The prospect of Australia having a much improved freight rail system in the future has been raised in a report published this week. The report by a committee chaired by former Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson, lays out the advantages for the Australian economy and the freight industry of creating a viable alternative to road freight between Melbourne and Brisbane.
The Inland Rail is a 1700 km rail line between the ports of Melbourne and Brisbane. It is planned to utilise some existing rail infrastructure, modernise and extend some other sections, as well as build new rail lines, where needed, to supplement the existing rail track. Overall 600 km of new track will be needed, with a further 400 km needing a major upgrade.
The planned freight journey time of less than 24 hours, improves on the current performance by well over ten hours. Currently, freight passes through Sydney and gets tangled up in the passenger network in the city.
The new route will also enable double stacking of containers over its entire length, on trains slated to start at 1.8 km long, but be superseded, over time, by new trains at 3.6 km long. These kinds of loads represent the same amount of freight as would normally travel on 200 B-doubles, when it reaches full capacity.
The report estimates the cost, at around $10 billion, makes economic sense with $20 billion worth of direct and indirect economic benefits accruing from its construction.
A massive increase in the freight capacity of Australia is reckoned to be needed in the next 35 years. The freight task between the two cities, currently around 5 million per annum, is expected to rise to 12 million tonnes by 2050.
Rail freight comes into its own over longer distances, when journey times are comparable to those achievable by road. 80 per cent of all freight between Perth and the Eastern States is now travelling on rail. The same figure between Melbourne and Brisbane is, currently, 28 per cent.
With the expected increase in freight between the two cities both road and rail freight will need to increase substantially to cope. The cost of simply improving road infrastructure to cope is estimated to be considerably higher than the expected cost of an inland rail.
The planned railway will also be good news for Parkes in NSW and Toowoomba in Queensland. Parkes is already home to two intermodal terminals, belonging to SCT and Linfox, and is at the junction between the Melbourne/Brisbane inland rail and the line heading towards Perth. Toowoomba is expected to become a major hub for freight moving to and from the rest of Queensland, outside the South-East corner.
The report also finds the capital outlay needs to come from government as the return figures would not stack up for a private investor. Completion can be expected within ten years of commencement, with double stacking between Melbourne and Parkes available two years earlier.