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LOCOMOTIVE drivers leaving Brisbane for Sydney will soon no longer have to stop their trains six times before they reach Casino to get out and manually change signals.
A new rail era began yesterday with the signing of the first contract to be awarded under the $1.4 billion plan to drag the Brisbane-Sydney-Melbourne rail corridor into the 21st century.
Pittsburgh-based Union Switch & Signal, a subsidiary of Italy's Ansaldo Signal, will be paid $134 million to modernise train control in the Hunter Valley and on the North Coast line in NSW, under a deal with the Australian Rail Track Corp.
ARTC was formed under an agreement between federal and state governments, and controls the main interstate lines from Kalgoorlie to Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.
Centralised train control rather than manual signals will be installed between the Brisbane freight depot of Acacia Ridge and Casino, as well as between Muswellbrook and the Ulan colliery.
Among the other 100 rail projects on the ARTC's to-do list are a new bridge over the Murrumbidgee River to replace the existing 1880s structure, and more than 200km of track duplication along parts of the existing single-track, standard-gauge line between Junee in southern NSW and Melbourne, to speed up train crossings.
But Australasian Railway Association chief executive Bryan Nye warned that this first contract was only the beginning of the upgrade process.
"You can't snap your fingers overnight," he said. "This contract won't take much freight off the road."
The renaissance of rail, and trains taking freight off the road, was a long process.
"But it's an exciting time to be in the industry," he said.
ARTC forecasts indicate that, by 2010, rail will need to be carrying 4.8 million tonnes a year between Sydney and Brisbane - the equivalent of 120,000 semi-trailer journeys.
ARTC managing director David Marchant said that if the upgrading of the main north-south line through NSW had not gone ahead, the railway would have continued to lose market share and its losses would have mounted. "It would have become an albatross to the people of NSW," he said.
ARTC expects to announce the second contract, for track upgrading, within a week.
Mr Marchant said ARTC was locking in alliances for up to three years along with prices and costs. ARTC expected all the upcoming infrastructure upgrading on ports, petroleum installations, coal loading and other engineering to push up prices of work in the next few years.
The $1.4 million project is being financed by a $550 million federal grant, the remainder coming from ARTC revenues from rail-line fees and borrowing.
In addition, the federal Government's AusLink program had allocated a further $550 million for rail connections to ports.
Mr Marchant said the $1.4 billion would not make the railway state of the art.
"It just gets us up to be able to function in a way that the market wants it to function."
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