AusRAIL, Market Sectors

Sometimes the numbers just don?t add up

<span class="" id="parent-fieldname-description"> OPINION: Going back some years now at an AusRAIL conference a plea was made by a key figure in the transport bureaucracy for improved data collection within the rail industry to help make a stronger case to community and government for a better allocation of transport funding. </span> <p>A decade or so on from being at that conference and I have to ask myself if anyone was really listening?<br /><br />The release last month of the TrainLine 2 statistical report is a further development of the previous rail performance publications series and TrainLine 1. These publications are collaborations between the Australasian Railway Association (ARA) and the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics (BITRE).<br /><br />TrainLine 2 provides a fairly comprehensive overview of freight, urban and non-urban passenger rail in Australia, analysing traffic levels the provision of infrastructure and rolling stock and railway performance amongst other things.<br /><br />It is probably the single best one-stop source of industry related data available.<br /><br />However, soon after its release it was brought to my attention that there was a huge anomaly in one of the key pieces of data presented.<br /><br />TrainLine 2 in its ‘At a glance’ introduction says, “Intermodal freight is recovering from the effects of the Global Financial Crisis. Intermodal tonnes decreased between FY2008 and FY2010. Tonnages have since increased, by 67% since 2009-10, to 28 million tonnes.”<br /><br />The key area of concern is that intermodal tonnes for FY2010 are stated as 16.52mt in the report, and for FY2013 at 27.56 mt. This represents an increase of 67% in just three years, which while remarkable in itself is even more so when we consider that both major operators, Aurizon and Asciano have been reporting a softness in the market and more or less static intermodal traffic for that last two years.<br /><br />So logic would suggest that this rather large 67% increase would have occurred between FY2010 and FY2012, but unfortunately TrainLine 2 doesn’t have data for FY2011 for FY20112 to track the incremental growth.<br /><br />Further doubts are raised in my mind by BITRE’s definition of ‘intermodal’ as used in the report. They are upfront in stating there is some ambiguity in how intermodal is defined as it is not uncommon these days for bulk products such as minerals and grains to be moved in containers.<br /><br />The report clarifies the defining feature of an ‘intermodal’ train is the infrastructure charge rather than the way the goods are conveyed, which allows for inclusion of services like SCT’s van trains to the west.<br /><br />But, even the most casual observer of rail freight movements would be able to tell you that there has not been a 67% increase in premium movements over the last 5 years, and as I have already suggested if anything any movement in volumes has been relatively stagnant for the last couple of years. <br /><br />This can only lead to two conclusions. Either the base data provided to BTIRE for FY2010 was calculated in a totally different way to that for FY2013 or the FY2013 data is seriously flawed.&nbsp <br /><br />Now before we start getting too harsh with BTIRE, let’s remember they are beholden to data provided by the train operators and track owners and, unlike the USA, there is no statutory requirement for this kind of industry data reporting.<br /><br />In fact while TrainLine 2 acknowledges the participation of all the major players in supplying data, I have several e-mails from informed sources suggesting that the data received from some organizations was not everything BTIRE was hoping for. <br /><br />While BITRE no doubt gets more detailed stats for its report, you can understand them getting a bit confused if they had to rely on publically available data. <br /><br />The ARTC 2014 Annual Report is also now online and following on from recent years continues to provide less and less operational data. It claims a 24% increase in non-coal interstate traffic over the last 5 years, though providing no actual data to back this up. <br /><br />The 2013 Annual report did provide gross tonne kilometres (gtk) for non coal interstate traffic, which includes intermodal, and which in 2010 was approximately 50bn gtk, growing to 61bn gtk by 2012 or around 22%. Between 2012 and 2014 growth has been only 3.27% reaching 63bn gtk in the last financial year. <br /><br />Looking at ARTC’s 2013 Annual Report it would seem all that growth was between FY2010 to FY2012 and since then growth has virtually flatlined.<br /><br />What adds to the confusion is that everyone reports their data in different ways.<br /><br />ARTC provides gtks while Pacific National provides data in its quarterly ASX statements that records intermodal as nett tonne kilometres (ntk) and twenty foot equivalent units (TEU). For its FY2014 intermodal task both measure fell, by 5.1% and 3.2% respectively.<br /><br />Aurizon lumps its intermodal task in with ‘Freight’ which can include bulk minerals in Queensland and WA (excluding coal and iron ore), along with grain and general freight, and reports volumes in tonnes and in ntks.<br /><br />Tonnes hauled in FY2014 for Aurizon were down 6% from 49.3mt to 46.3mt while ntks at 12.5bn ntk for the same period were down 5%. Within this amorphous ‘Freight’ task, Aurizon said that bulk volumes were down 9%, but intermodal was up 17%.<br /><br />And ARTC’s ‘interstate non-coal traffic’ excludes all intrastate traffic the inclusion of which, I have often argued in the past, would make rail’s market share on several corridors actually look a lot better than the industry perceives. <br /><br />When the need to provide better data is aired, a concern is always raised that if the data requested is too detailed then there will be issues of ‘commercial in confidence’. <br /><br />I would argue that if someone wants to know what your business is doing they’ll find out regardless of what data you make publically available or to the BTIRE, who let’s face it present the data in such a way that it is hard to identify individual freight operators.<br /><br />Hell, there’s a whole community of stock market analysts out there that can probably tell you more than you know yourself about your own business.<br /><br />It would appear that in order to dress down the data, we have now gone to the other extreme, where on the surface it might look like there is plenty available, but when put together there is&nbsp danger it can be rendered relatively meaningless.</p>