How moving freight by rail rather than road could help Australia reduce carbon emissions

Australia is trying to get to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, but transport emissions are going up, not down.

Could shifting freight from road to rail help get back on track?

About 4 billion tonnes of goods[1] are delivered across the country each year, mostly by road, but one train can carry the same freight as 54 trucks.

According to the Australasian Railway Association (ARA), moving freight on rail produces 16 times less carbon pollution.

Freight train snaking through remote country

Large countries like Australia are suited to freight on rail but it's limited by east coast congestion.(Supplied: Australasian Railway Association)

It makes sense to move freight by rail, but just 2 per cent of freight on the country's busiest route between Melbourne and Sydney[2] is on rail, and across the eastern seaboard the figure is just 11 per cent.

That is very low compared to east-west freight, with 65-77 per cent going by rail across the Nullarbor to Perth.

Across Europe the figure is about 20 per cent, in China 15.9 per cent while the United States is more than 27 per cent based on 2020 figures.

Why doesn't more freight go by rail?

ARA general manager of freight and heavy haul Georgia Nicholls said if Australia could make the switch it would deliver huge environmental and safety benefits.

"Shifting just 1 per cent of freight to rail would reduce accident, emission and health costs nationally by £71.9 million a year," Ms Nicholls said.

A woman with short brown hair, wearing a black and white striped shirt, smiles.

Georgia Nicholls says freight moved by rail is declining.(Supplied: Australasian Railway Association)

The trend is going the other way, however, with the amount of freight on rail in decline, according to Ms Nicholls.

"It's largely due to the inefficiencies of a fragmented national rail network, ailing infrastructure and government policy and investment that favours road over rail."

The ARA report Future of Freight[3] notes that safety standards, operating rules and the regulations affecting rail are different across the country and there is no national body with a mandate to sort it all out.

So what can be done?

Big new freight sites in capital cities

Australia's biggest intermodal has just been opened in western Sydney to move freight containers from road to rail.

The Moorebank Logistics Park is run by National Intermodal[4], a federal government agency that also has a role in the delivery and operation of intermodal terminals in Melbourne and Brisbane, part of the government's inland rail project.

The Sydney site is bigger than the area stretching from Circular Quay to Central Station and it has a direct rail route to Port Botany, the state's biggest container terminal.

Woman talking to a man at a conference

Kerry Schott says the intermodal project is very significant.(Supplied: Australasian Railway Association)

Kerry Schott AO is reviewing the NSW freight system[5] and was the first chair of the Moorebank project.

She said the new rail link to Botany was going well and the project was "extraordinarily significant".

"The intermodal is amazing with very efficient warehousing and solar panels on the roofs with sufficient power to run the batteries in the locos that are used to go backwards and forwards to the terminals."

An overview of a large freight area.

Moorebank Logistics Park is a massive new freight hub in Western Sydney with links to Port Botany.(Supplied: Australasian Railway Association)

Which train lines are efficient?

While Kerry Schott is enthusiastic about Moorebank she is very critical of the rail network in NSW generally and said the Hunter Valley coal line was "probably the only efficient train line in this state".

She said the coal miners, which were all competing with each other, agreed to form a cooperative to load the coal at port and then obtained approval for pricing from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.

"They then went back to fierce competition but they had very efficient operations at each end of the freight chain."

She said industry shouldn't wait for governments to solve the problem, but should work together to find solutions.

Coal train wagons next to ocean.

The Hunter Valley Coal Chain moves coal from mines to power stations and the Port of Newcastle for export.(Supplied: Australasian Railway Association)

Linfox making the shift

Private trucking companies like Linfox are already making the shift to rail.

CEO Mark Mazurak said the company had been investing hundreds of millions into "intermodal" sites that were co-located with 10 rail locations around the country.

Big warehouse with trucks and rail lines

Linfox has built new freight hubs in 10 locations to move containers between road and rail.(Supplied: Linfox)

Food is a big part of what they move.

"Everything from lettuces to bananas, from all those locations in those food bowls, we help transport that into market with our refrigerated rail containers and road fleets."

The new intermodals freight hubs have large solar systems on the roof to generate power to charge up a growing fleet of electric vehicles that will help reduce the carbon footprint of the sector significantly.

Two red and yellow trucks.

Linfox is transitioning its fleet of 2,500 trucks to electric, but it will take a long time.(ABC News: Australian Rail Association)

Inland rail vital for transition

Kerry Schott filed a scathing report card on the federal government's 1,600-kilometre inland rail project.

The project is important because it will provide another route for freight on the east coast, but it is facing some big hurdles.

The budget has blown out from £10 billion to more than £30 billion, the project is way behind schedule and only 20 per cent of the line has actually been built so far.

The new line can carry 21-tonne axle loads at a maximum speed of 115 kilometres per hour using double-stacked containers with trains up to 1,800m long.

That is equivalent to 110 B-double trucks, which could double the amount of freight going on rail between Melbourne and Brisbane from 30 per cent to 60 per cent by 2050.

Train with double-stacked containers.

The inland rail will be able to take double-stacked trains between Melbourne and Brisbane.(Supplied: Australasian Railway Association)

How the Swiss did it

In 1994 the Swiss government decided to cut the number of domestic and foreign heavy goods vehicles travelling through the Swiss Alps.

They brought it down from 1.4 million truck movements a year to 800,000.

Saskia Groen-in't-woud is the chief strategy and sustainability officer at Pacific National, Australia's largest private rail freight operator, and has worked in Europe, China and the Asia-Pacific.

She said Switzerland achieved that result by providing financial incentives for freight operators, government investment in infrastructure and taxation.

"There was a penalty or a weight mechanism that incurred a carbon tax [on road]," Ms Groen-in't-woud said.

Freigh train going through the countryside

Pacific National is Australia's largest, private rail freight operator.(Supplied: Pacific National)

A big part of the emissions reduction puzzle are the ports.

About 2.5 million containers come into Australia by ship and getting those onto rail is also a big priority.

Ms Groen-in't-woud worked for global shipping company Maersk and saw firsthand how well freight movements are handled in the port of Rotterdam.

"It's beautiful in motion, it's through purposeful design."

She thinks Australia could achieve the same result through automation, but said industry, governments and unions would need to think differently.

"There's still a lot of fear in Australia about what it means for jobs ... and the unions have a duty of care with their members, [but] you've got to have a skill base that keeps pace with the needs and technology."

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  1. ^ 4 billion tonnes of goods (
  2. ^ 2 per cent of freight on the country's busiest route between Melbourne and Sydney (
  3. ^ Future of Freight (
  4. ^ National Intermodal (
  5. ^ reviewing the NSW freight system (