about what that would mean in reality should an unfortunate event actually occur! Circumstances were in my favour when I was teamed up with a driver just starting his 12hr shift. He was tasked with taking charge of a loaded train for the short run down to FMG’s Herb Elliott Port. This 240 car long train with EMD locomotives SD70-711 and SD90-909 upfront had been parked on the main line beside the depot while waiting for one of the two operational dumpers to become available. My driver Geoff would deliver the loaded rake to one of the available dumpers, cut off the locos and bring them back to the provisioning shed for refuelling. In all, an 11 km round trip. FMG’s loco roster consists of fifteen 4,400hp GE Dash-9 44CW’s, twenty-one 4,300hp EMD SD70ACe/LCi’s, and nine 4,300hp re-engined ex-Union Pacific SD90MAC-H’s. A further eight used SD90MAC-H2’s were purchased in late 2014, but these latter units have all been indefinitely withdrawn due to a myriad of issues. The rolling stock fleet consists of more than 3200 Chinese-manufactured ore cars. Ore cars are permanently coupled as pairs, and are assembled into thirteen rakes varying between 240 and 252 cars each, with train lengths ranging from 2.7 km to 2.85 km long. Thirty fuel wagons and an assortment of track maintenance rolling stock completes the collection. On my first attempt to climb the steps of the lead loco from track level, I rediscovered that it can be quite a challenge with the lower portion of the handrails being vertical, seemingly shaped in favour of aesthetics rather than match the sloping angle of the steps. Pulling yourself up requires some careful strategy, particularly when carrying a sizable camera bag and other baggage that could impede a dignified ascent up to the cab. But following the conquering of the first set of steps, it is then straightforward to negotiate the next set of conventional steps leading up into the cab via the door through the loco’s nose, passing by neatly arranged electrical components and the toilet cubicle. Inside the cab, plenty of bottled water is always found to be available along with other essentials such as a kettle, small fridge, and microwave 28 RAILWAY DIGEST

oven. It may not be well known that the GE and EMD built locomotives don’t come standard with these basic creature comforts that would be expected and taken for granted in the 21st century. An SD70’s traditional driver’s control stand is very imposing in comparison to the desktop-mounted controls found on the older GE Dash 9’s, and the driver is all but hidden from anyone sitting in the observer’s seat on the opposite side of the cab. But many drivers prefer the control stand as it allows for a more relaxed driving position, whereas the neater desktop controls encourage a less comfortable, lean forward posture. At 5.30pm with the sun close to setting, Geoff receives clearance from control in Perth to proceed, and the loco throttle is moved to notch 6, setting the vast load of ore rolling towards the port. A very slight downgrade assists with forward progress and our train’s speed slowly builds towards an ambling 25kph. Entering the port balloon loops just 2 km later, the position lights beside the movable frog turnouts indicated the route was set for our train to take the outer circuit through to the No. 1 dumper, or TUL 1, situated 3.5 km further on. Several minutes had passed when the distinctive white compressor cars coupled onto the tail of the preceding rake were reached. It is certainly a unique experience to be gradually closing up to another train and leaving just a short space when there is nearly 40,000 tonnes behind you. However, this is very normal practice that outsiders would not expect. Naturally, great care is exercised, there being little tolerance for negligence. Drivers are very conscious that second chances are rare if it is proven their actions have led to a costly mishap. It was apparent there would be some time before our train could enter the dumper with around twenty cars of the preceding rake still to be tipped. Once the rake ahead had completed being unloaded and having pulled clear, the green signal at the entrance to the dumper shed was activated by the operator in Perth. This indicated it was clear for Geoff to move the train forward through the very tight confines of the TUL 1 rotary tipper at a snail’s pace. By tight, I mean clearances for locomotives in the tipper can be measured in just millimetres. With the first two ore cars correctly positioned, the shunter promptly uncoupled the locos. As soon as the compressor cars were attached at the rear to maintain the air needed to hold off the brakes, the three hour dumping operation could begin. Just a short distance ahead of our locos were the two compressor cars detached from the preceding empty rake, which was by now slowly making its way out onto the main line. It was the task of our locos to push the compressor cars forward 3.5 kms to the stand point at the end of the balloon loop. A full time shunt loco attaches the compressor cars to the arriving loaded rakes, and then collects them again after the departure of empty trains headed back to the mines. Following the shunt loco coming to take them off our hands, the way was then cleared for our locomotives to continue on to the provisioning shed to refuel and receive a quick hose down. While at the shed I captured images of the activities being performed. Apparently past refuelling mishaps have led to there being a 17,000 litre fill limit regardless of the loco type. SD70s and Dash 9s each have 18,000 litre tanks, but the SD90s have a 21,000 litre capacity. This difference had occasionally resulted in the unintended over-filling of the smaller tanks. It was decided that 17,000 litres should become the standard maximum fill limit to always err on the safe side. Kanyirri depot itself possess two very large fuel storage tanks capable of holding six million litres of diesel. Over two million litres of this vital fuel are transported by rail out to the mines several times a week. In 2014 I saw a 24 fuel wagon consist, which amounts to a substantial load, with each unit having a tare weight of 37 tonnes and a capacity of 95,000 litres. Also that night I was offered a special bonus of witnessing up close, the very intriguing unloading task performed by the rotary tipper in the TUL 1 shed. This is something that I missed out on seeing in 2014. Observing the 240 car rake being effortlessly moved forward by the discreet, but very powerful (1.1MW) indexer arm, with pairs of wagons being tipped in the dumper every 88 seconds, is mightily impressive. It is especially amazing when you realise it is all being operated by someone who is performing the task from Perth, 1,300 km away. But it is plainly obvious that the very long rakes endure a relatively violent three hours, with abrupt starting and stopping with each positioning movement. This is despite the coupler slack being significantly lessened by the rigid bars connecting the ore cars into permanent pairs. Any weaknesses in the traditional draw gear are eventually exposed, and it is very likely they will develop during this unloading operation which each rake is subjected to, on average, every 24 hours. When all three dumpers are operating, the delivery of crushed ore is relentless, typically achieving 500,000 tonnes per day. But as TUL 2 on this occasion was undergoing scheduled maintenance which was planned to continue at least until 7.30 the next morning, the daily tonnage total would be greatly impacted. But to coincide with the reduced delivery capacity at the port, the Christmas Creek mine loadout was also closed for routine maintenance. Above left (page 28): Viewed from the popular tourist friendly Redbank Bridge vantage point at Port Hedland, at 12.41pm on Wednesday 31 August 2016, BHPBIO’s EMD SD70’s 4424 and 4326 wait beside Rio Tinto’s evaporative salt pans before entering Point Nelson yard with another load of ore being carried in 268 ore cars. The mid-train locomotives can be seen in the distance, 134 cars back. Right: The loaded rake delivered 90 minutes earlier continues to be unloaded in TUL 1 at FMG’s Herb Elliott Port. Seen here from a walkway above the shed entrance, the rake is pushed and then precisely positioned in the rotary tipper by the 1.1 MW indexer unit utilising a retractable arm and a rack and pinion drive, moving the ore cars forward two at a time every 88 secs. The retractable arm is just visible between the two nearest ore cars FEBRUARY 2018 29

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