Tuesday, May 5, 2009

OZ Day 4(b): Aussie Dispatchin'!


Inside the airy, spacious, uncrowded ARTC Broadmeadow Control Centre: they're not overly concerned about pod walls with pieces of paper stuck on them that "reflect noise" and don't "look professional". . .


PM, Tuesday, April 14: Since Lance and I are train dispatchers here in the states, it's only natural that we'd be curious as to how our counterparts in Australia do the same job. So, with the help of Pacific National yardmaster Gary Nicolle, we were put in touch with Joe Costello, a train controller (dispatcher) for Australian Rail Train Corporation, the company that has the responsibility for scheduling and controlling movements across 4400 kilometers of standard-gauge railway across Western and South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales states.

ARTC was formed in 1997 to administer access and maintenance across the network that had recently been "opened up" to competition among railway operating companies.

ARTS has two control centres in NSW, out in Junee, in far west, and at Broadmeadow, a suburb of Newcastle, around 90 miles north of Sydney. Broadmeadow's responsibility extends from the Queensland border to Newcastle, north and west including the lines to Moree and Tamworth, across to Dubbo and Cobar, and on the Main West line from Lithgow to Parkes and associated branches. The railway from Broadmeadow through Sydney and south to Nowra on the coast, Campbelltown in the southern suburbs, and across the Blue Mountains to Lithgow is administered by RailCorp.

Joe met us at the front door, and after signing in, let Gary, Lance and myself to a very informative tour of the Broadmeadow facility, lasting nearly two hours. We would've stayed longer, but we'd told Charlie and Paul we'd be back to join them for dinner. As we discovered, though, train dispatchers just love to bullshit, compare notes and generally complain about the company, their fellow dispatchers, and the train crews. But in a nice way.

While Broadmeadow is a much smaller facility than our BNSF Network Operations Center, their function is the same. Within one room are train controllers, managers, and support personnel to help smoothly expedite train movements. The office is split up into about a dozen territory desks; some jobs are relatively compact and high-density in train movements, as in the lower Hunter Valley with numerous passenger movements and coal trains in out of the port. Other jobs are somewhat disjointed and their territories are scattered and not always contiguious.


Joe shows us a control train graph. If you know how to decipher this, you can replay the entire day's events on a section of railroad. . .


A close-up of a train graph: diagonal lines are trains moving across the territory. Delays are noted in pen. Red boxes are train authorities--"possessions"--for rail workers. A lot of work, sure, but I bet their dispatchers have a better understanding of what's going on at any one time than most dispatchers in the states. . .

One big difference between BNSF dispatchers and their Aussie counterparts is the planning component. We were surprised to see such a reliance on "train graphs," a representation of traffic across a territory described by lines moving across an X and Y axis representing distance and time. Controllers at Broadmeadow plan out their railroad well in advanced using these graphs which are generated at midnight each day with the "paths" of contracted train movements lightly printed across the sheet. These are the "ideal paths" that these trains will operate upon. Yes, Australian trains are highly scheduled--since the access is "open," each operator must have an equal opportunity to access, and scheduling trains to slots with specific running times between sections, required maximum train lengths, trailing tonnages, and adequate power to move the trains to the schedule are all important for the network to run as planned. It's fascinating to us as purely (well, mostly) reactive train dispatchers to see the railroad unfold in advance on the train graph. Each dispatcher's station includes the big train sheet, numerous colored pens and pencils, a healthy eraser and a drafting triangle.



Overview screen for the train authority computer, automatically updates the location of trains via the GPS on locomotives and advances their location on the graph. . .


The Train Order screen at ARTC. Very similar to our own TWC, but with a lot less repeat scenarios that could result in errors. . .

Their issuance of Train Order authorities was much more streamlined than are cumbersome TWC. The computer generates an automatic authority "key" of five numbers, non-sequential and not specific to district. Once the authority has been given, the number key becomes hidden as a security against accidentally releasing a wrong authority

Communication is done via telephone handsets, not headsets. . .

The issuance of authority through CTC and Train Orders (i.e. Track Warrants) is very similar. The hardware and software is very similar to the TMDS we use (though hopefully much-less error prone!). Unlike our CTC, it appears the ARTC installations permit "call on" restrictive signalling to expedite movements back to trains in switching situations (we have to verbally authorize by a red block). Interestingly, though, the CTC we saw in operation on our trip didn't have intermediate signals, in effect creating a CTC-controlled Absolute Block railroad. On the double- and four-main track Hunter Valley line, dispatchers also controlled a CTC railroad with absolute signals but no crossovers. . in the states, we'd have automatic block intermediates in this instance, and there would be numerous crossovers to "sort" trains out.

Communication is done controller-to-train, instead of controller-to-radio tower-to-train. Each locomotive has a unique radio address the controller to contact, and their precise location is given via GPS. . .
And i'll give the Australians big props on this one: controllers talk with train crews via telephone--when a train is ready to depart, they activiate the radio/telephone on their lead locomotive, which becomes a GPS marker as well. Train controllers contact trains by dialing the lead locomotive. Communication is clear and private, without other interference from hand-held open-access radio channels. Imagine that!

Typical work station, with radio console, and CTC panel displays. . .

ARTC controllers earn about what we do at BNSF. They work 6 1/2 hour shifts, get six-week vacations to start, and rostering according to jobs a controller knows rather than seniority is how shifts are filled. Dispatchers work up from grades 1-4 depending upon knowledge of jobs, and pay is raised accordingly. And the atmosphere at ARTC was very good-natured and low-key: no uptight asshole managers running around with their heads cut off. Dispatchers could wear shorts to work as well. Imagine that! And it didn't effect safety on the trains!

The whole feeling was sort of what the small offices at the BN were like before the merger and office consolidation. I'm wondering if they're hiring. . .and if they include a good moving package!

Another view of ARTC Broadmeadow: looks like a nice work environment.

It was getting late when we cut the tour off. Charlie and Paul had already eaten dinner, and were joined by Stuart Ellis, editor of Motive Power magazine and a driver for Pacific National. The kitchen at the Belmore was soon to close, so we invited Gary and Joe to join us for another round of Schnitzel and phoned in the order so it'd be ready when we got back. You can only imagine, with three drivers, a yardmaster and three dispatchers how much jawbonin' and bull-shittin' were going on until late in the evening in the dining room at the Belmore. It was another great day.

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