Freight train carriage on rail track

Rail crew rostering: improved work schedules

CSIRO rostering software has revolutionised work schedules for train crew of the Australian National Rail Corporation.

  • 15 July 2011 | Updated 14 October 2011

A software product, developed jointly by CSIRO and software company The Preston Group, is helping National Rail devise rosters for freight train crew in Australia.

Scheduling and rostering

Crew scheduling and rostering are two of the major tasks involved in managing large transportation networks such as railway, bus and airline systems.

These important tasks are concerned with the development of duty schedules (or duty timetables) for crew to cover a given timetable in a transportation system.

This duty timetable is often spread over a certain period, known as the roster planning horizon. For the National Rail Corporation, the task also involved the development of cyclic work lines (or rosters) for train drivers spread over several depots in a rail network.

National Rail rosters train crew to cover 1500 trips a week, across the vast Australian rail network. The task is made much simpler by new software, which quickly generates rosters that meet work regulations, timetable requirements and staff preferences.

'The formulation of the Railtex problem is very complex with many conflicting objectives. CSIRO did a fantastic job understanding our needs and turning them into a prototype optimiser.'
Denis Dowling, The Preston Group

The Australian rail network offers some unique challenges. Unlike European networks, it is extremely sparse and not highly interconnected. This is because Australia is a large continent with the majority of population living along coastal areas from Brisbane through Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth.

The network’s main train line goes through these widely dispersed cities and the network has several small lines as well. The total track distance is vast.

Rosters, rules and regulations

National Rail’s rosters have to conform to complex industrial regulations and work rules.

In developing rostering software for National Rail, CSIRO’s main objective was to minimise the overall roster cost accrued from using the available crew while providing the required number of crew for each train trip in the schedule. However, rosters also must adhere to 'quality of life' standards for drivers, in terms of satisfying personal preferences.

Crew scheduling and rostering are difficult problems to solve. They are often large, with many staff to accommodate. Practical instances of crew scheduling and rostering applications involve many hard constraints arising from operational rules, workers' preferences and different regulations that need to be taken into account.

Software saves time

At National Rail, monthly rosters were previously drawn up using spreadsheet-based solutions. The resulting schedules had to be carefully checked against the rules. This was a tedious job and often took days to complete. The new staff scheduling software shortens this process considerably. The system produces rosters for over 500 crew in less than four hours.

The new software was developed jointly by CSIRO and The Preston Group, a Melbourne based firm that specialises in the development of simulation and optimisation software.

CSIRO provided the mathematical models and optimisation algorithms that underpin the product.

The Preston Group developed links to staff, rolling-stock, timetables and industrial relations databases. They also created a graphical user interface which hides from users the complexity of the optimisation algorithms (and database queries), making the software particularly easy to use.

Other workplaces with variable demand for services, such as hospitals, police stations, railway systems or banks, could use similar rostering systems to replace existing methods.

Find out more about CSIRO's work in Smart rostering: a powerful toolkit for roster generation.