Why container policy has tunnel vision
Comment – Greg Cameron
All Sydney-bound container ships pass-byNewcastle, heading south. The containers can be unloaded inNewcastleat the former steelworks site, which remains vacant, and railed to a new, single, intermodal terminal (IMT) in north-western Sydney. There will be no need to carry containers by truck. In addition to improving performance of Sydney’s road system, Sydney’s stressed urban infrastructure will benefit as economic growth in northern regions enables decentralisation.
But with unlimited expansion of Port Botany container terminal, expanding Sydney’s M5 East is essential. The westbound tunnel is the most vulnerable section, with one heavy truck being the equivalent of six passenger vehicles (RTA, 2009). In 2010/11, trucks carried around 1.74 million TEU through the M5 East’s tunnels – 86% of all container movements; while trains carried 250,000 TEU – 14% of container movements.
Forecast growth in container movements related to Port Botany is seven million TEU a year by 2030. When a $172 million upgrade of Port Botany rail freight line is completed in 2014, it will increase the number of TEU that can be transported along the line from 700,000 to around one million a year. According to Sydney Ports Corporation, a 600 metre train will replace 68 trucks. On this basis, the number of TEU is around 84 per train and 1.3 TEU per truck.
If the Australian and NSW governments are planning for six million TEU a year to be moved by truck in 2030, there will be 4.6 million truck movements. If all trucks use the M5 East, there will be 2.3 million truck movements in each direction. Peak capacity in the westbound tunnel is 3,300 vehicles per hour and in the eastbound tunnel 4,000 vehicles per hour. The difference is attributable to the steeper up-grade and the proportion of laden trucks in the westbound direction resulting in a heavy truck to passenger car unit equivalence of six. For the eastbound tunnel, the equivalence is three (RTA).
2.3 million trucks using the westbound tunnel is the equivalent of 13.8 million passenger vehicles, or 48% of peak hourly capacity. For the eastbound tunnel, truck movements will be 20% of peak hourly capacity.
The Australian government’s IMT at Moorebank, 40 km from Port Botany, is proposed to handle one million TEU a year and will operate at capacity as soon as it is built, by 2017. It says all containers will be moved by rail.
In 2017, container movements related to Port Botany are estimated to reach 3.2 million TEU a year – 2.2 million by truck and one million by rail. The increase in TEU moved by truck is 29% (up from 1.7 million in 2011) using M5 East tunnels that already operate at peak hourly capacity more than half of the time.
It is unclear whether the NSW government has removed the cap on container movements at Port Botany Terminal of 3.2 million TEU a year. The planning condition of consent is clear:
“Port throughput capacity limits
A1.4 Port throughput capacity generated by operations in accordance with this consent shall be consistent with the limits specified in the EIS, that is, a maximum throughput capacity at the terminal of 1.6 million TEU per annum and a total throughput at Port Botany of 3.2 million TEU. These limits may not be exceeded by the development without further environmental assessment and approval. Sydney Ports Corporation shall prepare, or have prepared on its behalf, such further environmental assessment for the determination of the Minister.”
Source: Determination of a development application for state significant and designated development under section 80 of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act, 1979.
Frank Sartor MP, Minister for Planning, Sydney, 13 October 2005 File No. S01/02520
It is unclear if the NSW government has amended or varied the condition.
IMT capacity will need to more than double as a result of container movements increasing by 3.8 million TEU a year – from 3.2 million in 2017 to seven million in 2030.
The Australian government says, ”other potential IMT sites [to Moorebank] in Sydney would require substantial investment in additional infrastructure to link the national road and rail networks, and currently are not viable alternatives.”
The Australian and NSW governments do not have plans for additional IMT capacity beyond 3.2 million TEU, despite estimating that container movements will increase from 2 million TEU in 2011 to seven million in 2030. Moorebank IMT, obviously, is a stop-gap measure.
In March 2012, the National Infrastructure Coordinator said: ”The absence of a long term plan for Port Botany and Kingsford Smith Airport (especially their supporting landside transport network) is a manifest weakness in the city’s and the nation’s infrastructure planning. Planning for landside transport to these key gateways is fragmented between governments and their agencies, lacks ambition, and lacks effective commitment to deliver on agreed plans.”
The solution is to rail all containers fromNewcastleto a single IMT in north-western Sydney.
Although 98% of containers unloaded at Port Botany are destined for the Sydney metropolitan area, they contain goods that are trucked to northern NSW, where about 25% of the NSW population lives. There will be no need for trucks to carry imported goods from south westernSydneyinto northern NSW, when an IMT is built west of Newcastle to unpack containers with goods bound for the north. Containers that are currently unloaded in Brisbane and trucked to southern Queensland and northern NSW, can be unloaded instead at Newcastle, and moved north by rail.
A container terminal in Newcastle would enable lower cost of imported goods used in value-added manufacturing in northern areas of NSW; and provide, for the first time, low-cost access to a container terminal for exports. This will foster regional economic development and decentralisation. Greater use of regional infrastructure, compared with ever increasing demands on Sydney’s stretched infrastructure, benefits all NSW taxpayers.
In 2011, empty containers comprised more than 50% of the one million containers exported from Port Botany. The proportion of empty exported containers will grow over coming decades. Empties are a significant logistical problem for Port Botany but represent a major commercial opportunity for northern NSW communities in terms of low cost transport of exports.
Sydney’s potential F3-M2 link would become a higher priority road project compared with the M5 East expansion, because the imperative for expanding the M5 East is to carry more containers by truck. One of the ideas is an 8km tunnel underneath Pennant Hills Rd linking the northern areas and the city – a connection which motorists have been waiting for decades. The tunnel would complement a properly planned, single, IMT in Sydney’s north west.
The option of a container terminal at Newcastle was rejected by the NSW government in 2000 when, unexpectedly, it took ownership of the former BHP steelworks site.
This mistake can, and should, be rectified.
Greg Cameron is a public affairs consultant. His research interest is how public policy impacts small business initiative. His current main area of activity is in the public policy impediments to rainwater tanks becoming Australia’s principal source of urban drinking water supply. His interest in NSW freight derives from his employment with BHP at Newcastle from 1994 – 1999 when that company’s container terminal strategy was a key component of its economic response to closure of the steelworks.