Traffic congestion conversations in Australia have traditionally focused on passenger transport. How do we move people from A to B, typically using road or rail?

It will be of no surprise to any commuter that this is a major point of discussion during election time. I’m sure media headlines asking how long it takes you to commute to and from work are familiar, not to mention headlines around train overcrowding, road congestion and the urgent need for solutions.

What isn’t often as openly discussed is the importance of freight transport in our society. We rely enormously on freight, yet it tends to be the forgotten part of the transport and logistics mix.

In today’s increasingly global society, we need efficient freight transport more and more. This is particularly true in Australia, where the volume of international trade is ever increasing with food, consumer goods, raw materials and more. We are importing and exporting goods and moving it around Australia at higher volumes than ever before.

According to a report commissioned by Infrastructure Partnerships Australia, transport and logistics “is the oil in the engine of Australia, without which our nation would grind to a halt.”

Our transport and logistics industry is responsible for:

  • generating 14.5 per cent of GDP, with Australia’s supply chain worth an estimated $150 billion every year
  • providing more than one million jobs across some 165,000 companies
  • supporting the competitive pricing of Australian exports in international markets

A new Australian Government report shows the cost of traffic congestion in Australia will balloon by billions of dollars over the coming years, to reach a cost of $37 billion by 2030.

According to Michael Kilgariff, managing director of the Australian Logistics Council (ALC), it is vital all levels of government give equal consideration to the movement of freight as they do to the movement of people, particularly as the Australian logistics industry.

“Failure to appropriately fund key logistics projects would not make economic sense, particularly when you consider that a one per cent improvement in supply chain efficiency will yield a $2 billion-a-year benefit to the national economy,” he said. “With Australia’s freight task predicted to double between 2010 and 2030 and triple by 2050, it is crucial that policy makers give equal priority to freight in their investment and policy decision.”

Most of our consumer goods are transported to and from and around Australia via containers. We have four major ports handling container cargo – Melbourne, Sydney (Port Botany), Brisbane, Perth (Fremantle).

It is interesting to note the various approaches to servicing these major Australian ports in terms of land transport:

  • Port of Melbourne has a strong road and rail network servicing the largely radial location of Melbourne as a central port for the state of Victoria. The vast majority is carried by road.
  • Port Botany, servicing Sydney/NSW, has benefited from strong investment in the past decade in rail, enhancing the efficiency of Port Botany. The area surrounding Port Botany has seen significant urban growth, along with a world class rail infrastructure centred on the Moorebank intermodal terminal. Still, only 15 per cent of its containers are carried by rail, with a target of 40 per cent by 2050.
  • In contrast to Sydney is Brisbane. The Port of Brisbane facility at Fisherman Island has a purpose-built container facility, well-serviced by an efficient road transport network. This is largely due to foresight during the 1970s and continuing to today. Rail transport has not enjoyed a similar level of investment and accordingly rail’s share of container transport to and from Port of Brisbane is only four per cent. The efficient road transport network, coupled with truck and truck handling efficiencies at the port, have seen the share of rail-transported containers fall significantly over the past decade
  • In Perth (Fremantle) approximately 15 per cent of containers are carried by rail on a shared passenger and freight link to the Port of Fremantle, with Fremantle Ports having a long-term target share for rail of 30 per cent. Initiatives are underway to increase the existing proportion of containers on rail for this growing container focused port, but more investment is required.

Long-term planning by the federal and state governments is critical to secure appropriate transport corridors, and the Australian Government’s re-creation of Infrastructure Australia (IA) is a step in the right direction. IA can act as the conduit to targeted infrastructure funding, meaning Australia is becoming better equipped to secure appropriate transport corridors and infrastructure for road and rail freight links.

Also important in this mix is road safety. According to the World Health Organization, 1.25 million people globally are killed on roads every year. In Australia, 1,310 people died in road accidents in 2012 and over 52,000 people were treated in hospital for transport related injuries. The annual cost to the Australian economy of road traffic accidents is estimated at $27 billion. It is estimated that 93 per cent of traffic accidents are caused by human error. Difficult conditions, such as darkness, rain, fog, and driving when tired or distracted or under the influence of drugs and alcohol, all impair human ability to drive safely.

ARRB Group (formerly Australian Road Research Board) managing director Gerard Waldron believes autonomous, or driverless vehicles, can improve safety by removing human error. He has suggested that driverless trucks could potentially save the freight industry 40 per cent of its running costs due to reduced labour costs, lower fuel consumption and lower emissions from a more efficient system.

According to Waldron, “[the savings] flow through to the cost of everything that we buy, everything that’s delivered to our supermarkets, everything we export, because the cost of moving it will be reduced.”

We are at a crossroads in Australia now. There is a critical need for our transport planners across jurisdictions to come together around future freight and passenger corridors and improved planning for multi-modal infrastructure solutions. This will help ensure the quality of life and market efficiencies if our transport network can continue to serve the increasing expectations and needs of the Australian community.

In road safety, if we are bold about improving our standard of living, and are prepared to grasp opportunities created by new technologies and practices, we have a real chance to make a difference to the accident statistics. A 10 per cent improvement in road safety means saving 125,000 lives around the world.