Melbourne’s paused port rail project

Increasing the market share of freight moved by rail to the Port of Melbourne – a worthy aim, but in September 2015 it was revealed that a project to achieve this had been shelved by the State Government, pending privatisation of the port. So what is really going on, and what have the government decided not to build?

Container ships berthed at Swanson Dock

The article that piqued my attention appeared in The Age on September 17:

Labor puts brakes on port rail project that would take 3500 trucks off road
September 17, 2015
Adam Carey

A project that would replace 3500 container trucks a day with just 28 freight trains, potentially halving port-based truck traffic and slashing pollution levels from heavy vehicles, has been shelved by the Andrews government until it leases Melbourne’s port.

The port-rail shuttle project has been suspended despite having $58 million of state and federal money committed to it last year, dismaying businesses eager to see the huge transfer of container freight from trucks to trains.

Commercial property developer Salta is poised to invest $3 million on a one-kilometre rail spur to link its Altona freight terminal to the port, plus $30 million on freight facilities on its site, but said it was pointless spending the money while the port-rail shuttle is on ice.

“Salta has an obligation to build that [rail spur] once certain things have happened, but there is no point until trains can be received at the port,” the company’s managing director Sam Tarascio said.

The port-rail shuttle involves reviving a disused rail line to the Port of Melbourne docks that runs parallel to Footscray Road, and building three short rail spurs to freight terminals in Altona, Somerton and Dandenong South. It would enable trains to shift goods between the port and freight hubs in the suburbs.

Currently, 100 per cent of Melbourne’s imports and exports are transported by truck.

The port-rail shuttle could transfer more than half of this – some 3500 truck movements a day – onto freight rail, an analysis by consulting firm GHD has found.

The analysis found those truck movements could be replaced by 56 daily train trips between the port and the three suburban freight hubs. The $58 million rail shuttle would shift 1.4 million containers a year to and from the port, GHD predicts, and reduce heavy vehicle emissions by 23,000 tonnes.

Unfortunately for me, the article raised more questions than answers.

Disused tracks

The mention of a disused rail line running parallel to Footscray Road confused me – the track has been there since the 1960s, and while it did fall into disuse, it was reconnected in 2002-03 and later upgrades as part of the construction of the Footscray Road overbridge.

G515, RL310 and AN8 depart Swanson Dock with the POTA shuttle

The siding heads all the way across to the Swanson Dock West, where a loading pad exists in the DP World container terminal.

Loading from AM2 placed into the P&O Swanson Dock West siding for unloading

In addition, a separate set of sidings lead to Appleton Dock and Swanson Dock East, serving the Patrick container terminal.

G527, X41, P22, P20 and A79 stabled at Appleton Dock, along with broad gauge trains

New rail sidings

Rail sidings at Altona, Somerton 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 failed.

No metropolitan containers on rail

The article states that “100 per cent of Melbourne’s imports and exports are transported by truck” – a little hard to believe given that freight trains already service the Port of Melbourne, but it is true – at present these services only run to container terminals in country Victoria.

So what do they actually want to build?

Once you know the actual name of a project the details are easy to find, and in this case I had to find the Port-Rail Shuttle page on the Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources (what a name!) website.

I was then able to find Salta’s submission to the Port of Melbourne inquiry, as mentioned in the article, which details the proposed works:

The proposition outlined in this document, namely the creation of infrastructure including the Metropolitan Intermodal Rail Terminal (the ‘MIRT’) at the Port, and the establishment of a network of Metropolitan Inland Ports connected to the Port by rail is collectively referred to as the Metropolitan Intermodal System (the ‘MIS’)

They also attached a presentation detailing what form the Metropolitan Intermodal Rail Terminal will take:

Straddle carriers or inter terminal vehicles (ITVs) will transfer containers between the wharves and the MIRT ‘off road’.

  • Loading on/off trains using reach stackers until volume justifies gantries
  • Highly disciplined container transfer operation to match
  • Highly disciplined train departure/arrivals

And how the trains will operate:

Shuttle Train Reliability

  • Will operate in between other trains outside peak periods
  • Good acceleration & braking characteristics
  • Two locomotives (one each end) to clear a line section if a single loco fails

Shuttle Train Specification

  • The trains will be a fixed length not exceeding 600m
  • They will have a locomotive at each (push – pull)
  • Trains will have a nominal container capacity will be 84 TEU
  • Will be broad or standard gauge as required by choice of route on the Somerton & Altona corridors
  • The locomotives will need to be around 3000hp

And finally, detail of the proposed MIRT location – the ‘disused’ track mentioned in the original article:

The MIRT is defined by a rail terminal parallel to Footscray Road that has direct access to both Swanson Dock container terminals to minimise handling costs. Ultimately the MIRT needs to be capable of servicing four metropolitan port rail shuttles (600m long) at once.

However it required government input:

Government has the ability to inexpensively and quickly enable the MIS by committing to the following.

Government Actions:

  1. Proceeding with the mandated closure of Coode Road;
  2. Completing the rail connections into the Metropolitan Inland Ports;
  3. Make available the currently budgeted $58 million for construction of the Government defined ‘MIRT’ and the remaining rail connections at the Inland Ports.
  4. Ensure the New Port Leaseholder is delivered the land and given the necessary powers to establish the MIRT and appointment of an operating entity.

So all that needs to be done is expansion of an existing rail terminal at the Port of Melbourne so it can serve more trains, the closure of a public road so that containers can be moved between ships and trains without delay, and a few minor track changes in the suburbs so that the existing terminals can be served by trains.

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9 Responses to “Melbourne’s paused port rail project”

  1. Julian Calaby says:

    I always thought (from driving down Footscray Road) that the Footscray Road container facility ran a three step process: unload from rail => hold => load onto ships. (and in reverse of course) However looking at the area with Google Maps, it appears that it’s more rail => hold => trucks => hold => ships. (and vice versa) Given that rail is only used for regional / country transport, I guess that only a small percentage of containers are going directly between ships and rail, but who seriously thought it was a good idea to separate the facilities in the first place?

  2. Jacob says:

    There should be a big tax on every shipping container that goes from Port MEL to Wodonga by truck.

    In order to encourage a shift to rail and sea.

  3. Andrew S says:

    Interestingly over in Perth whilst I’m here they’re having a battle over Perth Freight Link – an extension if Roe Highway (part of the Perth Ring Road) over what was left after the Gallop Government sold part of the reserve (an interchange at Leach Highway – Orrong Road was the consolation prize from the sale). Hence part of it would be an upgrade of existing arterial roads or a tunnel – still debating that issue. They’ve even imported some activism from (inner) Melbourne by the look of it!

    Current rail access is via a circuitous goods standard/narrow gauge goods line via Cockburn and around Perth’s suburbs to Kewdale and Midland following Roe Highway – very similar to Melbourne’s Albion-Jacana line following the M80 Ring Road. The look of the tracks at Fremantle suggest all the traffic is standard gauge variety.

    Analogous to Melbourne there’s a debate over the eventual relocation of the port facilities anyway – in this case further south to Kwinana in Cockburn Sound. This would have road and (dual gauge) rail access outside the suburban area and so would not be so strangled with access restrictions as Fremantle is today.

  4. […] the years since trucks have now taken over the streets of Melbourne’s inner west, while the Port Rail Shuttle project that was supposed to move containers onto rail has gone […]

  5. […] These ‘super’ B-double trucks took the place of port rail shuttles, a project forever proposed but yet to be implemented. […]

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