Calls come for joint taskforce to shore up freight networks

Freightliner Cascadia in flood waters in Western Australia.

Western Roads Federation (WRF) and Northern Territory Road Transport Association (NTRTA) are calling on the Federal Government to establish a joint industry taskforce to build the resilience of major freight networks across Northern and remote Australia.

Increasing disruptions by adverse weather events, poor maintenance and rising demand for road freight services are compromising food and fuel security, strategic defence operations and economic development according to WRF and NTRTA.

The peak bodies cited the impact of climate events on the state of the road networks as a mounting concern given there are usually no alternative roads for trucks to use.

As a result of the impacts on road networks across the North and Northwest, WRF and NTRTA reveal that freight costs have skyrocketed at a time when all Australians are suffering a cost-of-living crisis.

The WRF and NTRTA’s call for a joint taskforce comes from what they describe as hard-won lessons dealing with major road freight disruptions (road and rail) over recent years, ranging from the pandemic, bushfires, floods and even the on-going loss of a key bridge.

According to the WRF and NTRTA, multiple Government reports are converging on the same issues.

CSIRO modelling shows critical freight routes to the north of the country as having high or very high vulnerability risks.

The BITRE Road and Rail Resilience Report 2022 identified that “the lack of a single, overarching national approach to address gaps and emerging issues in the transport context presents a risk to supply chain resilience.”

While a Defence Strategic Review outlined that a “central component of deterrence is resilience,” and noted “Australia’s deterrence efforts sit within a whole-of-government framework.”

Much of this relies on harnessing all elements of national power which included “robust national logistics”.

The WRF and NTRTA have outlined a number of actions that could assist in ensuring resilient freight networks.

The increasingly frequent loss of the Perth – Kimberley – Darwin freight route due to flooding, means that roadtrains need to be sent via Port Augusta in South Australia then up to Katherine in the Northern Territory then back into the East Kimberley.

A return distance equivalent of driving one way from the English Channel at Calais to Vladivostok on the Sea of Japan.

However, to meet freight volume needs cost-effectively, the transport industry has to negotiate each time for it to allow triple roadtrains on the detour route.

This requires negotiation with the WA, SA and NT Governments, as well as with the National Heavy Vehicle Regulator in SA on permit and operating conditions for the transport.

Concurrently, approvals then need to be sought from either State or Federal Government’s to cover the additional freight cost, rising by 80 per cent in some cases, so that the costs aren’t unfairly worn by the local communities.

Standing arrangements, as part of a short-term recommendation, need to be made such that both approvals and subsidies can be immediately activated by a delegated authority.

In regard to longer term actions, considerations for re-building warehouse and storage in vulnerable regions needed to be made so they can continue to supply communities and businesses until an adjusted freight supply is implemented and to educate the public not to ‘panic buy’, to alleviate further stress on logistics supply systems.

Agility also needed to be built into the logistics system, such that the loss of a single route doesn’t create up to 6,000km detours.

“Achieving this will require accelerating new identified road freight routes, hardening of vulnerable parts of the network, investigating the role of coast shipping and multi-modal hubs in regions,” the release stated.

Speaking at the Developing Northern Australia Conference 2023 in Darwin, NTRTA Executive Officer Louise Bilato, said a nationally-led joint Industry and Government Taskforce would help deliver a resilient, sustainable freight network across vulnerable parts of WA and the NT.

“The freight industry has learnt the hard lessons through the pandemic and why the nation needs a network of resilient roads which secure supply chains across the nation,” said Bilato.

“As a nation, we need to ensure that essential foods, fuel, medicines and groceries can be transported uninterrupted to communities and businesses in regional and remote parts of the country.”

WRF Chief Executive Cam Dumesny, said the Commonwealth Government’s Defence Strategic Review had brought renewed focus on Northern Australia. However, Northern defence bases and capabilities will require logistics support from the South as he views it.

“Any sustained military defence operation in the North or North West of Australia will depend on civilian road transport and logistics operators to help sustain supply operations, but we question how we’re expected to meet the demands of defence given our challenges supporting civilian communities and businesses now due to increasing freight disruptions?”

Dumesny agrees with the Defence Strategic Report which identified the need for a ‘robust national logistics’ system.

“But support to the North is built on a fragile logistics system. WRF and the NTRTA are offering to work with the federal Government on a joint Taskforce to contribute the hard learnt lessons of the transport industry.”

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