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Protection of railway infrastructure from rockfall and debris flow using

a dynamic rockfall debris flow barrier

W. Harisson1, J. Glisson2, R. Bucher3, H. Salzmann4, M. Denk4

Queensland Rail, Australia

ROCK Australia Pty Ltd, Australia
Geobrugg Australia Pty Ltd, Australia
Geobrugg AG, Switzerland

Natural hazards such as rockfall, debris flows and slope failures can occur simultaneously or be induced by
each other as a result of ground acceleration or stress change or release. For example, large rock fall
events may lead to debris flows by ripping of vegetation and mobilising considerable amounts of debris
along the slopes by secondary impacts. Debris flows may trigger rock fall events in a short to mid term due
to toe erosion of rock faces along the flow path.
This paper presents a case study of a protection of infrastructure against rockfall and debris flow. The
Railway line of Queensland Railway (QR) from Cairns to Kuranda, Australia, traverses gullies and slopes
with forest and steep to vertical rock faces above. In 2006, a heavy rainfall triggered a debris flow in one
slope along the line which covered the tracks and caused a closure of the railway for approximately 3
In order to protect the infrastructure from similar hazards, three options were considered: full cutback of
unstable material, a tunnel using pre-fabricated elements or a Geobrugg flexible hybrid rockfall-debris flow

This latter was chosen on the basis of the following arguments:

The area along the Railway line is World Heritage listed and therefore the impact on the
environment should be minimal. Also, this Railway is very popular scenic tourist route and a
tunnel would prevent the view from the railway.

The railway line should be operational during the installation of the protection structure, which
could be guaranteed for the flexible hybrid rockfall-debris flow barrier.

The flexible hybrid rockfall-debris flow barrier was approximately half the cost of a tunnel.

It is necessary to clean the protection structure after any debris flow/rock fall event to avoid
overloading of the structure and this is easier with a barrier.

The barrier is called hybrid because it is calculated to withstand rock fall, debris flow and the combination
of both.
The design of the hybrid barrier for debris flow was based on data collected through 1:1 field tests in Japan,
Germany and Switzerland and on a model developed by Rickenmann.
Additional information on topography, volume of expected debris, the density of the debris flow material and
the time from the event to the impact was provided by Queensland Rail.
The barrier was designed and installed as a hybrid rockfall-debris flow barrier in 2007 for this specific
application. From then, no instability occurred on the slope and the barrier has not been subjected to any

Keywords: Rockfall, debris flow, Kuranda Scenic Railway, Queensland Rail

Conference On Railway Engineering

Wellington, Sept 12-15, 2010

Queensland Rail


Protection of railway infrastructure from rockfall and debris flow

using a dynamic rockfall debris flow barrier

up from the rail level and is approximately 20 m


Queensland Rail (QR) operates the very famous

historic train Kuranda Scenic Railway (KSR) from
Cairns to Kuranda. It was built between 1886 and
1891 along the steep slopes of the Stoney Creek
and Barron River Gorges west of Cairns for a
distance of 21.6 kilometres. The railway line starts
at the Pacific coast and traverses tropical forest
and the World Heritage listed Barron Gorge
National Park on its way to the picturesque
Kuranda village.

Originally, the railway line was built for famine

prone miners for a reliable access to the coast.
The construction of the railway in such difficult
terrain is considered an extraordinary engineering
and building achievement of the late 19th century
in Queensland. Today, the railway is mainly known
as a world famous tourist attraction. However, it
also provides access to a further 394 km of railway
track on the Atherton Tablelands and Gulf
Savannah. The predominant traffic on the
Tableland rail system is sugar. Further rail traffic is
anticipated from the Tablelands system with a
number of new mines being developed in this

Figure 1: Kuranda Scenic Railway

Figure 2: Spoil and failure scarf at Cut 46

After failure, the slope had to be scaled of loose
and unstable material. Since there was no access
to road to the site, a specialised road/rail
excavator and side-tipping wagons were used to
remove the landslide spoil from site.

A further rock slide occurred from the failure scarp

during construction of stabilization works in
February 2007. This rockslide occurred in the
material that was being stabilised and exposed
lower strength. The stabilisation works were
abandoned and the railway track had to be closed
for three months.

During this time, only minimum stabilisation works

were carried out for security reasons. Due to the
risk of further rockfall and landslides, workers were
excluded from the slope below the failure scarp
and alternative methods of work were adopted,
including hydraulic scaling of the loose material
from the failure scarp using high-pressure water
jets and "water bombing" the slope with water
dropped from a 1000 litre fire-fighting bucket
suspended from a helicopter.



A slope failure at a site known as Cut 46 between

Redlynch and Stoney Creek occurred during an
intense rainfall event in April 2006 [1]. Over 1000
cubic meters of spoil covered the track of the
railway and caused a closure of the railway for two
weeks. The slope at this site was initially inclined
within a range of 35 to 45 from horizontal and
consisted of a layer of colluvium and residual soil
overlying weathered and fractured very low to high
strength argillite. Failure occurred in the layer of
colluvium, soil, and weathered rock. The failure
crest is located approximately 58 m slope distance

Conference On Railway Engineering

Wellington, Sept 12-15, 2010

Queensland Rail

Protection of railway infrastructure from rockfall and debris flow

using a dynamic rockfall debris flow barrier

unacceptable prolongation of the closure of the

railway. The steepness of the slope and
inaccessibility would have limited access to
conventional earthmoving machinery and the
excavation would have resulted in significant
disturbance and destruction of flora in the National
Park. Due to these factors this option was not
preferred and therefore not costed.



Figure 3: Failure scarf before and after

A temporary protection fence with a design
capacity of 200 cubic metres was then constructed
below the failure scarp to provide temporary
protection to the railway until permanent works
could be constructed.

Computer modelling was carried out to calculate

the maximum bounce height of rocks from a future
failure. At the same time, a comprehensive survey
of the slope was carried out to provide a contour
plan and cross sections of the site to assist with
the design of permanent works.


Using the survey data and available geotechnical

data, different solutions were evaluated with
consultants and QR engineers. Conventional
stabilisation techniques were no longer safe or
practical at this site so three alternative solutions
were proposed:

Full cut back option

Tunnel to cover railway made out of prefabricated steel elements

High-energy rockfall and debris retention



Full cut back option comprised removal of all
failure-prone material overlying the basal plane of
the failure. The undulating nature of the basal
plane that was exposed made it difficult to predict
where the basal plane intersected the surface up
slope of the failure and calculate the quantity of
material needed to be removed. The material
would have needed to be deposited onto the track
and then removed from the range to comply with

The idea was to construct a protective structure

over the railway to protect it from future landslides.
The site has no road access and the only options
for transport of materials and construction plant
are by rail and/or helicopter. Tunnels along the
railway limit the size of plant and materials that
can be transported by rail, and the track in the
vicinity of the site is constructed through cuttings
so very little storage space is available for storage
of materials and for establishment of a portable
concrete batching plant. Consequently, the
protective structure was designed as a steel
framed tunnel that could be transported to site as
components and assembled on site.
In order to protect the tunnel from projected
impacts, 4000 cubic metres of compacted fill
would have been needed on top of the tunnel,
resulting in a design load equivalent of 4 m depth
of fill above the tunnel. If the depth of spoil over
the top of the tunnel exceeded this depth, the
railway would need to be closed while the spoil
was removed. It was calculated that this depth of
spoil equated to 1200 cubic metres.


The option for the installation of a high-energy
flexible rockfall barrier was only considered when it
showed that a recently tested highest energy
rockfall fence with a design capacity of 5000 kJ
was on the market. Until then, the highest rated
barrier tested according to the Swiss Guidelines
for the Approval of Rockfall Protection Kits was
3000 kJ. The design load of a rock and debris
slide at the site was around 5000 kJ, so only this
newest certified protection structure could be a
valid option.
Computer modelling of rockfall trajectories and
bounce heights was carried out to determine the
required dimensions of the barrier to protect the
railway below. The proposed barrier was 7.5
metres high and 46 metres long with a calculated
volumetric capacity of 1300 cubic metres. The
barrier is designed so that any excess spoil would
flow over the top of the barrier without inducing
failure of the barrier itself. The position of the
barrier was determined so that at maximum
deflection it would still be clear of the Railway
Conference On Railway Engineering
Wellington, Sept 12-15, 2010

Queensland Rail

Protection of railway infrastructure from rockfall and debris flow

using a dynamic rockfall debris flow barrier

Structure Gauge. Cost of this option was

estimated at approximately half the costs of the

Including all relevant engineering, building and

maintenance aspects, the two options were
evaluated with the following pros and cons [2].

Shed /


long term
elimination of the
rockfall hazard to

Meets calculated
failure criteria

minimal ongoing
maintenance and
inspection costs.

Returns the site

to the same risk
profile as pre


Has a substantial cost saving to implement

the solution to that of an arch tunnel (less
half the cost of the tunnel)

Provides a solution which returns the site

to the same risk profile as expected of the
original Cut 46 technical solution

It is easier to maintain than a tunnel for

routine maintenance and in case of failure

Relatively high initial


restrictions to
railway operations
during construction.

Easy replacement of parts damaged by an


Still need to remove

material over that of
the deemed
allowable loading
criteria set for the
tunnel. Difficult to
excavate off the top
of the tunnel

Allows maintenance works to be

undertaken under traffic, therefore causing
less disruption and commercial loss

Has no requirements to utilise district

maintenance staff except for transport of
personnel to site and ensuring site safety

Potential impacts on
train services to
clear material

Is a solution which has been tested at

other locations

Risk associated with

possible derailment
damage the arch
ribs and lining,
which would impose
extensive delays if

Would require on
going maintenance
and steel paint
treatment to the

lower initial cost

(half the price of
the tunnel)

ongoing inspection
and maintenance

relative ease of
compared to
other options.

parts or all of the

fence will need to be
replaced if damaged
by a future rockfall;

Meets calculated
failure loading

Returns the site

to the same risk
profile as pre

workforce exposed
to rockfall hazard
whilst maintaining
fence and clearing

implementation of
a proprietary
product which
has been tested,
and has
opportunities at
other locations

Meets the solution criteria established QR

engineers and consultants of the likely
failure event profile at the site


(40 m long,
7.5 m high,
5 MJ capacity


Potential impact on
train services to
clear material from
debris barrier fence

Following the evaluations of the two options

outlined above, the installation of the debris barrier
fence was deemed the more suitable solution on
the basis of the following:



While first simulations of rockfall trajectories

showed the necessity of a 7 m high 5000 kJ
rockfall protection fence, it showed that the
predominant potential hazard at this site is a highly
energetic mixture of rock, soil and water commonly
known as a debris slides or debris flow

Comprehensive knowledge exists on the

simulation of single rockfall trajectories and also
the interaction between a rock boulder and a
flexible ring net barrier (Volkwein 2004) [4].

For the design of flexible ringnet barriers against

debris flow, Geobrugg and its partners adopted an
approach developed by Rickenmann (1999) [3] in
order to estimate the mean discharge and the
velocity of the flow. Excerpts of it are shown
The main reason why a flexible ring net barrier is
an ideal stopper of the debris slide is its flexibility
to an impact and the drainage effect of the net.
Once the water is drained out of the debris slide,
its front takes the form of the natural (dry) friction
angle of the material.

Conference On Railway Engineering

Wellington, Sept 12-15, 2010

Queensland Rail

Protection of railway infrastructure from rockfall and debris flow

using a dynamic rockfall debris flow barrier


Other than the theoretical knowledge, debris slide
events in Japan and Austria showed that flexible
ring net barriers are well suitable for the retention
of debris slides and debris flow.

Figure 5: Test flume Oregon (top) and full scale

fill test Illgraben (bottom)


The volume for flexible protection system lays in a
range of 100 m3 to 1500m3:
Figure 4: Debris flow events in Japan

VDF,d = 100 m3 - 1500 m3

Test series with the US Geological Survey in

Oregon, at the Swiss Research Institute for Forest,
Snow and Landscape Research WSL in
Switzerland, as well as intensive full scale field
testing in Illgraben, Switzerland between 2005 and
2008 helped to better understand the interaction
between different kind of debris flows and slides
with a flexible ring net structure. From there, acting
forces and load models could be derived and used
for the design of specially adopted ring net barrier
systems against debris slides.

Several studies proved that the peak discharge of

a debris flow is correlated to its volume. There are
different relations for granular debris flows and
mud flows.

Mizuyama et al. propose for a granular debris flow

(debris avalanche) the following empirical
relationship between peak discharge and debris
flow volume [5]:
Q p = 0.135 VDF 0.78

(QP,d = 5 m3/s - 35 m3/s)

The next equation represents the according

relationship for mud flows [5]:
Q p = 0.0188 V DF 0.79

(QP,d = 1 m3/s - 7 m3/s)

By using the peak discharge it is possible to

estimate the average flow velocity v at the front of
the flow.

Rickenmann [3] proposes a regime condition for

the relation between velocity, peak discharge and
slope inclination (friction considered). S refers to
the gradient of the torrent (tangent of the slope
inclination in degrees). Typical values are S=0.18
(10), S=0.36 (20) or S=0.58 (30).
v = 2.1 Q p 0.33 S 0.33

(vd = 2 m/s - 6 m/s)

Conference On Railway Engineering

Wellington, Sept 12-15, 2010

Queensland Rail

Protection of railway infrastructure from rockfall and debris flow

using a dynamic rockfall debris flow barrier

Japanese guidelines [6] suggest a ManningStrickler equation to determine the average flow
velocity and refers to a pseudo-manning value
which is typically between 0.05 s/m1/3 and 0.18
s/m1/3, while the values for granular debris flows
lay between 0.1 s/m1/3 and 0.18 s/m1/3.


h 0.67 S 0.5

(vd = 1 m/s - 6 m/s)

For the Kuranda site, the following values were





All components of the RXI-500 barrier, 34 m long

and 7 m high, were transported by train to the
installation site. From there, a helicopter was used
to erect the posts. Pre mounted cables on top of
the post were used as retaining ropes, which were
led through earth anchors behind the barrier. Top
and bottom support ropes were installed between
the posts after the posts have been placed and
secured by lateral anchor ropes. All ropes are
equipped with specially designed energy
absorbing elements (brake rings). In case of an
impact, they allow the ropes to elongate smoothly
while absorbing the impact energy acting on the
net, posts and ropes.

Width of the arriving debris front onto the net: 6 m

Estimated front volume (first surge):

100 m3

Inclination of slope:


Density of debris material:

2300 kg/m3
Type of debris flow:


The estimated peak discharge of the first front is

approx. 21 m3/s assuming a granular flow and
using Mizuyamas formula. The corresponding
velocity lies between 6 and 7 m/s, which is very
high for a granular flow. The corresponding impact
energy is around 5300 kJ, which takes into
account the braking distance and braking time
between the impact and the stop of the first impact
by the net. Once the first front is stopped by the
flexible structure, the accumulated debris acts like
a dam and further debris is stopped by the dam.
As an overall retention volume, the 7 m high and
34 m long barrier can accumulate an overall
volume of approximately 1000 1300 m3,
depending on the accumulation angle of the
retained debris behind the barrier.
Estimation accumulation
angles depending on the
material properties
Rockfall-debris barrier


Figure 7: Helicopter installation of barrier

Figure 6: Cross section and first approximation

of retention volume depending of accumulation
angle behind the barrier

After tensioning of all cables the helicopter was

used to fly the ring nets into place. As a speciality,
the space left and right of the border posts
between posts and lateral anchors was closed with
a triangular shaped net. The net was fixed
between the lateral anchor ropes and the bottom
support ropes, extending the acting net surface.

Conference On Railway Engineering

Wellington, Sept 12-15, 2010

Queensland Rail

Protection of railway infrastructure from rockfall and debris flow

using a dynamic rockfall debris flow barrier

Figure 8: Finished barrier installation


Impact Sentinel provides a specifically adapted
device to a flexible rockfall barrier to detect bigger
impacts into the system and trigger an alarm to the
maintenance department.

The impact sentinel is a small monitoring device

(sentinel) with integrated sensors and antenna
mounted on the brake ring. A small wire which is
fixed on a pin inside the small box is itself fixed on
the other side of the brake ring. Once a brake ring
is activated (in case of a bigger impact), the wire
pulls the pin out of the sentinel and a message is
sent to a close by relay station, 200 300 m away.

Figure 9: Installed Sentinel in Castelmola, Italy

The sentinel is electrically fully self contained and
operates by means of small solar cells on top of
each sentinel box. Other than the mechanical
alarm trigger, the sentinel also contains an
integrated shock detector. Different shock
thresholds can be set for an alarm to be sent out
to the relay station.

The relay station sends a signal to the

maintenance department by the local phone or a
radio system. This frequency of it can be adapted
to the local applicable standard.


Flexible ring net barriers are being used by

Quennsland Railways as an effective hybrid
rockfall and debris flow protection system to
protect railways on unstable slopes. Input
parameters for the debris flow barrier's design
have been determined using established empirical
formulae and calculated theoretical capacity of the
barriers has been confirmed by 1:1 field tests and
back calculation of real events.
For the Kuranda Scenic Railway, the choice the
flexible barrier system was made because of:
Favourable cost benefit analysis
construction compared to a steel frame
No disruption





Minimal disturbance to the environment in

the World-Heritage listed National Park

Conference On Railway Engineering

Wellington, Sept 12-15, 2010

Queensland Rail

Protection of railway infrastructure from rockfall and debris flow

using a dynamic rockfall debris flow barrier

The impact on visual amenity for train

passengers is less compared to a rigig
monitoring of the system to report any
significant impacts on the system to
maintenance personnel
The barrier and monitoring system
effectively reduce risk due to rockfalls or
debris flows onto railway operations to and
acceptable level.

Conference On Railway Engineering

Wellington, Sept 12-15, 2010

Queensland Rail

Protection of railway infrastructure from rockfall and debris flow

using a dynamic rockfall debris flow barrier

[1] Queensland Rail, ROCK Engineering Pty. Ltd.
(2008): Internal Report Kuranda Railway
[2] Queensland Rail (2008): Internal Report
Evaluation Rockfall Protection Kuranda Scenic
[3] Rickenmann D. (1999): Empirical relationships
for debris flows, Natural Hazards, 19(1), 47-77
[4] Volkwein A. (2004): Numerical Modelling of
Flexible Rockfall Protection Systems, Doctoral
Thesis, ETH Zurich
[5] Mitzuyama et al. (1992): Prediction of debris
flow peak discharge, Interpraevent, Bern, Vol.
4, 99-108
[6] PWRI (1988): Technical Standard for
measures against debris flows (draft), Ministry
of Construction, Japan

Conference On Railway Engineering

Wellington, Sept 12-15, 2010