ARA, Freight Rail, Freight Rail, Freight Rail Operations, Freight Rail Operations, Logistics and Supply Chains, Rail industry news (Australia, New Zealand)

ARA Rail Freight Conference – Sydney

The Australasian Railway Association held its annual rail freight conference in Sydney in April, bringing the industry together to discuss important issues.

The ARA is dedicated to championing regulatory and operational reforms that enhance the efficiency of Australia’s rail freight sector. The recent ARA Rail Freight Conference provided an opportunity for industry, freight customers and government to come together to discuss ways to improve the resilience, productivity and sustainability of the sector.

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The Conference, held at Rydges World Square in Sydney in April, attracted 240 people including local and international industry leaders and government representatives for two days of insightful, frank and forward-looking discussions on the future of rail freight.

The presentations took a deep dive on critical topics such as public and private collaboration, sustainability, interoperability and harmonisation, building resilience, workforce shortages and technology.

There was a star-studded speaker including Dr. Kerry Schott AO, chair – Independent Advisory Panel on NSW Freight Reform Policy Program; Mark Mazurek, chief executive officer, Linfox; Wayne Johnson, CEO and managing director, Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC); Nick Miller, CEO of Inland Rail; and Natalie Pelham, National Rail Safety Regulator and chief executive, Office of the National Rail Safety Regulator.

Overseas speakers included Milind Nirmal, executive director – Asia Pacific, DB Engineering & Consulting GmbH, who shared his insights on the benefits of shared infrastructure for freight and high-speed rail in Europe; and Matt Soule, CEO and Co-founder of Los Angeles-based Parallel Systems, who talked about the company’s autonomous, battery-electric freight wagons and their local partnership with Arc Infrastructure.

Everyone agreed that industry and government needed to step up efforts to build a more resilient, reliable and productive rail freight industry that was fit for the future and better equipped to deliver services that are competitive with road. And there is no time to waste.

National Transport Commission Chair, Carolyn Walsh, summed up the task ahead.

“We have a unique window of opportunity for national rail reform with full alignment of industry, government and policy makers. But the window will close quickly,” she said.

As Nirmal pointed out in his presentation, interoperability and harmonisation measures must be the industry’s immediate focus because it is a long journey and 20 years after having begun, Europe is still progressing.

“I will send a message here to Australia – it is that you’ve got to do something now… otherwise 50 years from now we will be having the same conversation,” he said.

He described Germany’s “Strong Rail” strategy as having delivered “incredible” improvements in network performance and pointed out that the Northern European country – with its 25 passenger operators and over 400 freight operators – has the most open network in Europe.

Systemic interoperability and harmonisation challenges are key to addressing market share and productivity, and the work occurring through the National Rail Action Plan provides a once in-a-generation opportunity to transform the rail industry.

The ARA will be embracing this opportunity by advocating for practical implementation mechanisms and pathways to ensure these reforms become a reality and move our industry forward in a meaningful way.

We have also expanded our Interoperability Working Group to ensure we can continue to proactively represent industry on interoperability work being progressed at the national level, driven by the National Transport Commission.

Schott, who conducted the Inland Rail review, provided a frank opening address on the challenges that lay ahead for the freight industry that must be overcome.

Schott said the NSW freight reform program panel has been asked to deliver a comprehensive strategic reform agenda and action plan to optimise freight transport in NSW and she encouraged industry to respond to the discussion paper.

Among her main points were the need to do a better job of reserving industrial land and making use of it, seeking opportunities to better coordinate operational settings across NSW networks, addressing workforce challenges, and maintaining decarbonisation as a priority.

Hon. Jenny Aitchison MP, NSW Minister for Regional Transport and Roads, opened day two of the conference and expressed her commitment to achieving interoperability and growing the mode share of rail.

Minister Aitchison stressed the need for increased productivity through a collaborative approach between industry
and government to support a strong, sustainable industry.

General Manager of Freight and Heavy Haul, Georgia Nicholls, spoke at the conference. IMAGE ARA

“We can’t truck our way out of the freight task, we have to be prepared to invest in the rail freight network,” she said.

Aurizon Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer. Andrew Harding. discussed the company’s role in managing more than 5,000km of track and operating bulk and general freight services across the country. He said rail had untapped opportunities in emerging markets and emphasised the importance of rail to realising national decarbonisation targets. Harding also stressed the need for improving level crossing safety and shared a compelling video of near misses on the network ahead of releasing a campaign aimed at improving safety in coming months.

Pacific National’s chief strategy and sustainability officer, Saskia Groen-in’t-Woud, in her presentation on the industry’s outlook, brought her rich international experience in freight, shipping and rail to the Australian context both in terms of operational optimisation and decarbonisation.

Miller provided an update on this nation-building project and detailed the economic benefits it is delivering for local communities and in particular indigenous businesses, with more than $420 million spent with local entities.

Building resilience in rail infrastructure

The conference was timely, coinciding with the reopening of the crucial Trans-Australia line after a prolonged closure due to flooding, which had a significant impact in WA, with rows of empty supermarket shelves featuring in the news for weeks.

This latest disruption again illustrated the critical role that rail plays in delivering large volumes of goods across vast distances and the impact felt every time there is a flood or bushfire that stops rail in its tracks.

Improving the resilience and reliability of ageing rail infrastructure remains a priority for the ARA this year, particularly for key rail freight routes that form a critical part of our national supply chains.

A joint submission by the ARA and Freight on Rail Group (FORG) to the Commonwealth Government’s review of the National Freight and Supply Chain Strategy outlines several examples of freight outages, costing the economy hundreds of millions of dollars in 2022 alone.

Some of the examples highlighted include flooding in regional NSW in March 2022, which led to a total of 200 days of track outages, with 26 return services impacted each week, costing the economy $35 million.

Washouts on the east-west rail line in regional South Australia cost the economy $320 million, resulting in product shortages and empty supermarket shelves.

Upgrading the interstate rail network would not only improve climate resilience, but also improve overall network performance and provide greater capacity for longer, heavier trains – driving down freight costs and therefore contributing to an easing of the cost of living.

The ARA progressed a joint project on rail freight resilience last year, partnering with FORG, ARTC, Arc Infrastructure and Aurizon. Industry has since done considerable work to advance detailed thinking on network resilience, with ARTC having invested in detailed hydrological modelling to underpin network investment planning with a focus on climate resilience.

The ARA will continue to advocate for additional Commonwealth funding support to strengthen the resilience and reliability of our critical national rail freight infrastructure.

I am very pleased the ARA has been asked to contribute to two crucial freight reviews in NSW and Victoria, including membership of the NSW Freight Transport Advisory Council and Freight Victoria’s Industry Stakeholder Reference Group.

This will ensure our industry continues to have a strong voice at the table on rail freight.

Future of Freight campaign

Australia’s domestic freight task is projected to grow by 26 per cent between 2020 and 2050. Despite this, two per cent of freight is hauled by trains between Sydney and Melbourne – the busiest freight corridor by volume in the country – and less than five per cent of freight is currently moved by rail between Sydney and Brisbane. Even the critical Melbourne-Brisbane transport corridor has a rail mode share of less than 30 per cent.

The ARA’s general manager of Freight and Heavy Haul, Georgia Nicholls, gave an update at the Conference on the Future of Freight report, which we launched in partnership with the Freight on Rail Group late last year.

This research was supported by the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development, Communications and the Arts and provides a platform for industry and government to work together to increase the use of rail freight. The report highlights the need to increase rail’s share of Australia’s growing freight task – otherwise, even with the addition of the game-changing Inland Rail, we will not meet future demand.

There is also a environmental imperative to move more freight from road to rail. It will be critical to reducing our transport emissions and making sure we meet Australia’s net zero target by 2050.

Rail freight generates 16 times less carbon emissions per tonne kilometre than road transport.

The ARA’s research also shows that a 10 per cent mode shift away from road to rail between major capital cities in Australia would reduce the social costs created through emissions, crashes and accidents and health costs by more than $700 million per year.

The ARA is encouraged by the enthusiasm for change felt at the conference and looks forward to seeing the plans talked about and the vision of a thriving rail freight sector become a reality.