Caroline Wilkie, CEO of the ARA, sets out the association’s advocacy agenda when it comes to rail freight.
The doubling of Australia’s population over the next 30 years will make connecting the supply of goods and services between our far-flung cities more important than ever.
Resilient freight networks will be an essential part of our national connectivity and will be key to supporting the productivity of businesses across the country.
And rail must play a growing role to meet that challenge.
The Australasian Railway Association (ARA) recently released its rail freight and ports strategic plan to set its advocacy agenda on this crucial issue over the next three years.
Informed by extensive industry consultation, the plan identifies the need for rail to increase its share of our national freight task to ensure the growing demand expected in the next 20 years can be met.
While COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of resilient supply chains, that need has always been there and is only becoming more important.
The country’s freight task is expected to grow by 35 per cent by 2040, and by then our network will traverse more than 1,000 billion tonne kilometres every year.
That new demand can simply not be sustainably supported by more trucks on the roads or planes in the air alone.
A multi-modal freight sector that makes the best use of all modes of transport is a fundamental part of ensuring Australia’s supply chains can deal with the needs of the nation in the future.
Maintaining the status quo will not be enough.
There is enormous potential for rail to play a greater role in meeting our freight task, but regulatory reform is required to make that a reality.
A level playing field for all will be needed for this to be realised to make sure every mode of transport can be used efficiently and effectively to support our economic growth and development.
Common safety, environmental, and economic regulation across the country would streamline operations and put the focus firmly on delivering on the nation’s freight needs.
So too would the achievement of a truly interoperable rail network, and the ARA’s rail freight and ports strategic plan supports the ARTC’s efforts to implement its Advanced Train Management System on the interstate network.
These are big ambitions that require national focus and strong collaboration between government and industry to be realised.
We are pleased to see these conversations progressing through the National Rail Action Plan working groups and other industry forums.
As we continue to advocate for changes to support the growth of the industry, a clear understanding of the current state of play and the obstacles that the industry may face is essential.
That is why the ARA has launched three research programs to be completed over the next 12 months.
Firstly, we will be working to better understand the impediments to rail freight modal shift.
Just one freight train alone can take 110 trucks off the roads a year, busting congestion and improving the safety outcomes of the sector.
Rail freight remains a sustainable and efficient option that has proven its reliability time and again.
In urban centres, rail freight frees up the road network to create more liveable communities for people in our cities.
Given these benefits, rail should be playing a significant role as part of a multi- modal network – and this research will inform how we achieve that outcome.
Secondly, we will be looking at rail freight productivity in Australia.
It will be essential to establish a clear view of the industry’s current performance and the conditions required to make rail freight even more competitive in the future.
The 2017 Value of Rail study found a one per cent improvement in rail freight productivity could generate $8-20 billion in savings to the national economy over 20 years.
Small improvements could make a big difference and our research will seek to identify actionable outcomes to drive greater productivity in the sector.
Finally, we will research rail freight infrastructure investment.
Continued investment in the freight network will be essential to meet growing demand, but projects must be planned effectively and implemented efficiently.
Getting infrastructure investment right for the beginning will ensure the benefits of that investment are realised faster and reach further into our communities.
Combined, these projects will inform our advocacy agenda to make the case for regulatory reform.
Because we will need more than one approach to make a real difference for the benefit of Australian businesses and communities.