Freight rail could be a solution to the impact poor population growth planning is having on Australian capital cities.

Australia is amongst the most urbanised nations on earth. With forecasts of four million extra people settled in its capital cities by 2035, Australia also has one of the highest rates of population growth in the developed world.

Poor population growth planning, however, could put Australia’s capital cities at risk of losing their high ranking on international indices of liveability.

Urban Congestion

A rising population entails more work-related travel and greater demand for goods and services. Congestion in Australian cities will inevitably increase. Typically, the focus of publications and policy responses to solving congestion problems has been on the movement of people. Freight movement has either not been integrated with the overall responses or has only been considered as an afterthought.

Cities around the world face serious traffic congestion. In some countries, such as the United States, a strong freight rail market has kept truck traffic through cities at manageable levels.

Elsewhere, for example in Europe and Australia, freight rail has lost most of its market share. This has led to higher levels of truck traffic and intensified congestion. In some cities, the emphasis on passenger rail has limited freight capacity and competitiveness.

International experience suggests a strong freight and strong passenger rail network are incompatible. This is important, since many cities seek to reduce traffic congestion through expansion of passenger rail. Driving freight away from rail and onto roads could worsen traffic congestion.

To contain urban traffic congestion, it is vital that the freight rail industry maintains or expands its market share. In some cases, the potential for freight projects to reduce traffic congestion is greater than for passenger rail projects. Public policy should aim at implementing the most effective projects for reducing congestion in a balanced manner.

Freight rail competitiveness

The advantages of freight rail over trucking include the ability to move large volumes of goods at comparatively low expense and with less expenditure of energy. The intermodal market, consisting of truck trailers and ocean shipping containers moved by rail and truck, is growing rapidly and has significant potential for expansion.

New commuter rail systems and the expansion of intercity rail services pose a major external threat however, and could make freight rail less competitive. Ultimately, this may lead to the diversion of large volumes of freight to trucks onto already congested urban highways.

Finding solutions to our freight transportation issues is becoming more challenging. It is time for some innovative solutions.

Innovations in freight transportation

Several innovations are at various stages of development around the world. One such innovation is the CargoCap system, a prototype of which is being planned in Germany. This system involves fully automated transport vehicles called “Caps,” each loaded with two euro-pallets, travelling in underground pipelines with a diameter of only two metres. The system is independent of above ground traffic congestion and weather conditions.

Other similar developments include the MoleSolutions concept in the UK, the PipeNet concept in Italy, the Tube Cargo Express in Belgium, and the Tube Enclosed Air Levitated Transport System (TEAL).

Central to these innovations is the quest to avoid existing transportation networks due to congestion issues. Freight pipelines, predominately underground, appear to be the focus of efforts to develop new ways of transporting freight.

Underground freight rail

Fortunately, we do not have to rely on engineering technology which is unproven or potentially incompatible with existing modes of transport. If we rethink the application of existing, proven technology, we can, at least for the foreseeable future, solve many of these freight transportation issues.

Advances in tunnel technology mean there is no reason for conventional rail freight trains to remain above ground, contingent upon adherence to a few safety-related issues. It is therefore no surprise that cities like New York and Antwerp are considering the construction of major rail freight tunnels to solve their freight logistics problems.

Tunnelling can bring rail infrastructure closer to where it is most needed, eliminating the necessity for transfer to trucks or longer, more expensive routes which entail greater impact on existing above ground developments.

The expansion of the rail freight network need no longer compromise the liveability of cities.