Sunday, 16 December 2012

Terminal and Urban shortlines - the better way to share assets

In a rail market place dominated by two national operators with several large niche players specialising in specific corridors, what happens when they find themselves in the same urban environment? Well, it's competition, right, so any thoughts of market cooperation through interchange goes out the window in favour of undercutting each other for a few 'inland port' containers. Is fighting over scraps sustainable? Of course it isn't. And the fact a smaller operator could entwine its operations with those servicing multiple corridors appears to be lost in the current environment. Even in locations where shared rail assets literally beg for a common terminal rail-operator are completely ignored. A case in point is the Brisbane Multi-user terminal at Acacia Ridge. Here the two big players, PN and Aurizon compete for terminal space that is overseen by P&O - yet despite the latter being a significant rail operator in it's own right, it does not provide terminal shunting or servicing for it's tenant operators. Instead, Aurizon and PN must both provide crews and shunt locos, plus service their own equipment - adding considerably to their own costs and duplicating terminal operations. If P&O provided all terminal services, it could be argued the operation at Acacia Ridge would be significantly streamlined...and this is important. This 300,000 TEU yard is facing severe capacity constraints, preventing corridor growth between Brisbane and Sydney. A more effectively used yard could increase capacity without needing PN or Aurizon to slug it out over who ought to pay for expansions...or new yards.

Could a common terminal operator work elsewhere? There's no reason why it wouldn't. Dotted up and down Australia's rail corridors are towns and traffic originating regions that have been abandoned by larger operators who are largely disinterested in the expense of gathering shorter haul traffic? But what if someone else did it for them? In Queensland, traffic originating locations such as Gympie, Maryborough and Bundaberg have seen all their freight outputs converted to road in the last decade, even though most industries retain rail access or access to an unused terminal. A low cost shortline terminal operator could be the answer for all of these cities, and revitalise wagonload freight (or at least that which could fit in a container) without PN or Aurizon having to invest any of their own capital or time. All that's needed is a will to instigate the concept of interchange. And this really isn't a big step. Aurizon and PN already 'interchange' with rubber-tyred operators at each of their terminals, so why would a steel-wheeled interchange be such a giant leap? It's time for terminal connections to find space in this open-access world and realise that once something is on a truck there's a good chance it's going to stay there for the entire journey.

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