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July 23, 2009

Roney sets out heavy-haul vision

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Michael Roney, general manager, technical standards, with Canadian Pacific Railway, was elected chairman of the International Heavy Haul Association (IHHA) at its ninth conference in Shanghai, China, in June. David Briginshaw spoke to Roney about the challenges facing heavy-haul railways and his vision for the IHHA.

DURING his acceptance speech as chairman at the closing ceremony of the Ninth International Heavy Haul Conference on June 24, Michael Roney took the opportunity to invite delegates to the next IHHA conference which is being staged in June 2011 in Canadian Pacific's (CP) home town of Calgary.

The 2011 conference will be a specialist technical session with the theme of "Railroading in Extreme Conditions" that will explore railway best practices at maintaining high service reliability no matter what conditions Mother Nature serves up. The conference venue at the base of the Rocky Mountains will give Roney and his colleagues the opportunity to demonstrate excellence in North American heavy-haul railway operations.

mike-roney.jpgRoney started by highlighting some of the challenges which face heavy-haul railways. "We need to increase productivity by lengthening trains while at the same time avoiding the problems that long trains create such as how to control them, how to maintain fluid railway operations, and how to reduce the delays they can cause to road users at level crossings.

"As an industry, we haven't solved the problem of moving to 40-tonne axleloads, even though the new Fortescue Railway in the Pilbara region of Australia is running 40-tonne axleload trains. Every time we increased the axleload in the past we discovered new problems with maintenance that required a period of adjustment to reach the economic "sweet spot." Running trains at higher axleloads will often find the weak points, such as the integrity of rail welds or weak subgrades. The Finnish idea of increasing the mass per length on a train is interesting, and is likely to be the best first step in moving to either longer trains or heavier axleloads."

Another area which Roney believes needs attention is the question of who controls the supply chain, and whether there is sufficient coordination between the mines, the railway, the ports, and the shipping companies. Many railways find themselves in the middle of a power struggle between the different players involved. "The shippers are getting more sophisticated by playing one railway off against the other," says Roney.

"Global competition is also affecting us, and customers are getting very smart in how they try to drive the price down, which makes it even more important that railways share our technologies aimed at driving efficiencies in operating costs. This means, for example, that we need to be more aggressive at studying ways to reduce fuel consumption, just as we did in the 1970s.

CP, like most North American railways, has been hit by the global economic crisis. Roney says CP's coal business is down by 30% and freight revenues declined 13% in the first quarter. While CP has maintained spending on maintenance, it is holding off on its capital expansion plan. "We have cut $C 80 million ($US 69 million) out of our capital budget this year, and reduced our staff by 2400 positions due to an unprecedented decline in traffic in key markets," says Roney. "But we will be leaner and in a better position than ever when the upturn comes. Even as traffic declined, we reduced variable expenses. It has also given us the opportunity to rethink some of our plans to eliminate capacity bottlenecks on the network with lean production techniques."

Turning to the IHHA itself, Roney believes it has done a good job in mechanical and civil engineering. "I want to see us getting more involved in operations," he says. "We are too engineering oriented, but not so well developed as far as discovering common ground on railway operations is concerned."

During his term of office as IHHA chairman, Roney would like to get more operating people involved in the work of the association. "I would like us to write a heavy-haul railway operating book based on shared experience to go alongside our new Guidelines to best practices for heavy haul railway operations which focuses on infrastructure construction and maintenance issues." The book, along with a CD, was published in time for the Shanghai conference and represents the newest and most comprehensive reference on track and structures infrastructure for heavy axleload, high-tonnage railways.

Work on the new book will start with the treatise on heavy haul operations expected to be developed from invited speakers and papers at the 2011 Calgary conference.

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