Just another Habitat Association site

by David Holland

There are some great opportunities for rail non-bulk freight transport to become powered by renewable energy without any large advances in technology. Presently rail freight is powered by diesel locomotives. But the massive diesel engines in each locomotive simply power electric motors to drive the wheels through generating electric power by a generator. This system allows a much more smooth transfer of power by the diesel engine to the wheels. Many outer metropolitan train services use electric power straight from the line to drive the electric engines that are placed in several locations along the train. By electrifying any freight line, a similar system could power any freight train.

Many electric rail networks have dedicated generators to power the rail network. By substituting these generators with renewable energy sources of electric power, any rail network could become powered by a sustainable source of renewable energy today.

On the other hand, road transport has a long way to go to develop appropriate technologies with enough electrical power to replace a diesel engine in a road transport prime mover. The problem, although not insurmountable, is to find a technology that is sustainable and that can store enough power in a portable form to power these freight  trucks over long distances. Until this can be found, transport operators will continue to use diesel power as a main source of locomotion for road freight transport.

However to move towards rail transport for non-bulk freight and take advantage of this conversion of rail to renewable sourced energy we need to identify the inefficiencies of rail and examine how these came about in a competitive market place with road transport in the non-bulk freight sector.

Over the years successive governments have built more intercity roads and made them more durable and safer for long haul transport. The reasoning has been to make the roads safer for the private vehicle travelling these roads. As a result this investment has given a competitive advantage to road transport over non-bulk freight rail transport.

There is an augment made and studies have shown that non-bulk road transport has been largely subsidised by tax revenues in many of the Australian states. It could even be said that it is flatly subsidised by grants from the Federal government.  Spending on roads over the last 50 years has been a political motivator for voting in one government or another. Road freight transport, in conjunction with private vehicle transport has been the beneficiary of this spending.

This has led to an inequity in the improvements made to the road networks for non-bulk freight as opposed to infrastructure spending on rail over this time.

I would like to introduce a paper I wrote as my thesis for my final year of a degree in town planning. The paper was published in 1995 and pulls together a range of documents produced by government studies in the 1980’s and 1990’s that indicate that there has been an unfair competitive advantage given to road transport over the preceding decades to the writing of the my paper.

In the paper  “Melbourne – Sydney Freight Transport Corridor” by David Holland a range of issues about taxation and government subsidization of road freight over rail non-bulk freight is addressed. A statement is made that rail has had to pay higher costs for developing new infrastructure than road and that externality costs paid by the public good for road transport allow transport operators to have an unfair advantage when directly competing with rail forwarders. (Melb -Syd Freight Transport. Corridor pp. 4-5)

The paper suggests that the improvements up until 1995 have shaved off 5 hours of travelling time for a freight truck between Melbourne and Sydney. This can only have been improved in recent years with the completion of the Hume dual highway between these two cities in the last 12 months.

The paper suggests that road transport has a 20% market advantage over rail due to these efficiencies caused by government spending on this road asset. If road transport were to pay this 20% extra cost it would be able to operate in a similar cost structure to rail.

However this is also a fallacy. Rail has not had money spent on  modern systems of rail transport. Rail transport would be still taking the same time to haul its freight between the two cities as in the 1970s. This inequity on spending is borne out by the drop in rail freight between 1965 to 1986 from 51% to 25% with an overall Australia wide increase of 3% in a climate where road freight increased between 1976 to 1989 from 63% to 75%.

Freight loading systems may have had marginal improvement over the years but nothing like the improvements made in bulk freight handling at the ports. Bulk rail is where rail forwarders make their money and common sense dictates that investing money into non-bulk freight is not smart business.

The paper tells us that the rail industry is able to pay for all its own maintenance from revenues from freight. In contrast road freight through truck registrations and fuel tax doesn’t come close to paying for road pavement maintenance needed to repair roads due to truck movements on the roads. In fact the paper states that private car users pay for much of this overall maintenance cost. (4-5, 7-11)

To make matters worse, truck forwarders can register there trucks in a state that has cheaper registration costs but still operate on any states roads. This means that in reality a business cost associated with road damage are not  related in any way to the operation of the business. They are externalities of running a trucking business and never appear on the balance sheet. Even the governments with the best road infrastructures do not account for road damage by trucks.

As mentioned before, much of this road infrastructure money comes from the federal government and trickles down to local government. (pp.12) But even local roads constructed by local governments have heavy vehicle damage due to what is called the first and last kilometre of the non-bulk freight operation.

If we look at carbon emissions from freight transport we get a whopping 78% of carbon emissions from road transport the paper states. This may be because we have more trucks on the road due to the bias caused by government spending.

But if we were to look at diesel-powered rail as opposed to road in the non-bulk sector only, rail produces  60 grams per tonne-kilometre as opposed to road transport at  237 grams per tonne-kilometre for rigid trucks and 104 grams per tonne-kilometer for articulated trucks. Clearly rail is more sustainable when considering climate change effects even using diesel powers freight methods. (pp. 5-7)

It is interesting to note that even with all these advantages provided by the public purse to the non-bulk road freight industry it is still only just breaking even. Small operators are continually being swamped by freight pricing pressures. There seems to be an over-supply of operators vying for a slice of an ever smaller market place. Larger operators are employing larger trucks and gaining better efficiencies. And this seems good, but because of business investments of the truck and rig that take many years to play out through repayments, corners are continually cut by both smaller operators, and larger ones as well.

This is where driver fatigue and financial stress issues surface in the debate. This is not a pretty subject, but if any  changes are considered to boost the rail non-bulb freight sector, this part of the road freight sector will suffer badly. Union power will surface and any good progress to curb carbon emissions and improve Australia’s inefficient non-bulk freight sector will be politically nobbled.

It is interesting to note that the writers of the NSW LONG TERM TRANSPORT MASTER PLAN 2012 -2013 recognise that there is a distortion on the economics of the non-bulk freight transport sector in NSW between road transport and rail transport. Although they cite a conflicting report that agues that registration and fuel excise cover the full cost of the road freight industry and therefore the sector is fully paying for its own costs.

This is erroneous as explained above and the writers of the NSW master plan are correct in the first instance in observing that inequity in the sector is caused by government funding of roads over many years.

It is also interesting to see the short-term plans for NSW transport from the master plan which are in the following statement and how they relate to plans made from before 1995:

Develop a metropolitan network of intermodal terminals

We will seek to increase the share of freight that is transported by rail by developing an efficient and competitive network of intermodal terminals in Sydney. 

In the short to medium term, we will complete the new Enfield intermodal terminal and work with the Australian Government and industry on the development of the Moorebank terminal precinct. These intermodal container terminals will be located on dedicated freight lines and will each provide around one million additional TEUs of rail capacity per year in the Sydney metropolitan area, providing a more competitive rail alternative to road freight. 

Development of the Moorebank intermodal container terminal precinct will have impacts on the local road network. Initial analysis suggests that traffic on the M5 (between the Hume Highway (M31) at Casula and Moorebank Avenue) could exceed capacity as early as 2016, and capacity will be exceeded at key intersections that provide access to the precinct. We will work with the Australian Government on a road access strategy for the intermodal terminal precinct.”

In the paper dated 1995 many of these projects are itemized as improvement from 1989.

1. Upgrade intermodal terminal at Enfield by extending siding by 1500 meters

2. Construct a dedicated freight track to Enfield terminal

3. Extend main line cross loops to 1800 meters

4. Increase height clearance to 6.6 meters to allow double stacked containers.

5. Upgrade track alignments in New South Wales to increase speeds and reduce fuel consumption

6. Replace timber with concrete sleepers

7. Rail improvements including primarily replacements with heavier gauge to raise axils loads from 19 tonne to 25 tonne.

8. Upgrade signalling, communications and information systems

The question must arise as to how much of these planned improvements were actually have done over the last 20 years?

The paper by David Holland suggests that a reduction in fuel excise and/or pay-roll tax for the public run rail freight provider would go some way to even the playing field between road and rail freight.

Follow the link to see an argument that puts forward a link between government funding of roads and the loss of market power for rail non-bulk freight system.

Melbourne – Sydney Freight Transport Corridor

It is important for the future sustainability of non-freight transport systems that intermodal infrastructure is prioritized for government funding to equalise the distortion caused by road funding over the last 30 years. It is also important to design appropriate road access to these intermodal terminals to allow efficient egress and entrance for the local truck transport.

Intermodal systems should include roll on and roll off systems for prime movers and trailers as well as container handling systems. Trains should accommodate drivers on the journey in either sleepers or seater carriages.

Electrification of the rail lines should be progressive as more and more renewable energy sources of power come on-line. In fact dedicated wind and solar plants should be planned along or near the rail route, providing low-cost power to the freight system.

With these improvements and adjustments to the price of road freight to better account for road user externalities through taxation, a more sustainable and more efficient non-bulk freight system is possible between our capital cities and throughout Australia.

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