Thursday, 25 April 2013

Can Australia sustain two competing parallel rail networks - a workable option

As things currently stand, the Australian east coast - with a population of almost twenty million and a general (non-coal) freight task now exceeding sixty million tonnes has one interstate rail corridor and three interstate highway corridors. Not surprisingly rail freight is only moving about one sixth of the tonnages on offer, and it's freight market share has actually fallen since the implementation of 'open access' regimes. So the question is - does the Australian east coast have a demonstrable alternative to the 'single' rail corridor now in use? The answer - for the moment at least - remains yes, but really depends on how much money a rail operator or provider is prepared to pay to create this 'second' corridor. The Inland Rail corridor is not a new idea, and if all the cash spent on studies had been spent on standard gauge sleepers, then it might already be operating.

But instead of looking at the gold plated Toowoomba hub and tunnel plan, lets look at the lowest cost option available - and this means Warwick. Warwick? Don't laugh, unlike Toowoomba, which has only a single highway connection to South East Queensland, Warwick has access to three highway connections and one secondary road to the east - as an intermodal hub it is in a far better and cheaper location than the proposed Toowoomba hub. And it does make sense - it's 150km and 2-hours by truck from Acacia Ridge - compared to the favoured Bromelton hub on the existing interstate rail corridor, which will be a 71km, 1-hour drive from Acacia Ridge. 

So if Warwick were to become the northern hub for an Inland interstate corridor - then what? Lets look at the northern end of the 'second' corridor - Warwick to Cootamundra, the latter being where the existing and 'second' corridor are most likely to meet. Almost thirty million tonnes of intermediate and through freight is currently available to the 'second' corridor and potential intermodal traffic makes up about half of that tonnage. In 2013 terms, this is already the largest general freight corridor in the country but is far better served by road than rail.

Even so, there are actually two legacy rail corridors south from Warwick, the shortest, via New England is 1046km - but this corridor will need 420km of reconstruction, re-gauging and will suffer from vertical clearance issues, heavy grades and generate little 'on line' traffic. Going via Moree will mean a Cootamundra rail route of 1179km, but will only need 250km of reconstruction - mostly re-gauging. This alternative has almost no vertical clearance issues and offers much higher average speeds than the New England route and the existing coastal route. Better still, it remains 110km shorter than the existing corridor from Acacia Ridge and is not restricted by Sydney congestion. Rail transit times via Moree to Cootamundra are likely to be several hours less than the existing Acacia Ridge corridor, which means - despite the trucking leg east of Warwick - this corridor is in a very competitive position, and more importantly, could be achieved for perhaps as little as $200-million (based on the similarly sized build/rebuild Karara project in WA).

$200-million to create a second interstate network accessing the country's largest general freight task? This is an honest to goodness bargain, with returns that could even match that outlay on an annual basis. Still, this is about creating a second corridor to Melbourne - not just to Cootamundra - so next time we'll look at the Southern New South Wales and Victorian options.

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