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Caroline Wilkie, CEO of the ARA, sets out the association’s advocacy agenda when it comes to rail freight.
The doubling of Australia’s population over the next 30 years will make connecting the supply of goods and services between our far-flung cities more important than ever.
Resilient freight networks will be an essential part of our national connectivity and will be key to supporting the productivity of businesses across the country.
And rail must play a growing role to meet that challenge.
The Australasian Railway Association (ARA) recently released its rail freight and ports strategic plan to set its advocacy agenda on this crucial issue over the next three years.
Informed by extensive industry consultation, the plan identifies the need for rail to increase its share of our national freight task to ensure the growing demand expected in the next 20 years can be met.
While COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of resilient supply chains, that need has always been there and is only becoming more important.
The country’s freight task is expected to grow by 35 per cent by 2040, and by then our network will traverse more than 1,000 billion tonne kilometres every year.
That new demand can simply not be sustainably supported by more trucks on the roads or planes in the air alone.
A multi-modal freight sector that makes the best use of all modes of transport is a fundamental part of ensuring Australia’s supply chains can deal with the needs of the nation in the future.
Maintaining the status quo will not be enough.
There is enormous potential for rail to play a greater role in meeting our freight task, but regulatory reform is required to make that a reality.
A level playing field for all will be needed for this to be realised to make sure every mode of transport can be used efficiently and effectively to support our economic growth and development.
Common safety, environmental, and economic regulation across the country would streamline operations and put the focus firmly on delivering on the nation’s freight needs.
So too would the achievement of a truly interoperable rail network, and the ARA’s rail freight and ports strategic plan supports the ARTC’s efforts to implement its Advanced Train Management System on the interstate network.
These are big ambitions that require national focus and strong collaboration between government and industry to be realised.
We are pleased to see these conversations progressing through the National Rail Action Plan working groups and other industry forums.
As we continue to advocate for changes to support the growth of the industry, a clear understanding of the current state of play and the obstacles that the industry may face is essential.
That is why the ARA has launched three research programs to be completed over the next 12 months.
Firstly, we will be working to better understand the impediments to rail freight modal shift.
Just one freight train alone can take 110 trucks off the roads a year, busting congestion and improving the safety outcomes of the sector.
Rail freight remains a sustainable and efficient option that has proven its reliability time and again.
In urban centres, rail freight frees up the road network to create more liveable communities for people in our cities.
Given these benefits, rail should be playing a significant role as part of a multi- modal network – and this research will inform how we achieve that outcome.
Secondly, we will be looking at rail freight productivity in Australia.
It will be essential to establish a clear view of the industry’s current performance and the conditions required to make rail freight even more competitive in the future.
The 2017 Value of Rail study found a one per cent improvement in rail freight productivity could generate $8-20 billion in savings to the national economy over 20 years.
Small improvements could make a big difference and our research will seek to identify actionable outcomes to drive greater productivity in the sector.
Finally, we will research rail freight infrastructure investment.
Continued investment in the freight network will be essential to meet growing demand, but projects must be planned effectively and implemented efficiently.
Getting infrastructure investment right for the beginning will ensure the benefits of that investment are realised faster and reach further into our communities.
Combined, these projects will inform our advocacy agenda to make the case for regulatory reform.
Because we will need more than one approach to make a real difference for the benefit of Australian businesses and communities.
The Australian rail sector is calling for a clear statement from governments that rail freight is an “essential service” and can continue to operate despite coronavirus (COVID-19) shutdowns.
“With state borders around the country closing, rail freight is more important than ever. It needs to be clear that essential services such as rail freight movements can continue during this time,” said CEO of the Australasian Railway Association (ARA), Caroline Wilkie.
The Australian Logistics Council (ALC) also reiterated the need for governments to take a definitive position on the status of rail freight.
“It would be helpful if governments at all levels reinforced this point in their communications and made it clear that freight operations will not be impeded by border closures,” said ALC CEO, Kirk Coningham.
The statement follows border closures in Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia, and the Northern Territory and shutdowns of “non-essential services” in NSW and Victoria.
In some cases, the demand for rail freight is increasing, as Matthew Roberts, rollingstock operations manager at CFCL Australia (CFCLA) highlighted.
“Our assets and maintenance workshops are running as normal ensuring the servicing, maintenance and continuation of rebuilds of rollingstock for rail operators and other rail freight shippers continues. The CFCLA leasing business is also working with customers to increase the supply of locomotives and wagons in service in some areas.”
However, as supermarkets, pharmacies, and other retail stores remain open, rail freight is required to keep supply chains moving.
“ALC’s conversations with governments and regulators at federal and state/territory level have been focussed on ensuring freight and logistics across all transport modes remain classified as an essential service. So far, that advice is being accepted, and as a result, our supply chains are continuing to function,” said Coningham.
To date, freight is yet to be told to reduce services.
“The COVID-19 situation is unlike anything we have faced, but rail freight is providing the backbone to our nation’s supply chain during these challenging times. Our members are keeping freight moving, ensuring that essential goods such as canned food, toilet paper and cleaning products continue to get to where they need to be,” said Wilkie.
Transport for NSW secretary, Rodd Staples, said that the agency will work to ensure freight continues in NSW.
“A key part of our role is ensuring goods and services are able to get to where they are needed most, including supermarkets. The team is continuing to work closely with the freight industry to ensure we don’t see any barriers emerge in critical supply chains, across roads, ports and rail.”
While curfews have been lifted for road freight to supply supermarkets and stores that have had to deal with panic buying, curfews still apply to rail freight movements. Additionally, as passenger demand drops, there is the potential for increased freight movements.
“We appreciate the need to keep critical passenger train services moving in our cities but if we see a reduction in passenger services on metropolitan networks, rail freight access should be increased to these networks to facilitate the transport of essential goods. This could include modifications to current curfews to increase frequency and availability of freight services,” said Wilkie.
Coningham also highlighted that the seamless movement of goods is critical at this time.
“Our supply chains cannot afford to have rail freight being delayed at check points for hours if we want to keep essential goods flowing. The health and welfare of Australian communities needs to be our priority – and in order to ensure it, we have to keep food, clothing and medicines moving to the places they need to go.”
Rail freight operators are ensuring that they are able to provide a safe and reliable service to customers by increasing cleaning procedures.
“To mitigate the potential person to person contamination risk, workshop crews are being split into small teams and working hours are staggered with crews running two shifts instead of the normal day shift reducing person to person contact as far as possible. Cleaning of workshops has increased each day and between shifts and importantly cleaning locomotive cabs has been stepped up further as they pass through for servicing,” said Roberts.
“CFCLA is taking seriously the supply of goods and services necessary to the freight sector with the health and wellbeing of all Australians being paramount.”