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AUSTRALIA'S rail network corporation is testing systems that would allow longer coal trains to run closer together through the Hunter with "significantly reduced direct human intervention" in response to mining industry complaints it is not meeting capacity demands.
The Federal Government-owned Australian Rail Track Corporation's 2019 Hunter Valley Corridor Capacity Strategy released on Friday acknowledged there are currently more train sets in use "than the theoretical efficient fleet" leading to trains being "parked-up" along the world's largest coal export supply chain.
Capacity problems, exacerbated by recent derailments, have led to coal stockpiling at the giant Ulan, Moolarben and Wilpinjong mines, while Ulan owner Glencore has objected to a new Bylong coal mine because the single track Gulgong to Sandy Hollow rail line is already contracted beyond its theoretical capacity.
But ARTC proposals to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to increase capacity and productivity have been strongly criticised by environment and community groups after the strategy acknowledged a decline in prospective coal volumes to Newcastle Port terminals from 2023.
Contracted export coal volumes were 193.5 million tonnes per annum in the last three months of 2018 and remained "essentially stable at approximately this level until export volumes start to decline in 2024, falling to 152 million tonnes per annum in 2026 and holding constant from there", the strategy said.
Future: A coal stockpile in the Hunter. A new strategy proposes changes to improve coal capacity and productivity along the coal corridor.
Contracted volumes include up to 10.1 million tonnes per annum of domestic coal, with traffic from the Hunter to Central Coast power stations which "declines to 8.8 million tonnes per annum in 2021 and to zero in 2026".
The Hunter Valley Corridor Capacity Strategy outlines track investment options based on three coal volume scenarios - contracted, prospective and most likely.
Lock the Gate Alliance campaign coordinator Georgina Woods said the capacity strategy showed the Hunter and NSW faced "a fork in the road" in the next five years as global demand for coal slowed in response to global warming.
"According to the mining companies' committed contracts, export volumes of Hunter coal may begin to decline from 2023. Controversial coal mines like Watermark on the Liverpool Plains or the Bylong proposal are not yet locked in to contracts with the rail operator," Ms Woods said.
"We can invest the money ARTC is proposing to waste on hastening coal exports or create new jobs that are not at risk of vanishing when demand for Hunter coal declines."
The ARTC 2019 strategy document detailed two new projects - a real time data process allowing digital train planning, and a train-to-train communications-based system that will allow trains to run closer together without fixed signals beside the track. The system also enables automatic braking of a train.
This article first appeared on www.theherald.com.au
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