Engineering, Freight Rail, Research & Development

Report judges coastal shipping vs. Inland Rail

Container ship. Photo: Hapag Lloyd

The Inland Rail Implementation Group’s report into the proposed Melbourne to Brisbane rail link discusses how it stacks up against one logical alternative: coastal shipping.

Coastal shipping is as it sounds: shipping from one spot to another along the same coastline.

Inland Rail would connect Brisbane and Melbourne via a more direct route than the current coastal line, avoiding the bottleneck of the greater Sydney area while also linking regional Queensland, NSW and Victorian towns with major exporting cities.

The recent report believes the project would cost $10 billion.

Coastal shipping has been commonly cited as a logical alternative to Inland Rail, with the suggestion being that dedicated sea freight services could carry just as much of the freight load as a rail line, and would have little to no set-up cost, as it would use existing infrastructure.

But the Inland Rail Implementation Group’s report, handed to the Australian Government on August 24 and released to the public on September 11, dismisses this as a proper alternative.

Put simply, the report argues that if coastal shipping was a proper alternative to rail, then it would have already taken freight from the existing coastal rail line.

“Inland Rail … represents the service characteristics that would be required to shift non-bulk, intermodal freight from road to rail,” the report explains. “A key element of this service offering is a competitive terminal-to-terminal transit time of less than 24 hours … shipping cannot compete with road and rail in this regard.”

At 20 knots a regular shipping service between Melbourne and Brisbane would take approximately 16 hours longer than current rail transit, and over a day longer than the design specifications for Inland Rail. The report also notes shipping has a number of door-to-door time disadvantages over existing road and rail services.

On top of time taken, the report also suggests coastal shipping would offer a less desirable service frequency than Inland Rail.

With the smallest reasonable ship carrying 1000 twenty foot containers or equivalent (TEU), and the 2030 market expected to provide coastal shipping a potential of 200,000 TEU, coastal shipping would provide just four one-way services between Melbourne and Brisbane each week.

“This is significantly less frequent than the expected 17 one-way services a week for Inland Rail,” the report states.

In summary: “Relative to the proposed Inland Rail solution, the poor service frequency and the significantly longer transit time indicates that a dedicated shipping solution between Melbourne and Brisbane is unlikely to be successful in meeting the needs of a significant proportion of the market.

“This conclusion is based on assumptions that are in favour of the shipping case, that is, bullish market take-up and a conservative ship size.”

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