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A resilient freight network is key in times of uncertainty

In her column, CEO of the Australasian Railway Association Caroline Wilkie highlights that Australia’s rail freight network is facing challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic but its importance now is greater than ever.

Australia’s population is forecast to double by 2070, reaching almost 45 million people. This growing population requires an increased allocation of goods, adding pressure on our existing freight networks to deliver. According to the National Freight and Supply Chain Strategy, Australia’s freight task is expected to grow by over 35 per cent between 2018 and 2040, an increase of 270 billion tonnes, bringing the total volume moved to just over 1,000 billion tonne-kilometres.

The role of rail freight is critical in meeting this future demand and maintaining our international competitiveness. The Value of Rail study commissioned by ARA in 2017 highlights that a one per cent improvement in freight productivity could generate $8-20 billion in savings to the national economy over 20 years. Rail freight provides a cost-effective, safe and environmentally sound solution for reducing congestion from heavy vehicles on urban, regional, and interstate roads. Just one freight train alone can take 110 trucks off our already congested roads and rail is up to nine times safer than road freight. In light of these significant benefits, the ARA is working with governments and industry on behalf of our members to get more freight on to rail, and to improve the efficiency and productivity of Australia’s rail freight supply chains. Achieving modal shift to rail is critical to increasing economic growth, improving the liveability of our cities and supporting regional communities.

Delivery of the Inland Rail project is an important step in achieving this. This nation building project will see a 1,700km freight rail line directly connecting Melbourne and Brisbane, via Toowoomba, Parkes, and Albury. The route will utilise approximately 1,100 km of upgraded existing track and 600 km of new track in Queensland, New South Wales, and Victoria. Most importantly though, it will bypass the heavily congested Sydney network and bring rail freight travel times between Melbourne and Brisbane down from 33 hours to less than 24 hours. This is a game changer and will make rail freight much more competitive over long haulage routes.

In a period of economic uncertainty, the Inland Rail project is bringing a much needed boost to the economy. Construction is already underway on the Parkes to Narromine project and planning is well advanced on a number of other sections. Approximately $747m has already been spent, with much of this spend being injected into rural communities.

Inland Rail has been in the public domain for over fifteen years. It is also one of the most heavily studied projects in recent Australian history, having been through an extensive consultation, planning, route analysis, engineering and costing process.

We are aware of issues that have been raised in relation to flooding of the Condamine crossing in Queensland.

Without a doubt, the project is receiving the best possible expert advice and can manage these issues using tested and proven mitigation measures. These issues need to be worked through carefully and collaboratively, but they should not delay the delivery of the project.

The delivery of Inland Rail is a start, but more must be done. Investment in rail freight delivers enormous benefits in the long term. Improved supply chain connectivity and productivity benefits the economy and the environment and helps provide resilience in the face of emergencies like to COVID-19 pandemic.

The current crisis has just reinforced the importance of a highly productive and efficient supply chain. This unprecedented event has challenged our supply chain like never before, but our rail freight members continue to ensure that essential goods such as canned food, toilet paper, and cleaning products are moving across the country and to customers.

When state border crossing restrictions came into force in later March, the ARA wrote to state and the Commonwealth transport minsters to ensure rail freight was considered an essential service and exempt from border restrictions.

However, the stark difference between road and rail freight regulation is never more apparent than it is during times like these. Regulation by the National Heavy Vehicle Regulator (NHVR) has a focus on both safety and productivity, whereas the Office of the National Rail Safety Regulator (ONRSR’s) remit is purely safety-related.

The ARA have long held the view that we must take a national approach with all modes working together to deliver an integrated freight market. However, this approach can only work if all modes operate from a level playing field with equal treatment in terms of access pricing, government policies, and the role of productivity in regulation.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, trucks were able to have curfews lifted to extend delivery windows in NSW and Queensland. However, due to the nature of our infrastructure and the shared tracks of passenger and rail networks, our industry does not have the same flexibility. As a result, we must look for other solutions to improve the productivity of rail freight.

Rail freight operators are committed to the highest levels of safety compliance but are routinely challenged by Rail Safety National Law (RSNL) derogations that exist, most notably the differing fatigue management requirements in NSW and Queensland, and the different drug and alcohol management requirements in NSW.

As I outlined in my March 2020 article, these inconsistent, state-based regulatory requirements go against the objective of national regulation and add costs to rail freight without any proven safety benefit. The ARA believes that multiple layers of often conflicting regulation impacts rail freight productivity.

A modern, risk-based approach to rail safety that focuses on productivity will improve our supply chain resilience and unlock significant economic and environmental benefits for the whole country.

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