Case grows for all-weather freight route around Australia

Case grows for all-weather freight route around Australia

A continuation of crippling weather events in Australia has added further weight to long-running calls from trucking bosses for a national all-weather freight route.

Queensland Trucking Association chief executive Gary Mahon – one of the most vocal on this issue in the mainstream media recently – is frustrated that more is not being done to avoid the costly delays and many supply chain issues caused by summer flooding.

In his state alone, dozens of trucks were left stranded between Mackay and Bowen last month with the busy Bruce Highway closed again in several places due to surface water. Further west the situation was just as bad with WA suffering a waterlogging so bad that trucks are still being forced to make a 6000km detour in and out of the Kimberley.

“There is a lot of enthusiasm to spend large sums of money on tunnels under capital cities, what we are asking for is to increase some budgets on the regional network so that we have at least one reliable, resilient corridor around Australia,” Mahon said.

“In 2023 we should be able to say we can transport large cargo anywhere in Australia, regardless of the weather.

“Saying things are not possible is a matter of ambition and determination. It is a question of adding a budget so that a bridge is a meter higher, or there is a greater investment in specific floodways, just as they do for substantial and expensive work in capital cities.”

Mahon emphasized that the industry is not looking for flood proofing solutions on every road.

“We are asking for a stance to be taken to look at the investments needed to have a reliable and resilient corridor around Australia.”

In June last year, Infrastructure Australia (IA) kicked off the first stages of a regional road and rail freight corridor resistance inquiry which initially gave the impression that Canberra would finally be on the same page.

“Recent bushfires, storms, floods, cyclones and coastal erosion events have demonstrated the importance of building infrastructure resilience to protect communities, ecosystems and the economy,” it stated on its website.

“The road and rail freight corridor closure is a nationally significant problem that has economic, social and equity impacts that primarily affect regional and remote communities. Climate change is expected to increase the frequency and duration of NLTN corridor closures and exacerbate the cumulative effects of the problem over time.”

IA also called on agencies to develop a coordinated approach to diagnose and address the problem.

“This work should be informed by the Bureau of Infrastructure and Transport Economics Research (BITRE) leading a review on road and rail supply chain resilience to identify critical supply chains.”

According to its website, BITRE says the review will identify the supply chains most important to Australian communities and businesses, the risks they face, and take stock of any work underway to mitigate risks.

“This work will help inform action by government on how to effectively and efficiently mitigate risks in supply chains for the benefit of all Australians.”

The review – first commissioned by then deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce in March 2022 – was supposed to be finished by December.

But BITRE told Big Rigs that while complete, the final draft is still being revised and “there is no public release date at this time”.

A spokeswoman for Infrastructure and Roads Minister Catherine King said building more resilient roads was a feature of the federal government’s response to the impact of the floods.

She also pointed out that the last budget announced “significant” funding, including the $1.5 billion Nationwide Freight Highway Upgrade Program.

Cam Dumesny, Perth-based CEO at the Western Roads Federation (WRF), believes the glaciers’ progress with an all-weather solution to ongoing supply chain issues comes down to a lack of vision at the top, and political factors, in – with including the fact that there is not a single marginal electorate seat in regional Australia.

“Infrastructure investment follows marginal seats, not freight demand, and we’ve effectively neglected our regions for decades,” Dumesny said.

“Number two, business cases on the Infrastructure Australia model essentially suit large metropolitan cities; basically they are inherently biased against regional cargo.

“One, because they don’t have the resources to prepare the business cases, and they don’t consider things like suppressed economic activity.”

But Dumesny points out that when former US President Dwight D. Eisenhower created his country’s interstate road network in the 1950s, it added 6 percent to US GDP.

Dumesny believes Australia also needs reliable cargo routes for strategic needs.

“One of our largest strategic air force bases is in Derby and we cannot provide that. We have two sealed roads across a continent the size of Europe. It’s crazy.”

As well as continuing to advocate for all-weather freight routes – a campaign which Dumesny and his NT Road Transport Association counterpart Louise Bilato have championed for a number of years – the WRF is also calling for the total sealing of the Outback Way, which connects WA with Queensland connected by Alice Springs, and the Tanami Highway.

“You could collectively seal it for about $3 billion, which would open up a nation, versus the $150 billion to build a railway around the outer ring of Melbourne.

“We need a national leader with vision to open up the nation.”

Mahon also believes that when large sums of money are invested in key freight routes, every step is taken to ensure that they are weather resistant.

“It is not acceptable in this day and age to say ‘Oh, every other year you might be cut off for a few days’.

“We are spending the money now to increase it to the level that is needed.”

In a recent statement, Queensland Transport Minister Mark Bailey said he believed the flood-resistant upgrades along the Bruce Highway had withstood January’s flood.

“Flood resilience is one of the three key scopes of the current $13 billion Bruce Highway Upgrade Program, and the flood resistant projects we have delivered have stood the test of months of rain that hit Central and North Queensland in just a few days endure ,” Bailey said.

“At 1679km long, the Bruce Highway is a massive stretch of road, and there’s no denying we still have work to do, but it’s clear we’re delivering and have a credible plan for the future, ” he said.

“Our future plan for the Bruce includes flood resistance improvements on projects such as the 26km Gympie Bypass Project, the 15km Rockhampton Ring Road, the 9km Tiaro Bypass, and the almost 30km flood resistant stretch that will be built as part of the Townsville ring is delivered. Road and Townsville Northern Access projects, to name but a few.

“But we know the North Queensland coastline usually gets the worst of it in the summer during the wet and cyclone season, so we’re building a second Bruce Highway from Charters Towners to Mungindi that was packed by the LNP when we put it in 2020 announced.

“The Inland Freight Route [or ‘Second Bruce’] will provide a real alternative to keeping supplies in Central and North Queensland communities during the wet season or a cyclone.

Mahon said it was great to see a lot of money being spent on the Bruce, but he would like to see more investment in the domestic freight route.

“And we need to see that spent sooner rather than later, but we also need to think the same way about the Pacific and the Hume going through NSW. We need to change the perspective and the attitude of planning to achieve the target of developing as fast as we can at least one strategic corridor around the country that is all weather.

“If you look at the scale of investment, you’re going to have to spend a lot more money to make everything for rail again. The cheaper option is for road freight.”

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