On track to tackle plastic waste

Victorian Goldfields Railway's civil manager John Shaw checks out some of the sleepers made from a mix of recycled polystyrene and agricultural plastic waste - now in use on a section of the tourist railway in Castlemaine.

Local tourism railways have played a key role in the development of innovative recycled plastic sleepers that may ultimately help solve the nation’s wider recycling crisis.
Castlemaine’s Victorian Goldfields Railway and the Victorian Miniature Railway at Harcourt have both been involved in trialing or using the innovative railway sleepers made in Mildura by Integrated Recycling by using a mix of recycled polystyrene and agricultural plastics.
The project gained state-wide attention in recent days after trials of the Duratrack recycled plastic sleepers shifted from tourist railways to an 18-month mainstream metro rail trial – launched by state environment minister Lily D’Ambrosio at Richmond train station – with the sleepers now approved for use on Melbourne’s metro rail network.
Their use means that for every kilometre of track installed, 64 tonnes of plastic waste that would otherwise go to landfill can instead go to good use keeping rail on track.
Victorian Goldfields Railway was one of four tourist railways that participated in the first trials of the trail-blazing sleepers during more than two years of research and product development led by Integrated Recycling and Monash University.
VGR civil manager John Shaw and vice-president Peter Keown said the recycled sleepers offered some clear advantages over the more conventional timber and concrete sleepers – including longevity, flexibility, ease of handling, transportation efficiencies and even bushfire resistance.
Their potential lifespan of up to 50 years, compared to about half that for conventional sleepers, represents significant cost saving in the long term.
“We became involved in the trial about four years ago,” Mr Shaw said.
VGR used 28 of the Duratrack sleepers as part of that now-completed trial.
“I’d love to be using them,” Mr Shaw said.
“In the long run they are less expensive because they last a lot longer than timber, but at the moment there’s a lack of efficiencies of scale so if they’re produced in very large quantities they’re going to become a lot more affordable.
“If the cost comes down then we’ll certainly look at using them.
“They’re easy to handle. They’re slightly lighter than timber but they behave like timber. You can drill holes in them and put spikes and screws into them, whereas concrete is a whole different ball game.”
Meanwhile, working in close collaboration with VMR to develop Harcourt’s miniature tourism railway, Harcourt and District Lions Club project coordinator Grant Victor-Gordon said the miniature railway would be made using the recycled Duratrack sleepers throughout its entire track network.
“The sleepers are just amazing because they’ve got all of the flexibility you don’t have with concrete,” he said.
“They’re more flexible and durable than timber.”
Poised to become the largest miniature railway in the southern hemisphere, the Harcourt project is on track to have two km of miniature railway laid for its opening in December with 22 km of track ultimately planned.
“As far as going to use in full-scale rail I think it’s a fantastic idea,” Mr Victor-Gordon said.
“If the government and Public Transport Victoria would get on board that would help solve a problem we have here in Australia, which is that we need to develop secondary industries for these plastics for them to have a value.”