The Queensland North Coast line – yesterday, today and tomorrow

Dr Philip Laird

The North Coast line was constructed over many years. By 1900, railways extended from Brisbane to Gladstone, and small isolated sections included a tramway built and operated from Cairns to Gordonvale by the Cairns Shire Council. This tramway was taken over by Queensland Rail in 1911. In December 1923 the railway was linked from Brisbane to Townsville and twelve months later it reached Cairns.

Much of the line was built to basic standards. Over the years, some wooden bridges were replaced in steel, and the Rockhampton-Gladstone section was upgraded from the 1960s for coal exports from Blackwater.

Even up to 1986, the Brisbane–Cairns line was known for its low axle loads (15.75 tonnes) and speed restrictions. As part of the civil works carried out in association with Brisbane-Rockhampton electrification during the 1980s (Stage 4 of Main

Line Electrification or MLE), four major deviations were constructed at Eumundi, Gympie, Maryborough and south of Gladstone with a combined length of 42 km. As a result, the transit times for freight trains between Brisbane and Rockhampton were reduced whilst train loads were lifted.

The Main Line Upgrade

From 1992 to 1997, an extensive Main Line Upgrade (MLU) program was under way. MLU included the acquisition of 250 new container wagons and 40 new-generation 3,000 hp locomotives and upgrading of bridges for heavier axle loads. Here, 672 old timber bridges between Brisbane and Cairns were replaced with concrete bridges or box culverts whilst other bridges were strengthened.

The MLU program included no fewer than 45 rail deviations with a combined length of about 120 km. All MLU deviations south of Rockhampton were completed in October 1996 when the 8.3 km Tandur-Meadvale deviation was commissioned. Two other major MLU deviations are of note, each with ruling grades of 1 in 90 and no curve tighter than 2,200 metres. One was the 8 km Gunalda deviation that replaced a 10 km section with 4.7 km of tight curves. This reduced the section transit time of the Inter City Electric train by seven minutes from eleven to four minutes. The tilt train takes three minutes. The other was the 12.5 km Watalgan deviation. As noted by a 1996 QR Facts Sheet, this project “… eased the grade restrictions between Brisbane and Rockhampton and permits trailing loads to be significantly increased.” Over 95 per cent of the Brisbane and Rockhampton track was re-laid on concrete sleepers. This was subsequently extended to Townsville.

The reasons for the MLU project as seen in a 1994 paper by project manager Ross Hunter were: “Without substantial upgrading, the quality of rail freight services possible could not keep pace with the quantum improvements enjoyed by our major competitor, road transport. … The Mainline Upgrade Project is targeted at improving services and picking up market share, and reducing the costs of providing these services to enable rail to compete more effectively on price.”

The length of track between Brisbane and Rockhampton was some 1,341 km in 1986. Following MLE, MLU and track changes at Bowen and Mackay this distance was reduced by 26 km.

Benefits for freight and passengers

Track upgrading work under MLE and MLU allowed the maximum weight of a freight train behind a locomotive to be progressively increased, in various stages, from 760 tonnes to 1,500 tonnes. Brisbane-Cairns axle loads increased from 15.75 to 20 tonnes and freight transit times fell from 40 to 27 hours.

As a result of the improved train operations, QR was able to maintain freight tonnages and livestock traffic on its NCL. This was at a time when rail freight operations came under increased competition from road freight. Along with faster and heavier trains, the completion of MLU resulted in an improvement in reliability of freight train movements. In addition, MLU provided track infrastructure of sufficient quality to support competition between rail freight operators on the Brisbane-Cairns corridor.

As noted in the 2006 AusLink draft Brisbane-Cairns corridor strategy, rail was recently winning some 25 to 30 per cent of the intermodal freight on this corridor (over 6 million tonnes per annum), and more on the longer hauls. This compares very favourably with rail’s market share on the Brisbane-Sydney and the Sydney-Melbourne corridors (both less than 9 per cent).

Without the upgrading of the Queensland NCL since the mid 1980s, rail’s market share of Brisbane-Cairns freight would be less than 10 per cent. The costs would include many more trucks on the Bruce Highway and a higher cost of living in Far North Queensland.

The benefits of MLU were not restricted to freight. To travel between Brisbane and Rockhampton, passenger trains in the mid 1980s took some 14 hours. In November 1998, electric tilt train services taking 7 hours commenced. These tilt trains proved remarkably successful, and within three years of operation, had conveyed one million passengers and provided competition to regional aviation. In May 2000, one tilt train on a special trial set a new Australian speed record of 210 km/h. In 2003, a diesel tilt service between Brisbane and Cairns was introduced.

The Calboolture–Landsborough upgrade

The Calboolture-Landsborough section is single track with intermediate crossing loops. This 54 km section is now the most congested section of single rail track in Australia. The congestion has resulted in freight train curfews in peak hours, extending tilt train transit times and the use of a Caboolture-Nambour ‘railway’ bus. Planning to duplicate the line on improved alignment goes back to the 1990s.

After some delay, work started in July 2006 on straightening and duplicating 14 km of rail line between Caboolture and Beerburrum. As noted, ( this project is currently due to be completed by mid 2009, and will include some road realignments, as well as upgrades to two rail stations. It is one of several SEQIPRAIL infrastructure projects being delivered by QR via a program alliance (TrackStar) with the private sector. The project to date includes earthmoving and construction of two rail bridges, and is now ahead of schedule.

After the above project is completed, the single track line between Beerburrum and Landsborough (17km) is planned to be straightened and duplicated. Given the delays to date and the single track rail congestion, this work should be expedited.

Additional lines are planned between Landsborough and Nambour and Beerwah and Maroochydore over the next 20 years.

More track straightening ?

Despite the gains made in upgrading the Queensland NCL, the Brisbane – Cairns track still has significant speed constraints. As noted in the 2006 AusLink Brisbane – Cairns corridor strategy (p19), “Despite major below-rail investment over the last decade, the NCL continues to suffer from low operating speeds along its length, due to poor track alignment and other factors such as ageing timber bridges and the prevalence of level crossings. While there have been deviations constructed as part of NCL upgrades, the horizontal alignments and vertical grades between Nambour and Bundaberg remain poor and are a major impediment to attaining any further improvement in transit times and train length.”

As noted by a 2007 House of Representatives Standing Committee on Transport and Regional Services (the Neville Committee – page 103) report entitled “The Great Freight Task: Is Australia’s transport network up to the challenge?”, a submission by the Railway Technical Society of Australasia also indicated that there is a “demonstrable need to expedite Caboolture-Landsborough duplication and re-alignment and to start planning for other rail deviations and bridges…”.

As an example, the bridge on the Burnett River near Bundaberg “…is now subject to a 15 km/h ‘flat’ speed restriction (i.e. no acceleration or braking)” and is in need of early replacement.

The Neville Report (p 128) also found that “… the greatest need for Australia is the reconstruction and realignment of the main freight networks. This would:

• allow faster speeds and greater axle loads;

• clear the way for longer trains and double stacked containers;

• make it possible to reduce the steepness of grades, straighten lines and remove loops; and

• allow for the elimination of many level crossings.”

Such track upgrading could be accompanied by a program to progressively extend the length of crossing loops to allow for longer freight trains.

Most NCL ‘permanent’ speed restrictions are now due to tight-radius curves. There are approximately 550 curves of radius less than 800 metres between Landsborough and Townsville and no less than 30 per cent of this track is laid on such curves. A minimum curve radius of 800 metres is necessary to sustain normal train running operations at 90 km/h on narrow gauge track.

As a result of the excessive curvature, freight train operations are adversely affected south of Maryborough West and the tilt train averages only 66 km/h. This compares unfavourably with average speeds exceeding 100 km/h between Bundaberg and Rockhampton.

Clearly, more rail deviations are needed south of Maryborough West. By way of example are the sections at Paterson and from Potts Creek to Pumphouse Creek. The tight curves on these sections require the northbound Sunlander and freight trains to have their brakes applied for around 4km on a long downgrade before a 40km/h curve at about 218 km. The proposed deviation would give transit time savings plus fuel/power and other savings.

However, some locations have speed restrictions for special reasons including just north of Rockhampton station where trains move along the centre of Denison St at 25 km/h. Here, a bypass of Rockhampton with a new bridge (and station) is needed.

Lower external costs and fuel use

External costs were addressed in the 2001 ARTC Track Audit that gave unit estimates for “… noise pollution, air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, congestion costs, accident costs, and incremental road damage costs” for road and rail freight in both urban and non-urban areas.

These unit estimates were later revised and a recent paper of this writer found that a Main Line Upgrade Completion program (MLC) could allow rail to win 50 per cent of corridor line haul freight. This would result in a reduction in external costs of about $50m per year. With rail being some three times more energy efficient than road for line haul, an MLC program would save at least 30 million litres of diesel (80,700 tonnes CO2-e greenhouse gas emissions) each year.

Use of electric traction between Brisbane and Rockhampton could save an additional 20 million litres of diesel per year.


The Brisbane-Cairns corridor is a major contributor to Queensland’s economic activity. For most of its length, the Bruce Highway is a two-lane highway. The Queensland North Coast railway line plays an important role in moving freight and passengers within the corridor. Rail’s market share of at least 25 per cent on the Brisbane-Cairns corridor is about triple that on the Brisbane-Sydney and the Sydney-Melbourne corridors.

Rail’s superior performance on the Queensland North Coast line was only made possible the by track upgrades of the 1980s in connection with Main Line Electrification, the Queensland Main Line Upgrade program of the 1990s and subsequent track upgrades. Without these upgrades, there would now be many more trucks on the Bruce Highway and a higher cost of living in Far North Queenland.

Work is nearing completion to duplicate Calboolture-Beerburrum on an improved alignment and should proceed without delay to Landsborough. Further upgrading of the Queensland North Coast line including track straightening from Landsborough to at least Maryborough West is now needed and should receive some Federal funding. Such an investment would reduce operating costs, fuel use, greenhouse gas emissions and external costs and help keep the cost of living down in Central and Far North Queensland.

Attention is also needed to replacing older bridges including the Burnett River near Bundaberg and bypassing Rockhampton.

Dr Philip Laird works with the Faculty of Informatics at the University of Wollongong. This article is an edited and updated version of a paper given at the 2008 Australian Rail Summit. The full paper is available on request from the writer at


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