Inland Rail: The Future of Freight in Australia

The Inland Rail link between Melbourne and Brisbane, which is being built in Australia, is designed to transform the capacity, productivity and interoperability of the freight network in the country by improving intermodal transport between the two port cities.

The route will transect the states of New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria. The 1,700km line is designed for freight services but passenger trains might operate on it as well.1,200 km of the route will be existing track upgraded to meet the requirements of the project. Services are expected to start in 2024–25. Construction on the first section, between Parkes to Narromine, was formally approved in September 2018.

In this article Richard Wankmuller, Chief Executive Officer of Inland Rail, tells Railway-News why the project is so important for freight transport in Australia.

Richard Wankmuller Inland Rail
Richard Wankmuller

One of the greatest transport challenges Australia faces is to service its fast-growing east coast with a freight network that has been optimally configured to handle the future freight task.

The east coast of Australia is home to more than 70 percent of the population and contributes about 75 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. During the next 40 years the population is expected to more than double, while the volume of freight moving in Australia is also expected to double or even treble in the next 50 years.

Continued reliance on road transport, which today handles around 74 percent of the inter- capital freight moving between Melbourne and Brisbane, would pose significant impacts in terms of safety, energy efficiency and the environment, particularly as road transportation increases to accommodate growing freight volumes.

One of the key drivers of Inland Rail is to provide a service that is competitive with road, enabling the rail market share between Melbourne and Brisbane to increase from 26 percent in 2013–14 to 62 percent by 2049–50. The development of the Inland Rail programme scope, which is being delivered by the Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC) for the Australian Government, has been shaped by market needs and stakeholder feedback as much as engineering requirements. Following extensive consultation with train operators and the freight logistics industry, ARTC developed a detailed service offering and established four key parameters – 98 percent reliability, road competitive pricing, less than 24 hours’ transit time, and freight availability in line with market needs.

Transit time is key for operators and the Inland Rail route will reduce the journey from around 32 hours to a road-competitive 24 hours or less, allowing freight to move between the Victorian and Queensland capitals without having to thread its way through the congested Sydney region. Customers also want provision for longer trains to improve productivity, while also providing interoperability with the interstate mainline standard gauge network. Inland Rail isn’t just about a single railway line that runs between Melbourne and Brisbane. As a result of Inland Rail, Australia will have a very resilient freight rail network with multiple pathways that will build contingency and flexibility.

This is not just an engineering project – what it does is link together intermodal terminals, regional areas and capital cities with a rail backbone that is world- class, that is efficient, and that can deliver cost benefits to our customers and broader economic benefits for the nation.

Freight Australia

Sharing the Journey

Inland Rail will serve a variety of freight markets, not just Melbourne to Brisbane, with significant demand to link in with regional commodities and interstate freight.

Inland Rail is an enabler for an innovative, entirely new supply chain. This innovation is made possible because Inland Rail drives the speed, the reliability, the consistency, the predictability and the efficiency to allow that supply chain to flourish. It takes us to a new way of doing business – a new reality of how and where to source products – a new reality of how and when we can send them to market.

Inland Rail will be a catalyst for other complementary investments in the supply chain including new intermodal terminals, processing facilities and distribution centres. For this major infrastructure “spine” to optimally support productivity improvements and for freight to be moved around in the most efficient manner, a substantial commitment is required to the integration of rail infrastructure with associated intermodal facilities such as terminals and adjacent warehouse precincts.

Government at all levels and different political persuasions understand this and are making provident investments and planning for complementary developments.

We have State Governments stepping up and spending on their respective rail networks and thinking ahead as to how additional investments can be made to optimise further the benefits from those already underway.

We have great leadership at the local government level thinking ahead about inland ports – they’re being proactive trying to drive investment in their communities. They are thinking about how to engage the private sector, where the needs are, how to get things going, and how their communities can participate and benefit, both in the short and longer terms. There’s also leadership in the private sector driving intermodal terminals and shifting added value activities from where they are today out to the regional areas. Value-adding activities like food processing and others that can be done in these lower cost areas and provide a complete product for the market.

Future of Freight in Australia

Planning for new or expanded freight hubs is well advanced in key regional centres on the alignment such as Parkes and Wagga Wagga in New South Wales and Toowoomba in Queensland.

ARTC will continue to work closely with governments and the private sector providing relevant advice and technical support to help ensure the benefits of complementary investments are maximised for local economies and the national freight network.

Reaping the Benefits

Currently, Adelaide, Perth and Darwin are the only capital cities in Australia that can receive and dispatch 1.8 kilometre trains with double-stacked containers. However, Inland Rail will transform that interoperability. It provides a consistent standard which enables freight operators to use the same rolling stock anywhere on the national rail freight network. Inland Rail has been designed to pass through four of Australia’s most productive farming regions, offering supply chain benefits and cost savings for agricultural producers, boosting competitiveness and flow-on effects to regional communities. It will also stimulate new demand and create opportunities thanks to improved accessibility and greater efficiency.

Inland Rail provides a highly efficient, inter-capital trunk rail line that regional and branch rail lines connect into, opening up regional producers to domestic markets as well as export ports right around the country. As Inland Rail will improve those connections and provides a cheaper, long-distance transport network to road, farmers will reap end-to-end supply chain improvements.

Bringing the Private Sector On Board

The most complex section of Inland Rail, involving large-scale tunnelling between Gowrie and Kagaru in Queensland, will be delivered through a Public Private
Partnership (PPP). This will enable ARTC to harness innovative design solutions and more efficient construction methodologies on this section.

One of the most exciting projects will be the construction of a 6.4km long tunnel near Toowoomba to carry the line under the Great Dividing Range west of Brisbane. It will be the largest diameter diesel freight tunnel in the Southern Hemisphere.

This section of the Inland Rail not only comprises tunnels, but numerous viaducts are also required throughout southern Queensland. Some of these viaducts will be up to 40m high and others over 1km long in order to traverse mountain ranges or to span floodplains.

Completing the Link

For our cities to remain liveable, our roads to be safer, our environment to be better protected – a world-class freight supply chain is a non-negotiable. It will re-balance modal share between road and rail to optimal levels akin to best practice elsewhere, making our country more productive, transport more efficient, and Australian businesses more competitive.

With Inland Rail we will have completed a key missing link.

Melbourne Rail
Melbourne rail tracks © Rob Deutscher CC BY 2.0

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