Failed port shuttle trains in Melbourne

For residents of the inner west of Melbourne, the endless procession of trucks carrying containers from the Port of Melbourne has been concern for many years. One proposed solution is the operation of port shuttle trains, which could carry containers directly from the wharves to ‘inland ports’ on existing industrial land, where the cargo will then be distributed to factories and warehouses. So why are such services not running today?

Containers flats in the common user sidings at Appleton Dock

Turns out the operation of port shuttle trains has been tried before in Melbourne, and failed. “Shaping Melbourne’s Freight Future“, a discussion paper published by the Department of Transport in April 2010, has more to say on the topic:

The Victorian Port Strategic Study (2000) provided a comprehensive assessment of the land use and infrastructure requirements of the major commercial ports in Victoria.

The Study identified strong container trade growth forecasts for the Port of Melbourne and emphasised the important role to be played by inland intermodal terminals in the future in handling this growth. The Study estimated the mode share of rail in the transfer of port related freight at that time to be approximately 10% and predicted a progressive modal shift to rail.

In relation to the State’s ports and rail systems, it announced an aspirational target that would see the proportion of freight transported to and from ports by rail increase from 10% to 30% by the end of the decade (i.e. 2010).

A number of private sector interests became involved in efforts to develop rail shuttle services to the Port of Melbourne. Some invested considerable time and resources in attempting to establish such services. Despite these efforts, the establishment of viable port shuttle services in Melbourne has not occurred to date and as a result, significant progress against the 30% port rail mode share target has not been possible.

The paper detailed the failed train service that operated between the Port of Melbourne and the CRT container terminal at Altona, to the west of Melbourne.

The only port shuttle trains to have operated for a reasonable length of time in Melbourne ran between 2003 and 2006, between the privately owned CRT terminal in Altona and the Port of Melbourne, a rail journey of about 22 km.

CRT had been attempting to operate port-rail shuttles since 2000 in a way which reflected successful Sydney operations.

In 2004/05, CRT’s Port Shuttle service transported 13,000 TEUs to and from the Port, which would otherwise have been transported using over 4,000 road truck movements via the West Gate Bridge.

However, during this period, import utilisation of the service was only 42 per cent of capacity and export utilisation was 58 per cent, compared with CRT’s goal of 85 percent utilisation. (Inquiry into Managing Transport Congestion, 2005).

The short distance between the Port of Melbourne and Altona was seen as an impediment against the success of the service.

Because the short shuttle trains occupied the same effective path space on the ARTC network as a long interstate freight train, CRT was charged access fees on the same basis as those paid by interstate operators. The Port Shuttle service also faced far higher port handling charges – reportedly up to $72 per forty foot container compared with $3 for containers delivered by road trucks.

The impediments faced by the CRT Port Shuttle service were particularly damaging on the Port-Altona corridor as the road distance on this corridor is far shorter than the rail distance (the standard gauge rail line takes a circuitous route via Newport, Brooklyn and Tottenham). Overall, the Port-Altona route is the shortest of the three main intermodal corridors in Melbourne, and conditions would need to be favourable for it to be viable.

The paper also describes the lack of success establishing a rail service to a similar facility at Somerton, to the north of Melbourne.

Austrack commenced development of the Somerton terminal in 1998, with the terminal itself occupying 21ha within a larger “freight village”.

The Somerton intermodal terminal includes four 750 metre dual gauge rail sidings, connected to the main standard gauge Sydney line and the broad gauge Victorian track to Seymour, Shepparton and Tocumwal. These terminal connections are to and from the north only, showing expectations of interstate rail movements.

While the terminal operation works well as a road-only shuttle terminal, several unsuccessful attempts have been made to initiate port rail shuttles.

Finally, the paper summarised the lessons learnt from the failed port shuttle services.

Despite considerable effort devoted by Government to establishing appropriate policy settings and by the private sector in attempting to operate metropolitan intermodal services in Melbourne, success has not been achieved to date.

Whilst there appears to have been a desire on the part of the private sector to operate port shuttles and on the part of customers to use the service when competitive, a range of factors have militated against the establishment of such services.

These have included:

  • Prevailing access pricing and priorities which favoured large, long-distance interstate trains over port shuttle trains;
  • Lack of certainty in securing train pathways;
  • An inability to defray rail capital and operating costs across a metropolitan-wide port shuttle network, resulting in poor utilisation of available container slots on the trains and higher costs than road;
  • Poorer service levels and higher charges for containers handled by rail at the port interface compared with road;
  • Inefficient port interface arrangements due to inadequate rail track infrastructure and stevedoring practices; and
  • Road trucks being able to avoid City Link tolls by using local roads

But despite the previous failures, the paper had one positive note regarding future services.

It is notable that the Dandenong corridor, despite being considered by Sd+D (Melbourne Intermodal System Study 2008) to be the most conducive to a viable rail shuttle operation and the existence of some private sector interest, has never been tested.

This has also meant that the prospective strength of the Dandenong corridor has never been leveraged to assist in achieving viability on the apparently weaker Altona and Somerton corridors.

Giving it another go

In the 2014-15 State Budget funding was made available for the establishment of Port-Rail Shuttle services as the ‘Metropolitan Intermodal System’.

Port-Rail Shuttle services (the Metropolitan Intermodal System) will improve the efficiency of containerised freight transport throughout Melbourne by connecting the port to major outer suburban freight hubs by the existing rail network.

The 2014-15 State Budget provided $20 million, along with $38 million from the Commonwealth Government, towards developing the project. It is anticipated that the private sector will also invest in the project.

The project will deliver:

  • intermodal freight terminals located within dedicated freight and logistics precincts in the south west, north and south east
  • a dedicated rail transfer facility for containers at the port dedicated shuttle trains using off-peak rail network capacity
  • business systems necessary to manage information and operations across the network.

The Metropolitan Intermodal System will be operated by the private sector.

Development of an effective Metropolitan Intermodal System will result in efficient freight movements across the city. It is estimated that at least 2,400 trucks a day will be removed from the road network, which is around 10 per cent of all port-based truck movements.

A market engagement process will commence in 2014. Port-Rail Shuttle services are expected to be operational by 2017.

With planned inland ports at Somerton, Lyndhurst and Altona we can only hope that the second attempt at port shuttle trains succeeds, and removes trucks from Melbourne’s increasingly busy roads.

J102 and J103 at Newport return from CRT Altona

Further reading

The full “Shaping Melbourne’s Freight Future” discussion paper can be found here.

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23 Responses to “Failed port shuttle trains in Melbourne”

  1. FelineCyclist says:

    The previous attempts all involved private sector interests attempting to make rail work when the pricing and infrastructure is weighted in favour of roads. No wonder they failed.

    Shifting more freight onto rail will require:

    – government investment to align rail tracks which have been long neglected and now don’t match up
    – changes to the pricing structure to encourage short-medium distance travel to outer suburban freight depots
    – regulating road use more so trucks can’t use local streets (and thereby shift the costs of freight transport onto the broader community)

    • Marcus Wong says:

      It does say something that a private interest actually tried to make the freight rail service work – you’ll never see that happen with a *passenger* rail service!

  2. Albert3801 says:

    Interesting that port shuttle trains have been successful in Sydney for a long time between Port Botany and container facilities at St Peters and Enfield.

    • Marcus Wong says:

      There is also the massive new Moorebank intermodal terminal that is due to start operation soon:

    • Craig says:

      A significant difference between Melbourne and Sydney is that the centroid of freight distribution in Sydney is 20 km west of the port, i.e. where the rail terminals are. In Melbourne, the freight centroid is just east of the CBD, not far from the port.

      Issue 2 – Most urban customer deliveries can only be done in dayshift hours, so there is little use for truck assets at night. The port, on the other hand, can be accessed 24/7. Port movements are an opportunity to achieve higher truck utilisation. To explain it differently ~ The truck may cost you $75 an hour when being used, but still cost you $25 an hour standing idle (fixed costs of insurance, rego, depreciation). The ‘marginal cost’ of additional night work is only $50/hr.

      Issue 3 – if you have to put a container on a truck to take it to a metro rail terminal, you’ve done half the task already (so why not just keep going…). When you go via rail, the container must be picked up off the truck, put in a stack, then lifted again onto the train. Container reach-stackers are expensive pieces of kit and a lift costs around $25. This is where the Moorebank model becomes more attractive, with logistics facilities co-located at the terminal. *Hopefully*.. containers lifted straight onto a rail wagon.

  3. Kevin says:

    That’s fascinating. What do you think of a new freight line tunnel from Newport to the ports? Is it feasible?
    I’m hoping for a pedestrian and cycling path through the Somerton facility, ie under high voltage power lines across the Craigieburn rail line to Hume Hwy (Sydney Rd) to continue along O’Herns Rd across to Merri Creek. Should be possible if they move the facility to Beveridge as is being planned.

  4. Bob says:

    Looks like they have already started work on the Lyndhurst inland port terminus.

  5. Rohan Storey says:

    The other thing is – there is only currently a rail connection to Swanson / appleton docks, with no connection to the much larger Webb dock – which would need not only a bridge or tunnel to get anywhere, but also a rail alignment through fishermans bend and docklands….so that a real impediment to getting anything out by freight anywhere, let alone to an inland terminal.

  6. Rohan Storey says:

    Oops I take that back, the remnants of a single track line are still there, along wharf road / todd road and lorimer street, but it crosses roads and driveways all along, and just stops near Bolte bridge – so this would have to be rebuilt as am elevated line (or tunnel) if the trains arent going to stop traffic continually.

  7. Mark says:

    The old Elders siding in Lara could be reconnected, SG converted and used as an intermodal terminal in Geelong.
    With the growing container freight in the area, including a very large clothing company using one of the sheds in the complex, I wonder if this would be viable.

    • Marcus Wong says:

      In recent years there have been three proposals for an intermodal terminal in Geelong:

      – Heales Road, at the former Elders siding outside Lara
      – To the west of Geelong at Gheringhap
      – Between the Geelong-Melbourne mainline and Avalon Airport

      The latter site isn’t popular with local residents:

  8. Mark says:

    Also, back when V/line had the North Geelong rail yards, a company proposed to set up part of that as an intermodal terminal. At the time the traffic didn’t warrant the outlay.

  9. andrew says:

    The Sydney rail connections to inland depots date back to the start of container operations in Sydney. The original container wharf was at White Bay, and the official reason for the rail ferry service was that there simply wasn’t room to stack and store containers there. So inland depots were established to stuff, unstuff, and store containers. I guess once the system is set up, it tends to roll on. Of course, the road network congestion in Sydney would help.

    Re the Webb Dock line – when I looked at the remains about 18 months ago, the Web Dock yard itself had been lifted and the area was being redeveloped. The line ended just south of the Westgate.

  10. Rohan says:

    So now this port rail shuttle is being reported as if it’s ready to be built! Are they really only talking about the swanson/Appleton docks rail??

    • Marcus Wong says:

      A topic for a future post, but from what I have read so far the recently reported ‘proposed’ port shuttle requires a new transhipping terminal at the Port of Melbourne, and a few minor track modifications at the inland ports.

  11. […] and Dandenong South are mentioned in the article – the first two already exist, and were even used by port shuttle trains a decade ago, until the services […]

  12. […] These trains no longer run, with the government dragging their heels on their reinstatement, resulting in more trucks on the road in Melbourne’s west. […]

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