Victorians – and particularly those living in and around Melbourne – have experienced some of the most prolific transport disruptions in recent memory over the summer period, with private and public infrastructure operators using what used to be the ‘quieter’ warmer months to undertake major maintenance works.
Among the more significant undertakings was the closure of four out of five lanes on the West Gate Freeway for bridge maintenance, and the shut-down of the rail network’s City Loop and numerous suburban rail lines for upgrades, with commuters shunted onto replacement buses for much of the summer.
On top of other major roadworks across the state to repair flood-damaged road and rail networks, these much-needed annual maintenance programs combined to create significant disruption on Victoria’s transport network, with the return of interstate and international tourism traffic for major events like the Australian Open tennis also adding to the congestion.
A silver lining of these disruptions has been a greater focus on transport infrastructure, with many media outlets looking for stories in the otherwise quieter summer news period happy to drum up and report conflict and angst from disgruntled travellers stuck in traffic.
There is no doubt that road, rail and sea infrastructure that is big enough and seamless enough to accommodate our state’s growing freight task has a major impact on the productivity of transport operators, as we saw during the disruptions. When big roads are closed and rail commuters put onto buses, productivity plummets with more congested roads, fewer deliveries and slower travel times. The ensuing supply chain disruptions reduce stock at retail stores and even push up consumer prices.
But as all the infrastructure programs underway through Victoria’s $90 billion Big Build are completed and come together, and as more road and rail infrastructure starts to open, we should see the reverse occur, together with productivity gains for operators.
Victoria currently has three major tunnelling projects underway with the Metro Tunnel, West Gate Tunnel, and North East Link project all at varying stages of completion. As these projects continue and approach their completion, the VTA will be advocating for positive policy and regulatory changes that can add to the productivity gains additional road and rail infrastructure inevitably brings.
Among this will be advocacy for longer and heavier high productivity freight vehicles to use the new infrastructure, along with investments in the state’s gazetted regional and metropolitan freight network for bridge strengthening works to accommodate heavier loads.
We’ll also be advocating for common sense solutions such as changes to traffic light sequencing and dedicated right hand turn lanes to improve safety for all road users and create efficiencies for operators.
With the West Gate Tunnel now well underway we’ll be focussing on maximising the return for operators in and around the Port of Melbourne, that will soon be forced on to a tolled road when the adjacent road network is fully curfewed and off limits to heavy vehicles.
The potential provision by West Gate Tunnel operator Transurban for things like higher toll discounts for fleets and reduced or waived tolls for night time use when there’s less traffic will make compulsory tolls more palatable for freight operators, and improve congestion during the day.
The movement of freight is a 24/7 game in our economy, with the Port of Melbourne welcoming ships around the clock, so we need road and rail freight policies that complement and support this.
Victorians demonstrated during the pandemic that freight and commuter traffic can safely coexist, with the temporary removal of curfews so retail shops, cafes and restaurants could be replenished. We’ll continue to oppose curfews where warranted, as well as campaign for clearways on major arterial roads and freight routes to improve productivity and reduce congestion.
We can have the biggest and the best road, rail and sea freight transport infrastructure in the world, but if we don’t have associated policies and regulations that enable their seamless integration, the productivity and safety gains of bigger roads, stronger bridges, and efficient ports will all be for nought.
- Peter Anderson is the CEO of the Victorian Transport Association.