The Review of the Inland Rail announced in October by federal Transport Minister Catherine King is a fantastic and much-needed opportunity for a reset on an infrastructure project that can transform how freight is moved on Australia’s eastern seaboard, for the betterment of every mode of transport.
When the project was announced, its managers adopted a truly intermodal perspective to its delivery of infrastructure, that by its nature, would involve significant interactions between road and rail freight.
It was a perspective that recognised the project’s capacity to deliver supply chain improvements that would benefit all Australians by providing greater efficiencies for transport operators and the customers and consumers they service.
Regrettably, project managers have taken on an adversarial position towards modal value and positioning in recent years, with a narrative that suggests that somehow rail transport is better than road transport, and that the benefit of Inland Rail is its capacity to take trucks off the roads.
This went against the original spirit of the project, which was its potential to create productivity improvements through greater choice of transport modes.
The project was never created to have an adverse impact on one modality over another, but rather to continue our industry’s push towards greater intermodal connectivity.
Without a doubt, there will be an inevitable modal shift as the project is completed. But the very concept of taking heavy vehicles off the roads is a misnomer, considering the reality of our industry that ships, planes and trains carry freight, but only trucks deliver.
The intermodal integration of transport modes is what drives supply chain efficiency, greater reduction of carbon emissions and provides consistency in process, and therein lies the real value and potential of Inland Rail.
Ships will still carry freight in and out of Australia, and road freight operators will still be needed to carry that freight to the trains and ultimately onto its final destination.
The terminals in the middle of these freight exchanges will need to be able to manage the types and volume of goods the Inland Rail business case predicts to be truly efficient and viable.
Yet six years into the project we still have not decided where the Victorian terminal will be located. The Western Industrial Freight Terminal (WIFT) and the Beveridge Industrial Freight Terminal (BIFT) are currently fighting for recognition, funding and a green light to start building.
From a road freight integration perspective, it would seem the best intermodal connectivity will be through the development of the WIFT, whose positioning, connectivity and efficiency would ensure who that supply chain serves will get the best value with the least disruption.
Putting the intermodal connectivity aside and referring back to the original business case, the Review presents an opportunity to revisit key considerations that have been overlooked.
For example, the current advertising of the project trumpets a 24-hour transit time between Brisbane and Melbourne that will see thousands of tonnes of freight move from road to rail line haul.
Given the parlous state of Australia’s passenger airline industry, a 24-hour rail service will see a surge of enquiries from would-be passengers. Who wouldn’t want to board a non-stop train and travel in comfort through some of the world’s most spectacular countryside, whilst having the capacity to work and rest, and wake refreshed the next morning in Brisbane or Melbourne?
Yet the business case makes no reference to revenues that may be gained on a service of this kind, and the project managers have not responded to its question being asked.
Other details such as track allocation which, in the rail world, is a big issue, has been omitted from discussion.
The VTA will play a constructive role in the Review as it consults stakeholders on a project that has great potential to transform our national supply chain and create growth amongst all the transport modes.
As we approach the end of another year, I’d like to thank Prime Mover readers for their strong interest in, and passion for, our great industry.
The VTA wishes you a safe and happy Christmas, and I look forward to engaging with you on these pages in 2023.
Peter Anderson CEO, VTA