Guest tells of driving the longest trains in the world

Monday 13 May, 2013

When he visited Warrane on 1 May 2013, engineer John Ovens gave Warrane residents an insight into why someone who worked for many years in heavy industry would switch to driving trains for a living.

Mr Ovens, an engineering graduate of UNSW who previously worked in design, installation and commissioning roles, had a "seachange" and joined a small rail company which freighted shipping containers out of Port Botany in Sydney. But after several years he was attracted by the pay and conditions in BHP’s mining operations in the Pilbara region of Western Australia and since 2008 has been driving iron-ore trains from the mines to port over a distance of more than 400 kilometres.

One of the main attractions, he said, was the working arrangements: “To work two weeks on and two weeks off is fabulous for me.”

With the aid of a few photos projected on a screen in Warrane’s main common room, Mr Ovens showed residents what it was like driving the longest trains in the world – 4,300-horsepower diesel locomotives drawing up to 3.6 kilometres of iron ore cars (about the distance from Warrane to Central Station).

The responsibility is a considerable one. The trains can have up to 336 cars, each carrying 160 tonnes of iron ore. That is 55,000 tonnes of iron ore travelling at speeds of up to 75 kilometres an hour which can take up to one-and-a-half kilometres to bring to a halt. Since Mr Ovens began his job the length of trains has been reduced a little. Most are now only 2.6 kilometres long, but that is still amongst the longest trains in the world

It can also be a dangerous job. Mr Ovens said that accidents weren’t common but they do happen. “Because of the huge weight, it is possible to break the links between the cars,” he said. “Accidents can be due to a broken rail or mechanical failure, or even human error” Mr Ovens said. “You don’t need much to go wrong for things to just go completely astray.” In this industry, safety is always improving.

Most of the ore is loaded directly on to boats when it reaches the port. Any excess is stockpiled by a stacker which is now controlled by operators in a control room in Perth – 2000 kilometres away. “Which is great, until someone digs up the optic fibre cable and everything grinds to a halt…”

When he is working in Western Australia, Mr Ovens lives in a 2,000-man camp situated in Port Headland which has a population of 10,000 and an international airport.

“There is quite an anomaly with the housing situation there,” he said. “Houses are selling for a million dollars. Old houses cost $1,500 per week to rent. A decent house rents for $2,500 per week. So there are a lot of housing issues. “People ask: ‘Why don’t they build more houses?’ Well, BHP is in the business of making and selling iron ore. They are not in the business of making houses. So what they do is put in these camps to house the FIFO (Fly-in-Fly-out) workers. The camp has a mess in which 500 people can sit at a dinner sitting and a wet mess. They have a squash court, tennis court, gym and swimming pool. So it is well equipped.”

But the challenges of FIFO working doesn’t suit everyone. Mr Ovens said many interstate workers dropped out after only a few months.“You have to be able to cope with shift work, travel away from home and so on,” he said.

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