News, Northern Territory, Road upgrades, Western Australia

Call for taskforce to help deliver resilient road freight networks

road freight

Two peak trucking bodies are calling on the federal government to join forces to help build more resilient freight networks across northern and remote Australia.

Western Roads Federation (WRF) and Northern Territory Road Transport Association (NTRTA) believe that it’s critical that the government establishes a joint industry taskforce to tackle the ongoing issues disrupting supply chains.

WRF and NTRTA warn that the loss of critical freight routes in WA and the NT due to adverse weather events and poor road maintenance continues to compromise food and fuel security, strategic defence operations and economic development, given there are simply no alternative roads for trucks to use. 

As a result of the “seriously degraded” road networks across the north and north-west, WRF and NTRTA reveal that freight costs have skyrocketed, up to 80 per cent higher than other parts of the country, at a time when all Australians are suffering a cost-of-living crisis. 

Speaking at the Developing Northern Australia Conference 2023 in Darwin on July 25, NTRTA executive officer Louise Bilato said a nationally-led joint industry and government taskforce would help deliver a resilient, sustainable freight network across vulnerable parts of WA and the NT. 

“The freight industry has learnt the hard lessons through the pandemic and why the nation needs a network of resilient roads which secure supply chains across the nation,” Bilato said. 

“As a nation, we need to ensure that essential foods, fuel, medicines and groceries can be transported uninterrupted to communities and businesses in regional and remote parts of the country.” 

WRF chief executive Cam Dumesny said the Commonwealth Government’s Defence Strategic Review had brought renewed focus on northern Australia. However, northern defence bases and capabilities will require logistics support from the south. 

“Any sustained military defence operation in the north or north-west of Australia will depend on civilian road transport and logistics operators to help sustain supply operations, but we question how we’re expected to meet the demands of defence given our challenges supporting civilian communities and businesses now due to increasing freight disruptions?” Dumesny said. 

“As the Defence Strategic Report identifies we need a ‘robust national logistics’ system. But support to the North is built on a fragile logistics system. 

“WRF and the NTRTA are offering to work with the federal government on a joint taskforce to contribute the hard learnt lessons of the transport industry.” 

In the short term, the WRF and NRTA say that adopting the “activation of national collaborative governance arrangements”, as per the Australian Disaster Recovery Framework 2022 produced by the Australia-New Zealand Emergency Management Committee (ANZEMC), would be a great start.

The increasingly frequent loss of the Perth – Kimberley – Darwin freight route due to flooding, means that road trains need to be sent via Port Augusta in SA then up to Katherine NT then back into the East Kimberley. A return distance equivalent of driving one way from the English Channel at Calais to Vladivostok on the Sea of Japan. 

However, to meet freight volume needs cost-effectively, the industry has to negotiate each time to allow triple road trains on the detour route. This requires negotiation with the WA, SA and NT governments, as well as with the NHVR in SA on permit and operating conditions.

Concurrently, approvals then need to be sought from either state or federal governments to cover the additional freight cost of up to 80 per cent, so that cost isn’t unfairly worn by the local communities. 

“Standing arrangements need to be made such that both approvals and subsidies can be immediately activated by a delegated authority.”

In the longer term, the peak bodies recommend re-building warehouse and storage in vulnerable regions, so they can continue to supply communities and businesses until an adjusted freight supply is implemented, which would also help offset the public’s urge to ‘panic buy’.

Other measures suggested include building more “agility” into the logistics system so that the loss of a single route doesn’t create 6000km detours. 

“Achieving this will require accelerating new identified road freight routes, hardening of vulnerable parts of the network, investigating the role of coast shipping and multi-modal hubs in regions,” said a joint WRF and NTRTA media release. 

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