Freight Rail, Passenger Rail, Research & Development

Parkes mayor: Inland Rail crucial to intermodal success

Ken Keith, Parkes mayor, at Rail Freight Conference, 2015. Photo: David Sexton

Parkes Shire mayor Ken Keith has told how the shift towards intermodal hubs can benefit both containerised and agricultural freight.

Parkes is home to a National Logistics Hub (NLH) and makes much of the fact it is within striking distance of 80% of the Australian population (Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and southeast Queensland).

Councillor Keith, who is also chair of the Melbourne Brisbane Inland Rail Alliance, was a speaker at the Rail Freight Alliance Rail Freight Conference held at the Pullman Hotel in Melbourne recently.

He described in detail his passion for the proposed new rail route and how it would benefit both rural and urban Australia.

Regarding the NLH, Keith talked of how the project evolved with the challenges of balancing competing interests. “When rezoning the hub, we originally wanted to rezone about 200 hectares but the state government said that was ‘far too much to rezone’,” the mayor said.

“But when we went to industry, they said ‘200 hectares, that’s not going to nearly be enough’.”

Eventually a 600 hectare figure was achieved, along with buffer zones preventing urban encroachment.

“If you think about the NLH as a roundabout that can accommodate a 1.8km train that can go into that hub in one direction and leave in any other, it is a huge area and you need a big area of land to allow that to happen,” he said.

It was also important for councils and developers of other freight hubs to consider rail interaction with other transport networks – road primarily.

“In our case that is vitally important because of the Newell Highway,” Keith explained. The Newell Highway is the inland road linking Melbourne and Brisbane.

Keith said there were extensive talks with industry and as they sought to develop the hub, with FCL and its head Bill Gibbons one of the first to come on board, before selling to Lindsay Fox’s Linfox business.

They now have a substantial site and 4000 square metre warehouse capacity along with 10 acres of hard-stand land. Linfox sends about nine trains a week from the hub to Australian capital cities as part of an integrated road and rail operation.

Similarly SCT (which is also looking to set up at a similar hub in Wodonga) decided to come on board and has holdings of about 200 hectares.

“They are another great company that has been a delight to work with,” Keith said. “We are very proud that only 12 months from walking into the mayor’s office to when their first train pulled in.

“They will be [in Wodonga] before you know it,” he told delegates to the rail conference attending from Wodonga.

Logistics giant Asciano (parent company of rail business Pacific National and stevedoring business Patrick) has acquired about 300 hectares and secured development approval, although they are waiting for full approval of the Inland Rail scheme before proceeding.

“They see the Inland Rail as key to their operations,” Keith said.

Keith stressed the importance of Inland Rail to the hub’s success, saying it “really is the link in the whole process”, not just for Parkes but also regional New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland.

He said it was imperative for local governments to support the Inland Rail project and that it would further increase benefits from intermodal hubs for regional areas, as well as ease urban road and rail congestion.

“About 30% of the freight going through Sydney at the moment isn’t going to Sydney – it is either going to Melbourne or Brisbane,” Keith said.

“All that does is cause congestion for commuters in Sydney.

“If you take that out and put it on the Inland Rail, Sydney would be so much better off.”

Moreover, freight train movement impacts upon passenger trains, he pointed out.

“A freight train takes about four passenger slots out of the Sydney market and then you have also got the curfews in Sydney when freight trains aren’t allowed to travel,” he said.

“One has to wait until the curfew finishes and peak hour is over before (the train) can continue and that is not conducive to a very efficient logistics industry.”

With freight volumes predicted to soar in line with population growth, there would be added pressure on local roads for councils to maintain if modal shift failed to occur and it was essential for “all those containers and freight onto a rail system”.

“It will also improve the cost competitiveness of agriculture,” he said, noting the Inland Rail travelled right through the Australian east coast wheat belt and its productive agricultural land.

“It has been the dream of agriculture that we should get more productive and have more efficient systems and this offers one of the solutions.”

Keith said he was delighted at the increased support for the $10 billion Inland Rail project during the past two years ever since it became a “hot topic” during the 2013 federal election.

With support from industry groups such as the Australian Logistics Council, the Federal government committed $300m to the Inland Railway and also appointed former deputy prime minister John Anderson as its head.

Keith welcomed the announcement of Anderson’s appointment, reflecting upon his experience as architect of the Auslink scheme “so he understands the need for national infrastructure” and that we have “great confidence” that the government would deliver on the promise of starting construction within three years and delivering a project within the next 10.

“Not just feasibility studies that are happening now, but tangible ways to push the project forward.”

Although the $10bn price tag might seem steep, he argued it would nonetheless fulfil a need for regional development and have a “positive business cost ratio”, likely to turn a profit for governments over time.

He also argued analyses had underestimated the benefits for the regions through which the proposed line passes.

“Studies have recognised that if there is modal shift and it is going to be successful, they have to build this railway line.”

He noted there had been extensive consultation and in Parkes there had been “high level meetings with maritime authorities” as well as with the ARTC and encouraged councils to be proactive and ensure issues were quickly resolved.

“We think it is important [local governments] work collectively with the state and federal governments to ensure this Inland Rail is built in an expedient manner and not held up by local issues,” he said.

While acknowledging the initial substantial cost of the project, he also argued it was vital to fully fund the project.

“It will hurt for a few years, but if we have operational efficiencies built into the system, that will have an ongoing [positive] impact on the viability of the railway line.”

This article originally appeared in Rail Express affiliate Lloyd’s List Australia.

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