The federal Transport and Infrastructure Minister Anthony Albanese was on the mark when he announced yesterday that Australia’s land freight transport system wasn’t up to scratch. Disjointed planning has forced trucks to compete for dwindling road space with motorists, while rail freight operators labour under a system that prioritises their public transport counterparts.

Throw in the cross-border regulatory inconsistencies and it is no surprise that Albanese is trumpeting the need for a national integrated land freight strategy. Launched yesterday, the document recommends dedicated road freight routes, greater access for bigger trucks, the separation of freight and public transport rail services and a little forward thinking from governments on land use planning.

It’s an impressive document and one that fits in with former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s attempt to reshape the transport sector.

“The whole freight strategy is pretty simple,” Albanese said. “We aim for seamless access across the infrastructure network. We need to transform the way our $61 billion transport industry is regulated.”

It’s great rhetoric, but it’s going to take a lot of work to ensure the strategy doesn’t become another great proposal destined for the dustbin.

Allowing bigger trucks such as B-triples, which haul three trailers, greater access to the road network makes sense when you consider the freight task is predicted to treble by 2050. The vehicles are safer and can carry more freight per trip, meaning fewer vehicles to do the job.

While some scream about “monster trucks” being unleashed on a frightened public, one of the key sticking points in policy circles is not safety concerns; it’s the cost. Local governments cop most the applications for increased access because they operate most of the road network. But they are loathe to grant access because they receive next to no funds to make sure roads and bridges can support the heavier vehicles.

When an individual route can cost upwards of $5000 just to assess, you get an idea of how expensive the bill could be in bringing bridges and roads up to standard.

While the economics will be important, so too will getting residents onside.

As the Australian Local Government Association (ALGA) has constantly pointed out, community expectations, safety and amenity will be just as influential when determining access conditions. The former president of Municipal Association Victoria, Dick Gross, believes councils just don’t want the vehicles running through their suburbs or country towns.

One of the key proposals outlined in the document is for future important freight routes to be set aside.Yet the most important state to the road transport task, NSW, doesn’t even have a draft freight strategy despite promising a 25-year plan last year.

It’s equally lacking in rail. Despite pledging in 2004 to get 40% of freight carried on rail, the target is nowhere near being achieved. In fact, as The Sydney Morning Herald pointed out, the volumes of freight on wagons has actually declined from 22% when the pledge was made to 18% now.

Albo’s grand plan hinges on getting all governments to come on board. But considering the current state of jurisdictional co-operation on transport reform, things aren’t looking promising.

In its latest assessment of government efforts to streamline transport laws and introduce an equitable heavy vehicle charging scheme, the COAG Reform Council could barely hide its disappointment.

Victoria and the Northern Territory are wavering on the implementation date of national laws because policy differences cannot be resolved. Meanwhile, complex bureaucratic reporting structures means road pricing reform has effectively stalled.

It’s little wonder that when Albanese spoke at the Australian Logistics Council’s annual forum yesterday he implored industry to “put its shoulder to wheel” and campaign hard for reform: “I can’t do it alone.”

Indeed. But co-operation might have already run off the rails.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey