Why aren’t we using more rail freight in Australia?
According to logistics theory, rail freight comes into its own over greater geographical distances.
I seem to recall learning back in my Cranfield days that 600 km was the magic number above which rail freight made economic sense.
OK, so we have vast distances here in Australia. And yet rail freight popularity seems to be focused mainly on the long distance East to West Coast routes and to medium-haul bulk freight such as coal, rice, wheat, sugar and the like.
Given the increasing congestion on our main roads, the rising cost of fuel and the forecasted doubling of freight volumes over the next 10 years or so, shouldn’t we be starting to use rail freight more?
Rail Freight Australia
So what’s stopping us? These are the common reasons I hear:
- The rail services are not reliable.
- The double handling at each end (at the terminals) just increases cost and damages
- Rail services are not available where we need them
I first wrote and published this post back in 2013, and since then, the situation in Australia hasn’t changed much, but elsewhere in the world too, logistics and transportation experts are recognising the need to shift freight from road to rail, and hence to provide solutions that support that shift.
With that in mind, I thought I’d update this post with brief details of some interesting developments in rail-freight transportation. One such development is taking place here in Australia, and another overseas in the United States (but this second solution offers exciting possibilities for rail freight anywhere in the world).
Melbourne to Brisbane Inland Rail
The federal government announced investment of $8.4 in the planned Melbourne to Brisbane inland rail, a dedicated freight transport project which will address the lack of rail infrastructure in South Eastern Australia.
Once complete, the new rail will offer a number of advantages for companies involved in logistics, including:
- A reduction in highway congestion across South East Australia
- Improved freight access to the ports of Melbourne and Brisbane
- New opportunities to establish strategically located freight hubs
- Faster freight transit times between locations in the vicinity of the line
- Supply chain cost reductions of up to $10 per tonne
Of course we’ll have to wait a while for our industry to realise these benefits, as the line is not expected to be operational until 2024/2025, by which time the South Eastern transport infrastructure will surely be fit to burst at the seams. Still progress, as they say, is progress.
Autonomous Freight Shuttle System
While the Melbourne to Brisbane inland rail will at last provide some relief for the problem of rail service availability, developments in the United States could offer a solution to the double-handling issue, and perhaps even initiate worldwide adoption of an entirely new type of transport system.
In what may prove to be one of the most exciting supply chain innovations for decades, we may find a workable answer to congestion along major road-freight corridors.
Designed to follow the routes of major highways, an autonomous electric shuttle system recently unveiled in Texas will run on rails elevated by pylons in the median strip. Each individual shuttle can carry one shipping container or road trailer.
The shuttles are driverless and fast, but extremely economical to run, since they are powered by highly efficient linear induction motors. Trailers can be rolled on and off the shuttles at a terminal, making for an almost seamless interchange between road and rail and vice versa.
Is it Time for the Train to Take More Strain?
Clearly there are moves afoot to make rail freight a more appealing and viable mode of transportation, but will rail really be able to take a bigger share of the freight market in the future, or is Australia (and the rest of the world) doomed to endure increasingly choked highways?
Or perhaps developments in trucking like autonomous vehicles and clean fuel breakthroughs will obviate the need for rail freight as an alternative?
What do you think, and what are your reasons for not using rail more?
From my perspective, one thing is certain. If we don’t start diversifying our use of freight modes, we may well grind to a standstill on our roads.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in October 2013 under the title “Does Rail Really ‘Suck’ that Much?” It has now been revamped and updated with more comprehensive and current information.