This week Diesel News found itself test driving a truck on the Peak Downs Highway from Emerald to Mackay in Central Queensland. This stretch of road seems to be a glaring example of exactly what is wrong with infrastructure in Australia and how these issues can limit future economic growth.
The Peak Downs Highway is not particularly long, just a few hundred kilometres. It runs South-West from the coastal city of Mackay into a hinterland, formerly known as an agricultural region. The situation changed with the start of substantial coal mining in the area as the resources boom took hold in Australia.
Queensland Rail developed a rail infrastructure to haul the millions of tonnes of coal being produced down from the plateau around Moranbah and Dysart. This bulk coal handling rail system gets the bulk product down to the coast, to the loading terminals and onto the queuing ships.
However, the massive amount of materials and equipment needed to make the coal industry happen did not make its way up to the coalfields on rail, it came by road, the Peak Downs Highway, to be exact. When the boom started the road was inadequate for the task at hand, many years later, and on the evidence of this week’s trip, it is still inadequate for the task.
Sections of highway around the actual mine sites themselves have clearly been substantially modernised. Presumably this is at the mining companies’ own expense. In areas where road spending is the responsibility of the state or local council, the road can be said to be, at best, very ordinary.
Narrow, and ageing, bitumen with very little run-off at the side of the road, features a few scattered overtaking lanes. The major incline, where the road drops from the plateau down to the coastal plain between Nebo and Mackay has a good road surface but is a steep grade with tight, narrow bends.
Last year, the RACQ commissioned an Australian Road Assessment Program (AusRAP) study of the Peak Downs. The road was assessed as being just a one or two stars (out of a possible five) for over 50 per cent of its length, with only one percent rated four stars.
“The Peak Downs Highway is the key route linking Mackay to the mines and yet more than half of it is well below an acceptable safety standard, no better than that on roads in developing countries,” said Greg Miszkowycz, the RACQ Senior Traffic and Safety Engineer, at the time.
The road is a B-double route, but that’s it. The sheer difficulty of getting freight from A to B in this area places a burden on the economics of running a business in the coal fields. The congestion and confusion when a wide load of up to eight metres comes through is a clear illustration of the limitation the infrastructure provides. All freight stops as the load weaves its way slowly along the highway.
There has been a lot of talk about infrastructure spending in the last year or so. The question we need to ask is just how effective the new money will be? The neglect of infrastructure spending over the previous decades means there are hundreds of Peak Downs Highways all over the country. Can we afford even a band aid for all of them, or are we going to see economic growth stymied, just at the point when we need it to kick in?