Asciano's new train of thought

The road ahead is not all smooth sailing, but Asciano's new pit-stop approach to coal haulage should translate to great savings and growth opportunities.

In a highly competitive and challenging environment, Asciano is thinking outside the box. Way outside.

The ports and rail operator's latest achievement is a train maintenance facility based in the sleepy town of Nebo, Queensland, built to serve the needs of its coal haulage division, Pacific National Coal.

It all came from one simple idea – to employ a pit-stop style approach.

The brainchild of General Manager Geoff Featherstone, who came to the company from rival QR National, the idea is to have maintenance-synchronised operations.

Traditionally, when a train needed servicing, it would go to a maintenance facility where it would be taken apart, and different components would be worked on separately. When completed, each component would then have to be re-fitted onto the train. The whole process would take about two weeks.

Pacific National Coal's pit-stop approach should mean that a train rolls in and maintenance is carried out on the spot. So a team can get the train back on track within two to three days.

Speaking at the launch, Featherstone said that the objective of this facility is to increase asset utilisation.

Less wasted time, more trains on the tracks hauling coal from mines.

This should translate to great savings and growth opportunities, as the same number of trains can be used to haul more coal.

"The best way to measure the success of these sorts of facilities is that you can take on more growth with fewer trains.

Or to put it simply, move more coal with the trains you've already got.

"The more effective we can be here, and the way in which we maintain our fleet, is all designed to create more availability," Featherstone said.

Long-term sustainability was also key in the development of the facility, along with the need to ensure adequate consultation with locals on any possible issues, and to work to keep the impact on the environment to a minimum.

Although Asciano is paving the way with its innovative thinking, not all of its projects have been received with such enthusiasm.

Recent controversy with unions over its plans for Port Botany have taken away from the fact that by focusing on innovation and productivity, the company is streets ahead of its competitors.

And while its operations may be small in comparison to rivals Hutchison and DP World, Asciano's approach of focusing on safety, efficiency and productivity sets it apart.

By embracing the technology available to achieve such standards, the company is inviting criticism from unions and interest groups who will lose out.

But by engaging with employees and looking at the options of voluntary redundancy as well as deployment of a proportion of staff to other areas of the company, Asciano is trying to mitigate the impact of its decision to move forward with automation. And the company is adamant that the Port Botany project will be going ahead, despite union concerns.

And Asciano will be hoping the conversion can also shift its fortunes on the stock market. Since March the stock has fallen almost 10 per cent, from a high of over $4.92 to a current price of $4.48.

Cliona O'Dowd travelled to Queensland courtesy of Asciano.

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