Sometimes it’s nice to not have a specific goal in mind, a specific train to chase or a specific location to shoot at. It is with this idea in mind that frequent companion Todd and I found ourselves touring the busy Hunter Valley coal network on Sunday, no clear goal in mind, just the idea that we wanted to see what we could see.
As my last visit to the region was in April 2019 for Steamfest, and as I’d missed out on Steamfest 2020 thanks to Covid-19 (there’s a phrase we’re unfortunately slowly getting used to, but I digress), it was interesting to revisit the area and compare notes on both visits to see what has changed.
One thing that was immediately apparent was the volume of 90 Class we saw operating – we may have simply been lucky, although based on what we saw when we were not trackside, I suspect not. Over a two hour period at East Maitland we counted five trains hauled by the original Hunter Valley heavyweights – that’s out of a total of seven PN trains. Compare this to a year ago when the 90 Class were becoming rarer and rarer, this is a very encouraging sign for those who remember the Hunter Valley before the rush of private operators arrived to break up the monotony.
Obviously there are enthusiasts far senior to me who will have their eyes glaze over at the mention of such modern horsepower as the 82 and 90 Class, preferring instead to wax lyrical about their days shooting older EMD and ALCo locomotives on the coal traffic until the young whippersnappers (81 Class) arrived to “ruin everything”. However for me, my first introduction to Hunter Valley operations was on a series of visits in 2007 to ride on and record the last few runs of the 620/720 railmotors. During that time, the predominant operator of coal traffic in the region was Pacific National, a task almost exclusively falling to the 82 and 90 Class (with the occasional 81 Class interloper). QRNational would occasionally interrupt this procession of dark blue with one of their five rakes of 5000 Class hauled trains, and who could forget the eclectic mix of PL and 48 Class hauling coal trains from the South Maitland Railway?
As Pacific National continue to have their market share eroded by competitors – certainly Aurizon and OneRail seem to have a stranglehold on a number of high output mines, it seemed that the oldest members of the fleet would be set aside first. Indeed we’ve seen the 82 Class step aside from coal haulage in the valley, their only cameo being the occasional domestic train from Port Kembla steelworks. With the proliferation of newer EMD and GE horsepower (TT, 92 and 93 Class) it seemed as if the 90 Class were running on borrowed time. It was encouraging to not only see a number of trains hauled by the old favourites, but indeed to see that some have been repainted into the modern Pacific National scheme. Until recently, the only 90 Class in the scheme were those built new for PN in 2005. Hopefully they continue to soldier on in service for a few years yet.
One absence that wasn’t immediately remarked upon was the lack of traffic from the South Maitland Railway from Maitland to Cessnock. The Austar mine at Pelton (owned by Yancoal) was placed into care and maintenance in early 2020, with rail operations on the line suspended once the stockpile had been exhausted. This has created the oft-unnoticed but certainly disappointing departure from the valley of the CFCL Australia EL Class and their vintage Pacific National NHTF and NHHF 76t coal hoppers.
A style of train operation commonplace in the Queensland coal fields but only more recently adopted in the Hunter Valley is that of distributed power. For the uninitiated, this involves the use of multiple locomotives throughout the consist, typically with locos at the front and rear with mid-train “helpers”. This is now possible on Hunter Valley traffic through the use of the ECP braking system which requires ECP wiring to run the length of the consist.
Certainly this practice has been embraced by Aurizon, with the majority of their trains now operating in push-pull fashion with the one each of the 5000 and/or 5020 class at either end. The rakes operated by the lighter GE power (6000, 6020, CF and ACB classes) seem to be the only units still grouped at the front of the train. The Pacific National and OneRail trains appear to be operating in the original configuration, although the TT Class have previously been sighted with two locos on the front and one on the rear of the train.
Whilst on the subject of TT Class, the once prolific class have definitely been stretched thin in recent years. Following their introduction in 2009, the class immediately moved to displace 82 Class on trains to the lower Hunter Valley and Ulan Line. It didn’t take long for TT Class and 120t hoppers to replace 82 Class and 100t “bomb bay” hoppers on the heavy trains out of the Narrabri region. With the class numbering 40 units, they seemed to dominate PN Hunter Valley operations in recent years, with sightings of their GE 92 Class counterparts somewhat less common. In recent months, TT Class have slowly escaped the Hunter Valley pool to replace 93 Class on steel and intermodal traffic. A number have also found themselves more or less captive to bulk gravel and limestone traffic out of the quarries at South Marulan. With this recent exodus, it’s left the coal trains in the valley more or less dominated by GE power.
Even though most of the coal traffic destined for Newcastle is export coal, Origin Energy still remain a regular domestic customer for thermal coal with rail deliveries to their power station at Eraring, south of Newcastle. The operation of the trains seems to depend on the supplying mine rather than an individual operator. A year ago it was not uncommon to see a shorter rake of the older 120t “batwing” coal hoppers hauled by a pair of 90 Class running to and from Eraring (Eraring being the furthest south that such heavy locomotives and hoppers can run on the Sydney Trains network without restrictions). Whilst Centennial Coal (with trains hauled by SSR) have been supplying the power station with coal from Lithgow in recent months, Aurizon were observed running a loaded train with a pair of 6000 Class during the time spent at East Maitland.
Originally known as Xstrata, the Glencore coal contract has seen interesting developments since Xstrata first announced a rail haulage partnership with Freightliner in 2009. Commencing in 2010 as “X-Rail”, Freightliner crewed Xstrata owned locomotives hauling Xstrata owned wagons to break the Pacific National/QRNational duopoly. Eventually Glencore would sell the business to Genesee & Wyoming Australia in 2016 for a share in G&W Australia. This was followed by the transfer of GWU Class (similar to the existing XRN Class) from South Australia and the purchase of additional wagons. With the sale of G&W to Brookfield in 2019, the Australian operator was instead sold to a Dutch investment firm to prevent backlash from the ACCC. Rebranded as OneRail, the new owners are already applying the new logo to coal hoppers (some of these hoppers are on their fourth logo change in ten years), although none of the XRN or GWU class photographed exhibited any signs of change.
When CFCL Australia first bought their own C44aci locomotives from UGL Rail in 2011, the first six locomotives built were immediately hired by Pacific National for use on coal haulage. This lasted for a number of years until the units were eventually dehired and they went on to be hired to other operators across Australia. Two of the class were sold to Aurizon in 2016 with CF4401 returning to coal service with sister CF4409. The former was photographed at the tail end of the day now wearing the yellow Aurizon “Canary” livery and working with the similar 6000 and 6020 classes.
For those interested, a table of the days sightings is included for completeness. Trains were sighted passing East Maitland, and later in the day the Singleton to Muswellbrook section.
|ND993||9034/9027/TT120||Pacific National empty coal train from Newcastle to Newdell.|
|BG134||9012/9017/9004||Pacific National loaded coal train from Bengalla to Newcastle.|
|WG917||5003/train/5044||Aurizon empty coal train from Newcastle to Wilpinjong.|
|RV201||XRN028/XRN002/XRN010||OneRail empty coal train from Newcastle to Ravensworth.|
|MO108||XRN012/XRN004/XRN013||OneRail loaded coal train from Mt Owen to Newcastle.|
|BW976||5045/train/5008||Aurizon loaded coal train from Mt Arthur to Newcastle.|
|NB526||9314/9205/9305||Pacific National loaded coal train from Narrabri to Newcastle.|
|MN213||XRN007/XRN019/XRN017||OneRail empty coal train from Newcastle to Mangoola.|
|7BW4||NR114/NR77/NR17||Pacific National SteelLink from Brisbane to Port Kembla via Morandoo. Intermodal loading at front of train.|
|NB521||9303/9311/9204||Pacific National empty coal train from Newcastle to Narrabri.|
|MR926||9031/9033/9026||Pacific National loaded coal train from Moolarben to Newcastle.|
|T433||9013/9015/9018||Pacific National empty coal train from Newcastle to PN Greta.|
|T427||9001/9006/9003||Pacific National empty coal train from Newcastle to PN Greta.|
|ER488||6001/6026||Aurizon loaded coal train to Eraring Power Station.|
|WK991||TT129/TT123/TT126||Pacific National empty coal train from Newcastle to Warkworth.|
|6422||8254/8245/48123||Pacific National loaded sugar/empty cement train from Grafton to Morandoo.|
|UL243||GWU002/GWU005/XRN022||OneRail empty coal train from Newcastle to Ulan.|
|RV202||XRN028/XRN002/XRN010||OneRail loaded coal train from Ravensworth to Newcastle.|
|HV233||9015/9013/9018||Pacific National empty coal train from Greta to Hunter Valley Mine.|
|MB546||6012/6029/6024||Aurizon loaded coal train from Maules Creek to Newcastle.|
|MB945||CF4401/6027/6041||Aurizon empty coal train from Newcastle to Maules Creek.|