Apr 20, 2011

Shaping Future Freight Networks – Opinion Piece – Big Rigs

Never has the need been greater for a national approach to the way we move freight around our nation and onto and off our shores. We know that we are facing enormous growth in our freight load with volumes set to double by 2030 and triple by 2050. We need faster, smoother better integrated freight networks to cope with this growth. Our economy depends on it. Our international competitiveness depends on it.

That’s why I asked Infrastructure Australia and the National Transport Commission to prepare a document outlining the challenges we face and a roadmap for how we might address those challenges. That draft National Freight Strategy was released for public discussion late February and submissions close at the end of April. Until those submissions are closely scrutinised, we won’t have a clear idea about how the draft has been received.

However, early indications are favourable. “Long term planning is the key to solving challenges and that’s why the strategy is important,” says Infrastructure Partnerships Australia, the nation’s peak infrastructure body. “Australia’s geography means a web of efficient transport corridors and intermodal facilities must be integrated to maximise the benefits of our current and future growth,” says Engineers Australia. And the Australian Trucking Association’s Chair David Simon welcomed the proposal for dedicated road freight infrastructure between capital city ports and intermodal facilities. He said more efficient movement of freight would “lead to a slower growth in prices and a more competitive economy, while also giving trucking operators the chance to keep some of the efficiency gains to improve their viability.”

So what does the draft offer the trucking industry? The strategy calls at the outset for a map identifying the existing and yet-to-be built road, rail lines, ports and airports that would form a workable, truly national freight network. These would be linked by a series of intermodals – freight transfer points – where goods going to or coming from our ports, or from interstate via the national road and rail network, would be redirected to their ultimate destination in the fastest time with minimal handling. As part of this process, consideration would be given to opening up more national highways to bigger vehicles, when balanced with appropriate road improvements including town by-passes, duplications and grade easings.

Roads would be rated so that truck drivers would know precisely which ones they could use, depending on the size of their vehicle and load. And consideration would be given to building dedicated freight roads between capital city ports and freight intermodals. Smart technology would be employed wherever possible to manage traffic flows – variable speed limits, ramp metering to control access of vehicles to particular roads, lane controls to allow reverse traffic – all designed to avoid the stop/start accordion affect that causes congestion and ultimately limits our national productivity.

Key to the success of any improvements to our national freight system is the introduction of a single national safety regulator. It’s hard to believe that 110 years after Australia came together as a federation, the Commonwealth and each of the eight states and territories still run their own often conflicting rules for things such as annual registration, axle weight loads and vehicle widths. Some of these defy common sense, such as different fatigue rules, which drivers must remember from state to state. Not to mention the cost in compliance fees and time lost in red-tape.

None of these changes will happen unilaterally. The Gillard Labor Government is consulting with the freight industry and state and territory governments every step of the way. We expect to have a national single heavy vehicle regulator in place by 1 July 2013. And I look forward to COAG later this year considering the recommendations contained in the national freight strategy.

Finally, my thanks to everyone who has made a submission or has in some way been part of this process. The importance of your involvement, no matter how small, cannot be over-estimated. We have to get this right because we are shaping the future of our nation.

The national freight strategy can be seen at www.infrastructureaustralia.gov.au/publications/files/NLFS_220211.pdf