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Trucks as long as freight trains

Everything on track Down Under?

Well, not in a literal sense: train tracks are not widely available to the transport and logistics industry in Australia. In contrast to the US, Australia was not made accessible by rail.
Who would have known? Down Under has a remarkably comprehensive network of roads that link the farthest reaches of this giant continent. The network consists of a total of 913,000 kilometers worth of roads fit for traffic – albeit a large part on dirt roads, with only 353,000 km considered to be paved. Multi-lane highways are mainly found around metropolitan areas.

Heavy vehicles

This situation notwithstanding, almost 2.5 billion tons of goods are transported across the country every year: food, consumer goods, industrial products, commodities, and about 1 billion livestock – Preferably by so-called road trains.

The huge vehicles weigh up to 120 tons, are up to 50 meters long, and have up to 600 hp under the hood. These oversized trains on wheels deliver goods to remote areas that are difficult to access, for example in the Northern Territory or Western Australia. They thunder along the Australian roads at 100 km/h largely at night, leaving a dust cloud in their wake. These gigantic trucks account for three quarters of domestic goods traffic.

The National Transport Commission expects these so-called heavy vehicles to experience significant growth. This trend sounds great, but at closer inspection, it is not always so beneficial for private transport companies and their drivers. After all, the severe price war tends to erode levels of safety and wages.

Mining causes volumes and innovation

Interesting fact: Mining is the dominant sector in the Australian transport and logistics industry. More specifically, the Pilbara region in Western Australia and its mining industry account for a whopping 70 percent of total Australian freight volume. The rest of the continent makes up the remaining 30 percent.
A promising project called “AutoHaul”, an autonomous freight train in the outback, caused quite a stir recently. The British-Australian mining company Rio Tinto has shown the way. After almost 10 years of development and testing, the company put its 1,500 km railway in the Pilbara region of Western Australia into fully automated operation in June 2019. Cost for the entire development: about 790 million euros. The first freight railway in the world with automated network operation runs up to 50 unmanned trains at a time. Each train consists of 240 wagons with a length of 2.4 km and requires two to three locomotives to move 28,000 tons of iron ore from the company’s mines to the transshipment ports of Dampier and Cape Lambert. The 800-kilometer trip is fully automated and takes about 40 hours. Only the last mile into the ports is under human control. The loading and unloading of the wagons are also fully automated.

Over 150 years of questionable railroad decisions

Of course, Australia also has 36,000 kilometers of railroad network, some of which has been in place since 1854. In absolute terms, it is the seventh-largest network in the world. However, quite in contrast to the US, Australia never managed to turn it into one single project of overriding national interest. As a result, the colonies, which used to be legally independent prior to 1901, took their own separate decisions with respect to the track gauge. This means that to this day, Australia has three different gauges, which does not exactly promote any spirit of collaboration among the largely private railroad companies. Consequently, the 900 kilometers from Melbourne to Sydney – one of the most important freight routes in Australia – are served by 3,500 trucks but only three freight trains per day. Kangaroos and wombats would also appreciate efforts to unify these systems, since they are often among the first victims of the road trains thundering through the outback.

What is needed: a high-speed train

The transfer of the freight traffic from the road to the railroad remains an important topic that has long turned into a political talking point. After all, the increase in efficiency would be enormous. This would mean that goods could be transported significantly faster, roads could be preserved more easily, and the environment could be spared.

Lately the government is actively considering a high-speed railroad line on the east coast – from Melbourne via Canberra, Sydney and Newcastle to Brisbane. 75 percent of all Australians live in these cities and along the planned route and Sydney-Melbourne is one of the most frequently served routes by flights in the world. Every day, 78 planes travel between these two cities alone with all the associated consequences for the environment. A high-speed train would tempt at least half of the airline passengers to switch to taking the train. The environmental benefits would be enormous.

Transport and Logistics in Australia

According to data provided by the National Road Transport Commission (NTC), the Australian transport sector contributed 8.6 percent to the gross domestic product (GDP) in 2020. The volume of domestic freight transport is expected to rise by over 20 percent in less than ten years.

The most important transport routes – an overview:

The most important freight corridors are the routes between Perth and the eastern metropolitan areas as well as those between Melbourne and Brisbane.

The most important roads for freight traffic are

  • the Hume Highway (Melbourne-Sydney),
  • the Pacific Highway (Sydney-Brisbane), and
  • the Newell Highway (Melbourne-Brisbane).

Australia also has 10 international airports and 37 ports. The three largest airports are in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.

The most important shipping routes connect

  • Weipa-Gladstone (Queensland),
  • Pilbara-Port Kembla (eastern states), and
  • Perth-Bass Straight.

Interesting division of labor:

  • Coal, iron ore, grain, sugar, and fertilizer are largely transported by rail – especially by mining trains in northern Australia.
  • Food, building materials, and fuel, on the other hand, are transported by road.
  • Bulk freight such as aluminum ore, iron ore, crude oil and bauxite are shipped by sea.

cargo-partner in Australia

We opened our first office in Melbourne in 2019 and have recently expanded to Sydney and Brisbane, growing our team in Australia to 35 employees. Our colleagues provide end-to-end logistics solutions including a comprehensive range of air, sea, contract logistics, customs clearance and other value added services. From Austria to Australia – your cargo-partner teams are there for you!