Opened in June 2010, the third track between Whittingham Junction (the junction between the Main Northern Line and the Mt Thorley Branch) and Minimbah has increased the capacity of the Hunter Valley coal network, as well as increasingly the reliability of both freight and passenger trains in the area. The advantage of the third track (the up relief) is that it is easier for faster, lighter passenger and freight trains to overtake heavy coal trains on Minimbah Bank. The up relief line is also used to ensure loaded trains on the up main from the mines beyond Singleton do not lose any momentum when a train is transiting from the branch to the up main line.
A third track is currently under construction between Farley and Minimbah, with the first stage (Farley to Greta and Branxton to Minimbah) well underway when I visited the line recently. The second stage will be the addition of a third track between Greta and Branxton.
As well as the third track under construction, the up and down main lines between Farley and Whittingham Junction are bi-directional (with crossovers located at Allandale, Minimbah and Branxton), allowing faster trains to overtake slower trains, and for trains to be placed in the correct order for unloading at the port. Operation of the bi-directional signalling can be readily observed when down passenger trains are due through the section. Often, down freight trains will be brought to Whittingham Junction on either the up or down main line, where the faster passenger train can run through them.
Singleton residents continually campaign for additional train services between Singleton and Newcastle (at the time of writing, there are four daily services between Newcastle and Singleton). With the addition of a third track, this might be realised, given that it would allow passenger trains to effectively compete with the ever-expanding parade of coal traffic that uses the line. Of course, the situation is a classic catch-22 – the reason these areas are booming is because of the coal mining boom, and the reason the tracks are so congested already is… well, because of the coal mining boom!
This development is occurring alongside Pacific National constructing a new maintenance depot at Greta, as well as the construction of The Hunter Expressway (a new freeway between The New England Highway at Branxton and the F3 at Newcastle Link Road).
3237 with an LVR tour train can be seen traversing the up relief line at Whittingham Junction – as can be seen in the background, trains from the Mt Thorley branch (to the left of the shot) can access the up main, while trains from Singleton can easily overtake them without having to wait.
The benefits of bi-di signalling extend beyond passenger trains overtaking slow coal trains – here 9214 is leading a loaded coal train from the Mt Thorley branch in the up direction on the down main to overtake another coal train that has stalled on the grade.
The bi-directional signalling can also be seen in use here, with three TT Class and a rake of empty coal hoppers stopped on the up main (pointing in the down direction) to allow a CityRail service to Scone to overtake. Behind the empty coal train is a Freightliner container train.
Two images showing the extensive earthworks at Pothana, located between Branxton and Minimbah.