The challenges faced by rail operators and infrastructure owners in shifting freight away from roads dominated the first day of the ARA’s AusRAIL PLUS 2017 event in Brisbane on Tuesday.
A panel facilitated by TasRail chief executive Damien White discussed the issue, and featured Neil Hamel from Arc Infrastructure, Priscilla Radice from Arup, the Port of Brisbane’s trade strategy manager Tim Cope, Jonathan Lafforgue from NSW Ports, and Geoff Smith, the managing director of SCT Logistics.
Smith said that SCT’s construction of intermodal terminals at Wodonga on the Victoria-NSW border and Bromelton in QLD’s south had helped facilitate their freight services in the Brisbane to Melbourne freight corridor, particularly in the context of competition with road operators.
“I think what we look at it from the end-to-end supply chain, rather than just the rail journey – it gives us a pretty good understanding of what we are competing against,” Smith said.
“On the north-south corridor, we don’t tend to think we are competing primarily against Pacific National or Aurizon, rather we are competing against the road freight industry.”
He said that SCT had gone from moving 50 rail wagons of freight per week in January to now shifting approximately 300, shifting freight off roads and on to rail.
Arc Infrastructure’s Neil Hamel also emphasised the importance of intermodal terminals in facing competition from road freight.
“We try to provide our customers with greater opportunities, so we are looking at building intermodal terminals away from the ports, which will help to bring road freight vehicles off the roads and ease traffic,” Hamel said.
Along with working towards eliminating inefficiencies within ports, improving signal reliability was also an important factor, Hamel said, in improving arrival reliability on Arc’s Perth freight network.
Lafforgue said the future potential capacity of the Port of Sydney, in terms of freight volume passing through it, could be unlocked by focussing on import freight.
“To do that, we will need intermodal terminals,” he said.
It will be important, he said, for the Port to work alongside stakeholders and use the intermodals now developing along the freight line directly into the port.
Tim Cope’s outlined the vast gap that presently exists between rail and road freighting at the Port of Brisbane.
“Our rail share for freight containers is around two and a half per cent – a little over 30, 000 containers out of 1.2 million comes to the port on rail,” Cope said.
Cope said that this transfer of freight from rail to road in Queensland was due to heavy road investment, including the Logan Motorway enhancement, the Toowoomba Range Crossing, and the port’s project to duplicate the road corridor.
“Once the Range Crossing is complete, a supply-chain manager can get freight to the port gate without encountering a traffic light,” he said.
Cope did nonetheless hold out hope for the transformative effects of the Inland Rail development in the long-term competitiveness of freight rail in the state, especially if a dedicated rail link to the port of Brisbane can be constructed.
Arup’s Priscilla Radice questioned the framing of what she termed the “rail versus road” debate, and claimed that “smarter technology”, such as open data platforms for supply chains, or even a future “uberisation” of freight, could undermine the “oppositional mentality” that she believes exists in the freight industry.
“Governments are shifting more and more towards city-shaping, and they need the freight industry to provide a co-ordinated and united voice to help provide a clearer vision of what the future will look like,” she said.
Smith responded by saying that rail’s advantages when competing with road were not merely just about potentially cheaper costs for customers, but also about providing a superior and more reliable service without the pitfalls of congestion that faces road freighting.
“As it stands at the moment, we are still competing.”