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Central body needed to co-ordinate major upgrades of freight lines

07/05/2009

A central body needs to be established to bring Australia’s rail freight network up to speed and to take advantage of the tremendous opportunities available.

The most obvious organisation at the moment is the Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC), which oversees the national rail industry and would be well placed to undertake the coordinated effort needed to handle the billions required to be spent in the next two decades.

Multiple decision-makers as we have today cannot respond to the tremendous challenges facing Australia’s rail freight network and the need to separate freight and passenger lines to drive home one of the industry’s primary advantages, that of low emissions.

In 2009, there are five different sets of regulations required to be met to take a train from Brisbane - it is this over-complicated and expensive system that needs to be simplified to take trucks off the road and put cargo back onto the rail lines.

The five most pressing issues for Australian freight are:
  1. Upgrade the freight links between Melbourne and Adelaide.
  2. Create a rail link from Brisbane to the Adelaide-Darwin line.
  3. Make the Adelaide-Darwin line profitable by focussing on rail tonnage and access to ports.
  4. Develop the inland rail between Melbourne and Brisbane with a major interchange at Parkes.
  5. Continue to improve the line between Melbourne & Sydney in line with the South Improvement Alliance.
Not only will these investments make rail more competitive with road transport but they will significantly reduce Australia’s carbon emissions by taking trucks off the road.

Unfortunately none of this can happen when rail cargo is sharing the lines with passengers. To make rail truly viable there needs to be a significant duplication of rail tracks to ensure the passenger and freight trains are not competing. This will have major benefits for both the passenger and freight network and make both more competitive.

According to a National Transport Commission paper released last year, road transport contributes one third of Australia’s emissions at 14 per cent of the total. Commercial vehicles comprise 18 per cent of vehicles but contribute 38 per cent of road transport emissions. Rail emissions by comparison are negligible.

In terms of the need to separate lanes devoted to either passenger or freight movements, this is essential due to current restrictions. At the moment, freight trains can only operate outside six hours of designated peak-passenger hours in and out of Sydney, so as not to disrupt passenger network operations. This is unacceptable.

Solutions such as the Southern Sydney Freight Line (SSFL) whose works for the ARTC have begun, separating freight and urban passenger systems in Sydney from Chullora to Macarthur, have the ability says ARTC to free up 100 train paths a day for passengers; it also removes the current freight movement curfews in the south. A similar Northern line would do the same and achieve the same 100 passenger-train free-up.

The $2.1 billion South Improvement Alliance (SIA), of which O’Donnell Griffin is an alliance partner with ARTC, is achieving drastic improvement in transit times between the cities of Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. It addresses bottlenecks and the huge wastage of time freight trains can spend sitting idle during a journey, by adding new passing lanes and more efficient signalling systems.

According to ARTC, these works will make rail freight competitive again, with each 1500-metre-long train replacing 100 semi-trailers.

These are good developments but so many more are required. I applaud the vision of the Inland Rail project, now in development stages, which takes a serious stab at creating dedicated freight lines, which mean that Australia will be ready when the economy recovers, for the inevitable boom and pressure on freight volume to be moved efficiently.

But just as it is necessary for governments to have an overall view of the rail industry – freight and rail, while running them successfully in separate networks – it is also necessary for the level of co-ordination between Federal and State governments to be transformed for more efficient rail freight optimisation to occur. In designing and installing signalling on the SIA project, for example, ODG needed to create different signalling technologies for both NSW tracks and Victorian tracks, due to different regulatory codes being run by the two states.

Unless a radical long-term vision is employed to address the rail freight network, there will be a need to simply push more trucks onto the road network. This might appear prohibitive in terms of fuel pricing, environmental cost and urban congestion, but this is seriously the way the trend is going if national freight demand is to be met.

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