A leading infrastructure expert says the Australia is in desperate need of a mainline railway capable of carrying big freight tonnages at lower cost.

Despite the critical importance of mineral and commodities exports to the national economy, Australia continues to lag badly behind other OECD countries when it comes to mainline freight rail.

‘We’re a long way behind the eight ball when it comes to freight rail, particularly compared to countries like Canada and the US,” said Luke Fraser, principal of Juturna Infrastructure, to Sourceable. “There’s no scaled-up international standard heavy rail covering the east coast –  mines in the east of Australia lack a logical place to go for cheap freight.

According to Fraser the lack of adequate heavy rail line running along the eastern coast severely hampers the transportation options for suppliers of key commodities.

“An example is Newcastle and the Hunter Valley, where railing freight services are fairly full up,” said Fraser. “It’s hard for that coal to go anywhere.

“The debate on rail easily gets hijacked by other issues that aren’t so relevant – like high speed passenger rail along the east coast… a mainline railway capable of carrying big freight tonnages at lower cost is what east coast Australia desperately needs.”

While the Federal government’s Inland Rail project is intended to remedy these shortcomings, with a mainline freight rail situated west of the Great Dividing Range that links Melbourne and Brisbane, Fraser believes the funding allocations remains grossly inadequate.

“The Federal government spends around $8 billion each year on roads, while it has budgeted only around $75 million per year for planning and preparatory work for the Inland Rail,” said Fraser. “At this rate, Australia will be waiting a long time for cheaper freight.”

Fraser advocates greater use of private investment to facilitate the rapid construction of the inland rail line.

“A best practice solution would embrace commercial financing of this railway to get it built quickly. Now there are challenges to sort out there in truck and highway charges and in what role the bureaucracy plays – at present they dominate the project – but if we are serious about freight infrastructure it is the only sensible course of action.”

Another problem highlighted by Luke is Australia’s poor design specifications for heavy rail.

“We don’t even have an adequate design standard for heavy rail in this country,” said Fraser. “The Australian Rail Track Corporation, which looks after the country’s national interstate rail system, specifies axle loads in the 20 to 30 ton range, which are still low compared to other countries. In North America the axle loads are up in the thirties, or as high as 40 for big mineral lines.”