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Aurizon 5000 Class locomotive 5008 and 5020 Class locomotive 5021 with an Up coal train, Lochinvar, New South Wales, 8 April 2017.

One Rail Australia GWU Class locomotives GWU012, GWU004 and GWU011 hauling an empty coal train at High Street, near Maitland, 20 December 2021.

Hunter Valley Coal Trains

David Matheson

 24 December 2021

Numerous loaded and empty coal trains pass through the Hunter Valley in New South Wales each day.  It is one of the best places in Australia for observers to see freight trains in action. Lengthy trains are hauled by a variety of locomotive classes, and there is a range of vantage points that are safe and publicly accessible.


Hunter Valley Coal Chain (HVCC)

Coal trains in the Hunter Valley are part of the Hunter Valley Coal Chain (HVCC), which consists of coal producers (or mines), rail haulage operators, railway track manager (Australian Rail Track Corporation), three export terminals, port managers and the Hunter Valley Coal Chain Coordinator.


The Hunter Valley coal chain is the largest coal export operation in the world. Coal is moved distances of up to 450 km. There are approximately 40 coal mines, which are owned by 11 coal producers. Four rail freight operators deliver to three coal terminals, with over 20,000 train movements and more than 1600 vessels loaded each year.


Port Waratah Coal Services and Newcastle Coal Infrastructure Group are two separate companies that are responsible for receiving, stockpiling and loading coal onto vessels for export. Port Waratah Coal Services owns and manages two coal terminals: the Kooragang Coal Terminal is located on Kooragang Island and has a capacity of 120 million tonnes per annum (mtpa); the Carrington Coal Terminal, also referred to as Port Waratah, is located in the suburb of Carrington and has a capacity of 25 mtpa. Newcastle Coal Infrastructure Group owns and operates the Newcastle Coal export terminal, which is also located on Kooragang Island, has a capacity of 70.1 mtpa.


Railway infrastructure

Almost all coal from mines in the Hunter Valley region is transported by rail. A large number of mines are clustered in the area west and north-west of Singleton, including Bulga, Liddell, Mount Arthur, Newdell and Ravensworth. Other mines are located near Gunnedah, Ulan, Cessnock, Lake Macquarie and Stratford.


The railway network in the Hunter Valley is owned by the New South Wales Government and leased to the Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC). This lease commenced on 5 September 2004 and extends for 60 years. ARTC manages and maintains the railway lines that form the network. Agreements are entered into between the coal producers, rail haulage operators and the ARTC for access to the rail network. Coal trains use the same tracks as other passenger and freight trains in some places, but there are also dedicated freight lines used only by coal trains travelling between mines and ports.


The coal terminals at Port Waratah and on Kooragang Island are located to the north-east of the Main North railway line. Dedicated lines for coal trains run from Port Waratah and Kooragang Island to Maitland. Coal trains use the ‘coal roads’, which are next to the two Main North lines used by other trains. These coal roads enable coal trains to operate without having to compete for track access with other trains. The line to Port Waratah leaves the main line between Broadmeadow and Waratah, and a flyover between Waratah and Warabrook takes the coal roads under the main lines. The line to Kooragang Island diverts from the main line between Warabrook and Sandgate, with a flyover between Sandgate and Hexham taking the main lines over the coal roads.


Coal trains travel along the main lines between Maitland and Muswellbrook, and the line is mostly double track. A third track enabling overtaking movements runs between Farley (near Maitland) and Greta, and also between Branxton and Whittingham (between Branxton and Singleton). Trains servicing mines in the Ulan area travel along a single track line that branches from the Main North line at Muswellbrook. This line is not used by regular passenger trains. Trains servicing mines near Gunnedah travel further north-west along the single track Main North line from Muswellbrook. Trains servicing mines in the Stratford area travel along the North Coast line from Maitland. This line is single track north of Telarah. Coal trains to mines in the Cessnock area previously travelled south along lines owned by South Maitland Railways from East Greta Junction, just to the west of Maitland, although services are not currently operating to this area. Mines near Lake Macquarie are reached by trains that travel along the Main North Line to the south from Islington Junction.


Railway freight operators

The two major freight operators in the Hunter Valley are Pacific National and Aurizon. Other coal trains are operated by Whitehaven Coal, Southern Shorthaul Railroad, One Rail Australia and Centennial Coal. Although the majority of coal exported from Port Waratah and Kooragang Island is transported from mines in the Hunter Valley region, coal trains from the western coalfields in the Lithgow region also travel to the Hunter region and unload at Port Waratah.


Pacific National (PN)

Pacific National is one of the largest rail freight operators in Australia, with trains operating in all mainland states and territories.  Its fleet consists of over 600 locomotives and around 13,000 wagons.

Pacific National is the second-largest coal rail haulage provider in Australia, with over 41 per cent of export coal haulage. In the 2014–15 year Pacific National transported around 72 per cent of the coal haulage market in New South Wales and around 26 per cent in Queensland.



Aurizon is the largest railway freight operator in Australia. It transports an average of more than 700,000 tonnes of coal, iron ore and bulk freight each day. Major operations are coal traffic in Queensland and in the Hunter Valley of New South Wales. At 30 June 2021 Aurizon owned a fleet of 329 active locomotives and 8723 active wagons.


Whitehaven Coal

Whitehaven Coal is a coal producer in the Gunnedah Basin of New South Wales. It owns mines at Maules Creek, Werris Creek, Tarrawonga, Rocglen and Narrabri, and also owns a coal handling and processing plant at Gunnedah. Coal from these mines is transported to the Port of Newcastle for shipping overseas. Whitehaven Coal owns three WH Class locomotives.


Southern Shorthaul Railroad

Southern Shorthaul Railroad (SSR) operates rail freight services in New South Wales and Victoria, and leases locomotives for other services, such as infrastructure work trains. The operations of SSR include transporting coal for export from mines to ports at Newcastle and Port Kembla, coal to Eraring Power Station, grain haulage and intermodal freight services. SSR owns a fleet of around 50 locomotives of a range of different classes, although some of these are stored.


One Rail Australia (ORA)

One Rail Australia (ORA) mainly operates in South Australia, the Northern Territory and New South Wales. It has a fleet of over 100 locomotives and over 2000 wagons. The company’s Hunter Valley trains are hauled by XRN Class locomotives. One Rail Australia has recently been sold to Aurizon, pending regulatory approval.


Centennial Coal

Centennial Coal is an Australian mining company that provides coal for domestic and export markets. It supplies around 30% of the coal-fired electricity generating capacity in New South Wales and also exports coal through ports at Newcastle and Port Kembla. Centennial Coal currently operates five coal mines in New South Wales in the area north-west of Lithgow and around Lake Macquarie. The company owns seven CEY Class locomotives, which are operated by Southern Shorthaul Railroad.


Train watching

The Hunter Valley is a popular location for railway enthusiasts. There are numerous coal trains passing, and it is usually only a short wait the next train. As well as coal trains there are other freight trains and regular passenger trains. Most passenger trains are formed by Hunter Diesel Multiple Unit railcars running between Newcastle Interchange and Telarah. Other passenger trains also operate. The absence of overhead wires above the tracks makes it easier to obtain an unobstructed view of trains than in electrified areas. Railway stations from Waratah to Maitland are good locations to watch passing trains. There are also a number of bridges over the railway line that provide useful vantage points.



Aurizon <>.

Australian Rail track Corporation, 2016-2025 Hunter Valley Corridor Capacity Strategy, Australian Rail Track Corporation, Adelaide, 2016.

Centennial Coal <>.

Hunter Valley Coal Chain Coordinator <>.

One Rail Australia <>.

Pacific National (PN) <>.

Port Waratah Coal Services <>.

Southern Shorthaul Railroad <>.

Whitehaven Coal <>.


Pacific National locomotives 9027, 9035 and TT132 with an Up coal train approaching the Golden Highway at Whittingham, near Singleton, 21 December 2021.


Whitehaven Coal’s three WH class locomotives, WH003, WH001 and WH002, with a Down empty coal train near Quipolly, 20 August 2013.

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