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PORT REPORT: Port-rail connections needed to cope with freight volume growth

Imagine a giant spine. Not made of bone, flesh and blood. But of steel, concrete and crushed stone. Imagine too that it’s 1,056 miles long. And that it costs US$7.5 billion (A$10.9 billion).

Australia is building the Inland Rail, a giant railway that will act as the north-south logistics “spine” in the eastern part of the country. About 70 percent of Australia’s 25.49 million people live in this area of the continent. The region generates about 78 percent of the country’s employment and 75 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product.

Australia’s population is forecast to grow by 60 percent over the next forty years. Freight volumes in the region are already big – by 2030 more than 32 million tonnes of freight will be moved between Melbourne and Brisbane. “That’s the equivalent of almost 1.2 million B-Double [a tractor and two trailers] truckloads of freight every year,” the Australian Rail Track Corporation says.

Freight volume growth

That’s not a static figure. The big problem that the Inland Rail is being used to solve is the problem of freight-growth.

“Freight volumes on Australia’s east coast are forecast to more than double by 2050 – our existing road and rail networks won’t cope with this increase in freight without further investment,” the ARTC says.

The case for Inland Rail is that it will reduce the number of truck movements, the amount of fuel consumed (and therefore the amount of emissions from fuel), reduce the injury and death toll from the roads, reduce road congestion and lower the cost of freight.

It will likely cause complementary investment along its route as trucks converge on newly-built distribution centers to load and discharge cargo to and from the Inland Rail. It will also help generate access to regional and international markets for over nine million tonnes of agricultural freight.

Inland Rail route

The Inland Rail will connect to the national rail freight network and thence to the ports at Perth and Adelaide. It will also connect the Port of Melbourne to the Port of Brisbane.

Well, almost.

There’s a sophisticated on-dock rail project planned for the Port of Melbourne, a port that handles three million twenty foot equivalent unit (TEU) ocean shipping containers a year. That on-dock rail will snake west through the city of Melbourne to a rail/road distribution and logistic center at Tottenham in the city’s West. From there, the Inland Rail will twist and turn its way ever north along the eastern part of the continent. It will run through plains, through fields and forests, over rivers and through towns and cities.

Until, at last, arriving within sight of the Port of Brisbane, it will stop. Short.

For some unknown reason, the great Inland Railway, which will form the spine for the vast majority of Australian intermodal and agricultural freight movement will not actually connect to the port. It will stop at a rail terminal in the city’s south-west called Acacia Ridge.

Local industry bodies are not impressed.

“The Inland Rail project…will transform Australia’s freight networks, enhancing supply chain efficiency and safety, boosting the nation’s export competitiveness and unlocking regional development and employment opportunities for local communities,” says the high-level lobby group, the Australian Logistics Council. But, it cautions, “interconnectivity is everything. While Inland Rail will play a critical role as a ‘spine’ in our freight network, it will ultimately rely on connections to other key freight infrastructure, including intermodal hubs and ports”.

But what if…

And so the Port of Brisbane has commissioned, and released, a report from Deloitte Access Economics (DAE) modelling what would happen if the Inland Rail did actually connect to the Port of Brisbane.

The Port of Brisbane handles about 1.35 million TEU ocean shipping containers each year. Rail’s current share of ocean shipping boxes hauled to and from the Port of Brisbane has dropped from about 12 percent ten years ago to about 2.5 percent to three percent today. In comparison the ports at Sydney (2.2 million TEU) and Melbourne (3.0 million TEU) have a container rail share of about 20 percent.

Rail modal share at the Port of Brisbane is extremely low compared to international estimates. At the port of Bremen (Germany) in 2015, for instance, rail’s container throughput is over 40 percent and in 2015 at Los Angeles it was about 35 percent, the consultants say.

And, according to DAE, “without a dedicated rail freight link the trend will likely continue, potentially declining to around one percent by 2035”. But, if a rail freight link is built to the Port of Brisbane then there is the “potential to significantly increase rail’s share to between 12 percent to 30 percent by 2035 (if not sooner)”.

Modal shift benefits

DAE says there a number of benefits that would derive from a modal switch.

The current 1.35 million TEU throughput at the Port generated about four million local truck movements in addition to “many tens of thousands” of over the road truck movements. Throughput growth forecasts for the Port of Brisbane suggest that there will be over five million TEUs handled at the port by 2050 and truck movements are expected to grow to about 13 million truck movements over the same period.

DAE says that a 30 percent modal share of the box trade at the Port of Brisbane would remove about 2.4 million trucks from the road network. That would also include an elimination of 12.8 billion net tonne kilometers of long-distance trucking. Savings of about A$130 (US$88.9) per TEU could also be realised and there would be reduced congestion costs of about A$195 million annually as freight trucks leave the road. Road maintenance costs would reduce by about A$155 million annually for the same reason.

The DAE gives the worked example of cotton haulage from inland Australia (Goondiwindi and Thallon) to the Port of Brisbane. It’s a near 100 percent truck-haul trade. The consultants point out that the regional railway network to the Port of Brisbane is limited to about 15.75 metric tonnes (a metric tonne is 2,204.6 U.S. pounds). But a four axle truck can take a payload of about 48 tonnes (with a total of 63 tonnes gross).

“This means that trains using 40 [foot] flat container-carrying wagons cannot accommodate two loaded containers of grain (typically, loaded into 20 foot containers with circa 25 tonne payload with 2.25 tonnes tare weight of the container). However, two loaded 20 foot containers of grain (gross circa 28t per container) or two loaded 40 foot containers of cotton (gross circa 32t per container) can be hauled by an A-Double Road Train. The A-Double which can access the port from Goondiwindi and Thallon… is becoming a significant part of the agriculture exports supply chain via the port”.

DAE reckons that connecting the Ridge to the port would increase Gross Regional Product by about A$5.4 billion (US$3.69 billion) between 2018 to 2045.

From terminal to port… right through or under the city

Of course, it’s one thing to say (or write) that a rail link should be built from the Acacia Ridge Terminal to the port. But there’s one tiny little thing that’s in the way.

It’s the City of Brisbane.

Cities put a lot of problems in the way of freight routes. In Brisbane specifically, road overpasses are two low for double-stacked box trains; existing freight trains to the port are limited to 680 meters; there are at least five flat junctions at or near Acacia Ridge where freight and passenger rail merge; freight trains cannot operate during peak weekday hours; there are multiple level crossings and there are freight-passenger rail conflicts. There’s also about 16 straight-line miles of houses, roads, shops and offices between the rail terminal and the seaport.

Engineers could always just knock out a big corridor through the city, as the NSW State Government is doing through the city of Sydney to build its giant motorway corridor, WestConnex, to the west of the city. But that kind of option tends to be unpopular.

So the main options on the table to connect to the port are an eastern rail freight corridor including some kind of dedicated freight tunnel; an upgrade of the existing freight corridor or the digging out of a 26km electrified tunnel.

Railroad tycoon: which way to the coast?

The first option, a new Eastern Rail Freight Corridor, would either be one straight, long, rail tunnel from Acacia Ridge to the port or it would be a combination of above and below-ground options broadly following the route of a local motorway.

Upgrading the existing corridor was disregarded as “socially unacceptable,” for the simple reason that large numbers of properties would have to be torn down and “numerous arterial road structures would be completely rebuilt”. And the end result would be a corridor “with too many substandard curves and gradients”.

The final options to be considered, an electric tunnel, was rejected. An electric tunnel would require a cargo-swap from diesel to electric trains, which would limit the tunnel’s carrying capacity, “while increasing its operational complexity”. And it would involve digging through an environmentally sensitive forest area.

DAE concluded that, while a long tunnel is “feasible,” it carries more cost and more significant risks than the Eastern Freight Rail Corridor.

“No diesel-operated freight tunnel of this length has been constructed beneath an urbanised area before. It is also evident that adopting a route in a tunnel does not eliminate community and environmental impacts. While potential noise, vibration and air quality impacts require more thorough investigation to predict accurately, the study indicated that they could prove substantial,” the report said.

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