Going off-road: Policy shift needed to get freight on rail

Policy settings undermining the shift from road to rail mean communities miss out on the benefits of freight rail, writes Caroline Wilkie, CEO of the Australasian Railway Association.

For too long now, the rise of B-doubles on our highways has been seen as an unfortunate but necessary part of meeting the nation’s growing freight task.

But the reality is that the sight of more trucks on the road is due in large part to policy settings that make the safer, more sustainable alternative of rail less competitive.

When the ARA released its Value of Rail 2020 report in November, it confirmed the rail freight sector was critical to meeting the nation’s needs but noted the challenges it faces outside of the resources sector.

In the Pilbara region of WA, the resources sector’s rail freight operations are known for being among the best in the world.

It is the home of the world’s first fully autonomous heavy haul operation, driving new efficiency in the mining industry.

Rail in the Pilbara not only delivers the best solution for the massive operations it serves but saves billions in reduced costs to the environment and from accidents.

The payload capacity of one automated train in the Pilbara is the equivalent to 631 B-Double trucks, an alternative that is difficult to contemplate in the great expanses of the WA outback.

The benefits of efficient, reliable rail to move these huge quantities across our vast country is clear.

However, containerised freight has struggled to flourish in the same way.

Inland Rail will deliver a significant boost to capacity and efficiency, circumventing traditional challenges in moving freight between Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane.

It will also improve east-west connections, with the Parkes intermodal facility to provide a critical link between the Inland Rail and connections to WA.

The 1,700km rail line will be transformative for the freight sector and the many businesses that rely upon it.

But Inland Rail alone cannot be the whole solution to ensure we get more freight on to rail to support the nation’s growth.

Limited infrastructure in the cities on the east coast of Australia are part of the problem, but favourable pricing models that give road freight the edge are to blame too.

And it is policy that is coming at a significant cost to the community.

While there is a place for both road and rail as part of a growing and efficient rail network, an over-reliance on road could have an impact many of us simply would not be comfortable accepting.

Rail freight generates 16 times less carbon pollution than road freight per tonne kilometre travelled, making it the clear choice to support the nation’s work to reduce emissions.

Road accident costs are 20 times higher than rail for every tonne kilometre moved.

Overall, for every one per cent of the national freight task that moves to rail, there are $72 million in benefits to society each year.

These are compelling arguments to support the case for moving more freight on rail and is why we need a level playing field for all.

The ARA recently joined forces with other freight and logistics industry associations to call for the NSW government to introduce a container rail incentive scheme for importers and exporters to help the state meet its freight modal share targets.

The proposal draws from a model that has had success in WA, where freight mode share was above 20 per cent.

It is an essential step after rail’s modal share in NSW stagnated, while permits were issued to high productivity vehicles to access the Sydney metropolitan road network, including WestConnex.

Given a single short haul port train carries the equivalent payload of 41 B-double trucks, a level playing field would help alleviate congestion on Sydney’s busy roads and provide better long-term outcomes for the sector as a whole.

The need to move more freight on rail is not a nice ideal, but an urgent and pressing issue that Australia must take action on now.

As the Value of Rail 2020 found, rail freight is expected to grow 41 per cent by 2030 to meet growing demand. That’s the equivalent of almost 895,000 B-doubles.

The rail industry will need the right policy settings behind it to make this a reality.

Australia needs to best of both road and rail to meet the growth that is to come.

It needs rail to be used to its fullest extent to reduce emissions, save lives, and support the efficient operation of the network as whole.

We need to give rail a fair chance to meet the growth in demand, or we risk the emergence of new B-double superhighways across the country.

Value of Rail 2020 was released in November 2020 and is available at