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Of fumes and freight: why Australian cargo is increasingly being sent on trucks, not trains

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Though trucking is more expensive in fuel costs than transport by rail, a number of other advantages have seen its popularity rise in comparison. Photograph: Felix Cesare/Getty Images

Of fumes and freight: why Australian cargo is increasingly being sent on trucks, not trains

The nation’s ageing and neglected railways are one reason trucking has seen major growth in spite of rising fuel costs and carbon emissions.

The amount of freight moved by train across Australia has plummeted, with just 2% of goods now transported between Sydney and Melbourne by rail amid concern at the pollution and safety risks caused by the surging number of trucks on highways.

Rail is still a popular mode of transport for mining and resource companies across the country. Strong private investment in tracks has resulted in 72% of bulk goods, such as iron ore, coal and other commodities in Australia, being transported domestically by rail compared with 12% transported by road, according to figures for 2021-22 from the Bureau of Infrastructure and Transport Research Economics (Bitre).

However, trucking has gained serious momentum when it comes to the transport of non-bulk freight, a broad category which includes foods, drinks, produce, post, manufactured goods and most other items.

In 1976-77, trains transported 22.8% of domestic non-bulk freight in Australia, while trucks took 65.5%.

By 2021-22, trains transported 16.7% of domestic non-bulk freight, with trucks taking 79.8%. Coastal shipping has also dropped significantly, from about 13% in the mid-1970s to less than 4% in recent figures.

The decline in popularity of rail for freight is most pronounced on shorter intercity corridors. In the 1970s, about 40% of non-bulk freight between Melbourne and Sydney was taken by rail, according to Bitre data from the time.

Guardian graphic | Source: Bureau of Infrastructure and Transport Research Economics

It’s estimated that rail’s share on the Melbourne-Sydney corridor has dropped to about 2%. Bitre no longer calculates freight figures on specific corridors, but academics broadly back the accuracy of an estimate made by the rail freight operator Pacific National, which operates the route.

The amount of freight moved across Australia has exploded in recent decades. In 1976-77, Australia’s domestic freight was 44.7 billion tonne kilometres (btk) – the unit of measurement for freight – across all modes of transport. In the most recent financial year, it was 204.1 btk.

The rail industry estimates that 700,000 B-double return truck trips are now made between Sydney and Melbourne each year.

Why is rail less competitive?

Recent flooding events across the country have highlighted what the industry says has been long-term neglect of key freight rail infrastructure.

On Tuesday, a section of freight rail track between Parkes and Broken Hill reopened after flooding damaged the track in October. Freight services between the east and west coast were rerouted through Melbourne, adding 16 hours to the trip time. Flooding has shuttered several other key rail corridors in recent months.

Governments have announced increased investment in rail infrastructure, including the Inland Rail project. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

Marion Terrill, transport and cities program director at the Grattan Institute, said that after decades of strong investment in major highways, rail has become a less competitive freight option.

“One thing that’s happened in the past 30 years is there’s been a lot of upgrades to the highways, particularly the Hume, the Bruce and the Pacific have had a massive amount of money ploughed into them into the 80s and 90s and they’re now really good roads. Some used to be single carriageways in parts, and overtaking wasn’t great,” she said.

“Nothing like that kind of investment in roads has happened for rail in recent decades.”

Trucks can now move freight between Sydney and Melbourne within 10 hours, while the rail option takes at least 13 hours, plus the time taken to unload and deliver the freight to its final destination.

While Terrill noted recent government investments in a range of freight rail corridors including the Inland Rail project, she said there were questions over whether it would make rail a sufficiently attractive option to increase its share.

In terms of fuel, rail is cheaper to transport goods than by road. Trucks on the Sydney to Melbourne corridor are estimated to use 19 litres of diesel per tonne of freight for every 100km, as opposed to about 7.5 litres for rail.

However, other costs for rail include requiring trucks to deliver to the final destination, which often means rail is only a standout option over long distances. Terrill notes rail freight’s most competitive route in Australia is across the Nullarbor.

“Rail is good for bulk commodities, and it is cheaper to transport per kilometre,” she said. “But you do have the handling at either end; the first and last miles are almost always by truck, so everything that comes by rail will end up on a truck and there are costs associated with double handling.”

Businesses moving goods might also be disincentivised by the time delay of “rigid scheduling” on railways, Terrill said, adding that freight rail services only run at certain times, while trucks can be “extremely flexible”.

Rail access fees are also a frustration for the freight industry, with Pacific National long arguing for reform in the pricing structure charged by the commonwealth’s Australian Rail Track Corporation, which operates most freight corridors.

Pacific National’s chief executive, Paul Scurrah, decried access fees in a December op-ed published in trade publication Australasian Transport News, writing: “Through access charges, rail freight operators pay ‘full freight’ to run on tracks plagued by pinch points, speed restrictions, weight limits, sections susceptible to frequent flooding and a lack of passing opportunities on networks shared with passenger services.

“Put simply, rail freight networks are akin to tolled motorways.”

Terrill points out that trucks also cause wear and tear on roads, and in turn must pay a heavy vehicle usage charge.

Pollution and safety

The growth of trucks hauling goods on Australian roads has triggered concerns about their safety and pollution impacts – in part due to the ageing nature of Australia’s trucking fleet.

Terrill found that, in 2022, 14% of freight trucks on Australian roads were built before 1996 – vehicles which emit 60 times the particulate matter of a new truck and eight times the poisonous nitrogen oxides.

Terrill warned that exhaust pipe pollutants from trucks were estimated to kill 400 Australians every year. “Even when they’re not killing people, they’re causing respiratory illnesses and cancer, and impairing decision-making and cognitive functioning,” she wrote in a recent report on freight.

She said Australia’s trucking pollution standard was about a decade behind global counterparts, but she applauded a recent federal government move to phase in cleaner Euro-VI standards for new truck sales from 2024. However, Terrill is still critical of a requirement that Australian trucks be 2% narrower than the global norm, which she says makes it tougher to purchase cleaner trucks here.

Trucks are responsible for 4% of Australia’s carbon emissions. In 2016, transport contributed 18% of Australia’s total greenhouse emissions. Within that figure, road freight emitted 21%, while rail was responsible for just 3.5% of transport’s emissions, despite carrying almost half of the nation’s freight across bulk and non-bulk categories.

Due to decades of neglect of regional rail development across the country, rail freight in Australia is largely fuelled by diesel. This means the emissions benefit of moving freight off diesel-guzzling trucks is not as significant as in countries with electrified tracks.

Regardless, Australia’s freight rail share still lags behind similarly sized countries. In the US, about 27% of domestic freight in 2020 was transported by rail.

Rowan Moorey, researcher at Beyond Zero Emissions, said trains were more efficient at moving goods, and that generally, “it’s unfortunate that Australia carries so much freight via emissions-intensive transport”.

Moorey said his organisation’s research has shown electrifying both trains and trucks will be key to reducing freight emissions. He points to one estimate that electrifying 600km of track every year for five years “will rapidly decarbonise this type of transport and create 15,000 construction jobs”.

This article was amended on 29 January 2023. An earlier version stated trucks on the Sydney-to-Melbourne corridor were estimated to use 19 litres of diesel per tonne of freight for every kilometre, as opposed to every 100km.

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