Case grows for all-weather freight route around Australia


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

Queensland Trucking Association CEO Gary Mahon – one of the most vocal on this issue of late in mainstream media – is frustrated that more isn’t being done to avoid the costly delays and many supply chain issues resulting from summer flooding.

In his state alone, dozens of trucks were left stranded between Mackay and Bowen last month with the busy Bruce Highway again closed in sever-al places due to surface water. Further west, the situation was just as dire with WA copping a drenching so bad, at the time of writing truckies are still forced to take a 6000km detour in and out of the Kimberley.

“There is plenty of enthusiasm to spend big amounts of money on tunnels underneath capital cities, what we’re asking for is to increase some budgets on the regional network, so that we at least have one reliable, resilient corridor around Australia,” said Mahon.

“In 2023, we should be able to say we can haul big freight anywhere in Australia regardless of the weather.

“Saying things are not possible is a question of ambition and purpose. It’s a matter of adding some budget so a bridge is a metre higher, or there’s a bigger investment in particular floodways, just the same as they do for significant and expensive work in capital cities.”

Mahon stressed that the industry isn’t looking for flood-proofing fixes on every road.

“We’re asking for a posture to be taken to look at the investments necessary to have a reliable and resilient all-weather corridor around Australia.”

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

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

“Road and rail freight corridor closures is a nationally significant problem that has economic, social and equity impacts that predominantly affect regional and remote communities. Climate change is expected to increase the frequency and duration that NLTN corridors are closed and make the cumulative effects of the problem worse over time.”

IA also called for agencies to develop a coordinated approach to diagnosing and addressing the problem.

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

According to its website, BITRE says the review will identify the supply chains that are most critical to Australian communities and businesses, the risks they face, and a stocktake of any work underway to mitigate risks.

“This work will help to 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 the then Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce in March 2022 – was supposed to be finished by December.

But BITRE told Big Rigs that although completed, the final draft is still undergoing review and “there isn’t a public release date at this time”.

A spokeswoman for Infrastructure and Roads Minister Catherine King said building more resilient roads is a feature of the response from the federal government to the impacts 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 that the glacial progress on an all-weather solution to on-going supply chain issues comes down to a lack of vision at the top, and political factors, in- cluding the fact that there isn’t a single marginal electoral seat in regional Australia.

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

“Number two, business cases on the Infrastructure Austra- lia model essentially suit large metropolitan cities; they’re basically inherently biased against regional freight.

“One, because they don’t have the resources to prepare the business cases, and they don’t consider things like supressed 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 per cent to the US GDP.

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

“One of our biggest strategic air force bases is in Derby and we can’t supply it. We’ve got two sealed roads across a continent the size of Europe. It’s farcical.”

Aside from the on-going advocacy for all-weather freight routes – a campaign that Dumesny and his counterpart Louise Bilato at the NT Road Transport Association have championed for a number of years – the WRF is also calling for total sealing of the Outback Way, which connects WA with Queensland through Alice Springs, and the Tanami Highway.

“You can seal those collectively for around about $3 billion, which will open up a nation, versus the $150 billion to build a railway line around the outer ring of Melbourne.

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

Mahon also believes that when big amounts of money are being invested in key freight routes, all steps taken to ensure they are resilient to all weather.

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

“We spend the money now to raise it to the level that’s necessary.”

In a recent statement, Queensland Transport Minister Mark Bailey said he believed that the flood resilient upgrades along the Bruce Highway had stood up to January’s deluge.

“Flood resilience is one of the three major scopes of the current $13 billion Bruce Highway Upgrade Program, and the flood resilient projects we have delivered have stood up to the test of months’ worth of rain hitting Central and North Queensland in just a few days,” said Bailey.

“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 are delivering and have a credible plan for the future,” he said.

“Our future plan for the Bruce includes flood resilience improvements on projects like the 26km long Gympie Bypass project, the 15km long Rockhampton Ring Road, the 9km long Tiaro Bypass, and the almost 30km of flood resilient stretch being delivered as part of the Townsville Ring Road and Townsville Northern Access projects, just to name a few.

“But we know the North Queensland coastline usually cops it worst in summer during the wet and cyclone season, and that’s why we’re building a second Bruce Highway from Charters Towners to Mungindi which was bagged by the LNP when we announced it in 2020.

“The Inland Freight Route [or ‘Second Bruce’] will provide a genuine alternative to keep supplies coming into Central and Northern Queensland communities during the wet season or a cyclone.”

Mahon said it’s great to see plenty of money being spent on the Bruce, but he’d like to more investment in the Inland Freight Route.

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

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

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