Train of thought to logistics solution

Business Age Tuesday 24th October 2006

MOVING freight to and from northern ports by rail makes sense, economically and environmentally. It seems that private investors agree there is a practical alternative to the State Government's Port Phillip Bay channel-deepening proposal.

Rather than rely on truck transport or longer shipping times to southern states, freight company Northline has forged an alliance with Indonesian company Mitra Intertrans Forwarding that will cut two weeks from the normal shipping time between Australia and Asia, our largest trading destination.

Goods will land at Darwin's East Arm Port and be railed to southern states. By expediting the freight process between Asia and Darwin — then via a freight network throughout Australia — shipping delays, waterfront bottlenecks and warehousing costs of shipping through Sydney or Melbourne will be reduced.

This makes a lot of sense. Freight from Asia typically takes on average 20 days to Sydney or Melbourne, including shipping queues, Customs and in-transit storage. Using the railway, the trip from Darwin could be reduced to six days — saving storage and transport costs, and offering importers and exporters a more responsive service.

Plenty of industries don't care whether their goods arrive or leave by rail or ship. Blue Wedges Coalition knows some importers prefer their goods to arrive by rail from Brisbane into Melbourne because it gets here quicker! (Even with all the supposed impediments of an underfunded rail system.)

And there are exporters who ask why they should have to be levied to pay for a project they neither want nor need. Last year, Australian Peak Shippers Association president Frank Beaufort said his group could not see any particular benefits for their membership from channel deepening. They would have to bear the costs (via the proposed levy on all containers) without realising any of the purported benefits.

The Port of Melbourne Corporation is clinging to its dominion — wheeling out the usual supporters, such as Neil Coulson, chief executive of the Victorian Employers Chamber of Commerce and Industry. In his recent article (Business, 26/9), Coulson promotes an outmoded and parochial state-based view of planning. Surely in the 21st century we should at least be looking at alternatives to the ways we have always done things. Sadly, VECCI and the State Government prefer to stick with a 19th-century solution of digging a bigger hole to solve the 21st-century problem of how to deal with more imports, more consumption of resources and more people in an already congested city on a critically stressed river port.

The recent inland rail conference in Parkes, NSW, heard evidence that one train with two drivers was nine times more energy efficient than truck transport, taking 150 trucks off the road and saving 45,000 litres of fuel (and lives, families and relationships). Parkes and Gilgandra shires are lobbying for an inland Brisbane-to-Melbourne rail link.

Parkes Shire is appalled at having to tolerate 1500 truck movements a day through its streets. But this is nothing compared with the number of trucks the Maribyrnong and Bayside councils tolerate through their suburban streets — estimated at up to 15,000 truck movements a day — emanating from the port. This will quadruple by 2030 if the Port of Melbourne continues to expand at its present rate. This level of truck traffic makes life barely liveable for thousands of people whose lives and health are affected by diesel pollution, noise and congestion right outside their front doors.

Using inland rail routes so some goods never have to enter the Port of Melbourne makes environmental, social and economical sense. Dairy products are Victoria's biggest export, with Asia the biggest destination and dairy farmers the biggest exporters. Produce from the Goulburn and Murray valleys, for example, could go directly to an inland terminal on the main Melbourne-Brisbane rail route and be on its way to the ports of Brisbane, Darwin or Perth without entering the Port of Melbourne just to be shipped northwards again to our Asian trading markets.

A lot of time could be saved by direct delivery to northern ports. The Melbourne-Brisbane rail trip is 21-24 hours, compared with about four days by ship. This would free up capacity at the port to handle efficiently those goods that really do need to go through it.

Claims from VECCI and the PoMC that Melbourne will "wither on the vine" if we do not dredge do not ring true. Melbourne is set to have an extra 1 million people by 2030, vastly increasing our consumption of goods and services.

(The port's own economic studies admit that trade through the port will quadruple by 2030 regardless of whether channel deepening proceeds). Blue Wedges says if this is the case we have nothing to fear and everything to gain from leaving the bay intact.

Channel deepening is a risky business — the PoMC also admits that. We could lose billions in tourism revenue, unique ecosystems, outstanding underwater scenery and fish stocks: priceless assets for the 21st century. Meanwhile, with another million people due, less open space will be available and increasing temperatures and decreasing water availability is on the horizon.

So, why are we locked into the traditional infrastructure mindset for an asset that is unique? It may lie in petty fiefdoms and a desire to "do business" the way we always have. VECCI has supported the relocation of the Melbourne Wholesale Markets to Epping to enable port expansion in spite of the fact the Market Users Group, including some VECCI members, do not want to move.

It is time the Government, the PoMC and VECCI realised that their constituents might enjoy more economic fortunes from a future in which we have investment opportunities linked to preserving the bay, our local economies and jobs, rather than destroying them.

There is no lack of interest in the idea of rail — just a lack of commitment from the Government to get it happening. Infrastructure parliamentary secretary Carlo Carli's acknowledgement that the Government has no long-term planning for country rail freight tracks is confirmation of that and should be more worrisome to farmers than whether channel deepening goes ahead. (Business, 3/10) Amazingly, Carli goes on to say "rail's place in the sun is now".

A fully integrated inland rail network across the nation would provide a solution for pressing issues in many areas, be it too many trucks through Parkes or Yarraville, how farmers can move their goods more efficiently to our major trading partners in the north or how to save and create good Australian jobs.

Let's keep the pressure on the Government to make sure it delivers what we want — a sustainable future in a liveable city, state and nation.

Jenny Warfe

Blue Wedges

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