John Fullerton heads up the publicly-owned corporation responsible for delivering the $10 billion regional centrepiece of last year’s Federal Budget.
He’s the man building the missing link in Australia’s freight network, the Inland Rail, a standard gauge heavy haul track from Melbourne to Brisbane.
As chief executive and managing director of the Australian Rail Track Corporation Mr Fullerton is rectifying a quirk of Australian history.
In 1917 our young nation built its transcontinental railway from the eastern states to Perth. But now, one hundred years on and counting, the east coast is still waiting for its contiguous track, while the benefits that have come with the foresight of the intercontinental line are plain for all to see.
“I bet you when they built the east-west line for a steam engine hauling four carriages behind it they didn’t think it would one day carry 1.8 kilometre long diesel/electric with double stacked trains,” Mr Fullerton said.
Australia’s freight task is forecast to increase 80 per cent by 2031, but the Inland Rail can future-proof the increasing demand to move freight between our major cities, Mr Fullerton said.
“Can you imagine what the east coast will look like if we don't build inland rail, given the outlook for freight growth? To me it’s an ugly scenario.”
The east-west railway moves 80pc of the intercontinental freight task, at 60pc cost of road haulage.
But it’s a different story on the east coast, where in Australia’s busiest freight corridor, 84pc of the freight between Melbourne and Brisbane moves on a truck.
Commuters share the road with trucks hauling 60 billion tonne-kilometres (tkm) a year. That demand for road freight could double by 2030.
East coast road and rail costs are about equal between Melbourne and Brisbane.
That’s why Inland Rail isn’t just building 600km of new track, it’s also upping capacity on 400km of existing track so the entire length can handle 1.8km long trains with axle loads of 25t, giving wagons a 100t payload and capacity to double-stack freight containers.
“Freight that travels between Melbourne and Brisbane today is line-ball on costs with road today because we can only run single stacked trains that are 1.5km long,” Mr Fullerton said.
“If we’re able to double stack trains the cost falls to about 60pc of road, and that’s what will drive a freight market shift, and that’s why we have 80pc market share on rail to Perth.”
However, in rectifying the east coast’s missing link between its capital cities, there lies an opportunity to create fresh export opportunities.
The Inland Rail will have double stack capacity between suburban freight terminals at either end of the track in Melbourne and Brisbane, but just single stack into port. Removing height restrictions on the existing track that runs through metropolitan areas would be particularly costly.
Many have argued for maximum capacity upfront, but Mr Fullerton said single stack trains could be just as useful for farm exports.
Agricultural export freight would be shipped on the shortest route possible, given the imperative to remove logistical costs to maximise profit.
“Double stacking containers is more beneficial the farther you run the train. That is why it’s so useful on the intercapital route. The time it takes to double stack the containers at a freight terminal pays for itself when you run it 2000km,” Mr Fullerton said.
“But that may not always be the case if you are running shorter haul export trains from regional areas.
“In fact there is probably an argument you would run single stack even if you had double stack capacity, because it works out more efficient than unloading the containers at port.”