As Australia undergoes record investment in roads and passenger rail, state and Commonwealth ministers have lined up to cut the ribbon on ‘congestion busting’ developments.

Less attention has been afforded to freight, giving rise to concerns about this sector being short-changed due to political expediency.

“…look at the road and rail spending in NSW — it’s focused on the commuter,” Ports Australia chief executive officer Mike Gallagher was quoted as saying in The Australian.

“There isn’t the investment in freight or rail or a plan to handle heavy vehicles. There’s a lack of vision beyond the daily commute.”

Gallagher is not alone. In its submission to the Federal Government Inquiry into Australia’s National Freight and Supply Chain Strategy, the Australian Logistics Council (ALC) says that as cities become more populous, “it is fast becoming apparent that our existing planning regimes and approaches to development are failing to adequately prioritise the movement of freight.”

According to that submission, Australia’s current planning regimes fail to acknowledge the reality that the liveability of Australian cities will be compromised without efficient transport of goods. These regimes, it says, “pursue the path of least resistance” by “ranking the needs of residents above the needs of freight movement when it comes to decision making.”

Infrastructure Partnerships Australia chief executive officer Brendan Lyon says freight is not as ‘sexy’ as commuter transport, but stresses that efficient movement of goods is nonetheless critical for the economy and for delivering necessary goods at affordable prices.

“There is no doubt that passenger transport and managing congestion are the sexy end of the (transport) debate,” Lyon said. “People vote and boxes don’t.”

The inquiry comes amid concerns about the ability of Australia to deliver upon its freight requirements over coming decades. This is especially the case with the National Transport Commission forecasting that the national freight task will grow by 26 per cent over the next decade having already increased by 50 per cent over the 10 years to 2016.

From an infrastructure viewpoint, industry bosses talk of several concerns.

First, there is the adequacy of current infrastructure. The main concern here surrounds a lack of port and rail linkages. In Brisbane, an absence of rail connections to the port mean that goods arriving on ships need to be trucked out of the area. In Sydney, IPA’s Lyon adds that duplication of the existing freight line to the Port of Sydney was yet to garner political support despite costing only $80 million and having the potential to deliver productivity and reliability gains.

Whilst the proposed freight rail link between Brisbane and Melbourne is positive, Ports Australia noted in its submission that there were even shortcomings with this in that initial planning suggests that the Brisbane end of the line will end 30 kilometres from the port at Acacia Ridge and that the Melbourne end will end 13 kilometres from the port at Tottenham.

In Melbourne, Lyon talks of an ongoing need to support the Port of Melbourne. This includes through the proposed West Gate Tunnel linking the Port with the West Gate Freeway.

Challenges also arise from urban encroachment into industrial areas.

Growing property values have seen factory and warehouse operators being pushed further out and needing to make longer and costlier journeys to service inner metropolitan locations. This is especially the case in Sydney, where industrial tenants have been pushed further out into the southwest as soaring home and apartment values have seen previous industrial space in the south gobbled up for residential conversion.

Courtesy of issues such as noise, smell and heavy vehicles on roads, meanwhile, industrial tenants are subjected to growing levels of conflict with residential neighbours and are increasingly subjected to restrictions such as curfews for delivery and operating times.

Beyond that, the ALC says, growing congestion associated with expanding population and urbanisation is jacking up delivery time frames and costs as logistics operators face increasing competition with residents for scarce road space. Metropolitan (especially inner) deliveries are also being impacted by a lack of adequate street loading zones, new residential or commercial buildings with poor or non-existent freight delivery facilities and increasing delivery curfews, it says.

Finally, there is a need to protect future transport corridors. Land for the current M4 expansion in Sydney and the proposed North-East Link extension linking the Eastern Freeway in Melbourne has been set aside for four decades and half a century, the Ports Australia submission notes.

A commonly cited example of these challenges is the Port of Botany. Originally, this was constructed in the 1960s as a means of taking industry out of residential areas in Sydney. Thanks over time to zoning for adjacent land being altered from industrial to commercial and subsequently residential (increasingly apartments), however, the closest residence is now just 200 metres from the port. As well as conflict between with residents, the gobbling up of previous industrial land nearby which was available to unload and redistribute freight has forced trucks to undertake further and more costly journeys westward in order to redistribute.

Just as important as new investment, meanwhile, is the need to derive greater value from existing assets. At the moment, Lyon says our ability to do this is being hampered a regulatory environment which involves multiple bodies across the three tiers of government and no single body which is accountable for the operation of the system as a whole.

One consequence of this, he says, is inconsistent regulation. Take, for example, the growing number of curfews (implemented by local governments) with respect to delivery times. In many cases, he says these are forcing supermarket deliveries to be made during business hours even though this adds to road congestion during some of the busiest times. In another example, he is aware of a factory which is allowed only to accept deliveries after hours despite the facility itself being allowed to operate only during regular business hours.

Finally, there is road pricing. For several reasons, there is agreement that Australia’s current system of funding investment in new roads and maintenance of existing roads through ‘blunt’ instruments such as fuel excise duties are problematic and need to change.

One problem is that there is little relationship between what individual road users pay through these duties and the level of ‘stress’ their road use places upon the network. Nor is there any pricing incentive for road users to minimise their impact upon the system by, say, travelling outside of peak periods.

Further, the capacity of this to actually fund road upgrades is diminishing. Whereas the proportion of funding received by the government through these duties which was put back into road funding was initially 100 per cent, the NRMA recently told a NSW Legislative Council inquiry into road pricing that this figure is now between one third and half. Moreover, revenue from these measures is expected to decline as people buy new cars and more people buy electric cars.

Instead, a more transparent system based around actual road usage is needed, the industry argues.

Going forward, the ALC would like a number of changes, including planning instruments which preserve industrial lands and the development of inland rail. The Commonwealth, it says, should pursue agreements with states for land and corridor preservation and urban encroachment prevention and should establish a special freight planning division within the Infrastructure department to concentrate Commonwealth expertise on freight issues.

IPA, meanwhile, wants a coordination body charged with developing a national freight plan and identifying areas of policy reform and priority projects. Such a body, Lyon said, could identify areas where individual regulations were hindering efficient freight delivery and could facilitate a strategic approach toward emerging opportunities for better network management through technology and data.

Australia is investing big in commuter transport.

To maintain a productive economy, however, this must be complemented by actions to improve the safety, reliability and efficiency by which goods and merchandise are delivered.