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Freight protection – how Australia can secure its supply chains from weather disruptions

Four key Australian freight routes have been impacted multiple times by weather events in the past couple of years. One Australian transport association is calling for a national plan to fix these disruptions and solidify the nation’s supply chain network

Driving from Perth to Adelaide is an arduous trip for even the most seasoned of truck drivers. Travelling along the Eyre Highway, the 2,700km journey takes roughly 28 hours.

On five separate occasions in the past four years, the Eyre Highway has been closed due to severe weather incidents ranging from the extreme heat of bushfires to the inundation of floods. With the only detour being a 6,300km journey that takes more than double the time to complete, these freight disruptions are starting to take its toll on Australia’s supply chains.

“There’s been a staggering amount of freight disruptions seen around Australia in the past few years,” Western Roads Federation (WRF) CEO Cam Dumesny told ATN.

“The latest supply issues aren’t the first – rather, they’re just one of many such interstate freight disruptions that have occurred over recent years.”

The list of disruptions plaguing major Australian arterials is continuing to grow. For the Perth to Adelaide Eyre Highway, bushfires in January 2020 first closed the road for 12 days. Two years later, rail connecting Western Australia to South Australia was closed for three weeks due to flooding, with floods in the surrounding New South Wales and Victorian regions once again closing rail in November, 2022.

This year, bushfires first closed the Eyre Highway in February, before floods a month later saw both the WA to SA rail link and the Eyre Highway shut down.

This isn’t an isolated tale for freight operators running between Perth and Adelaide – there are three other main routes that are also being severely impacted by weather events. The Perth to Darwin channel, which is roughly 3,700km long, was first impacted when the Fitzroy River Crossing bridge was destroyed by flooding in January, 2023.

A new bridge was built by December last year, but this year multiple closures have continued to occur in the Northern Territory due to repeated flooding. The only detour available for truck drivers is 4,700km long.

From Adelaide to Darwin, the 3,000km strip of both road and rail links was first impacted by floods in January 2023, with bushfires closing the road later in the year before two weeks of floods closed the rail line in January this year. The shortest detour for this route is 5,700km.

The final part of the freight disruption network is occurring between Brisbane and Darwin, with bushfires and ex-Tropical Cyclone Lincoln closing the 3,400km-long road both last year and this year, forcing drivers to detour on a 4,700km-long route.

Dumesny says the sheer number of disruptions to these key arterials in recent years is proof that Australia needs to solidify and secure its supply chain networks.

“WA’s supply issues will not be solved by piecemeal solutions, nor can they be solely solved by the state,” Dumesny says.

“Rather, there must be an urgent nationally led action plan to fix our fragile and increasingly failing freight system.”

While these incidents have continued to impact the nation’s operators, Dumesny says states have become better at internally coordinating responses to them. Working within their own state associations, operators have been able to find new paths to cross borders and deliver goods into isolated towns, such as what has been seen with freight routes to and from the Katherine region when rail and road networks have been forced to close.

Dumesny says the likes of the National Heavy Vehicle Regulator (NHVR) have also come to help when needed by freeing access for road trains to travel on certain highways and continue delivering goods. However, this approach isn’t sustainable for the states being impacted.

“There’s nothing we’re hearing from a national level to help us when we face closures,” Dumesny says.

“The failing freight system is not only leading to empty shelves – it’s also driving up the cost of business and contributing to the growing exodus of manufacturing companies moving offshore.”

The cost of these disruptions on local communities and businesses is something Dumesny says is unknown. Currently, Dumesny has reached out to the east Kimberley community region, which is isolated, to produce a guideline on what it costs the area when freight routes are disrupted.

From there, he’s hoping to extrapolate this information and apply the model to other regions to determine what closed freight routes are costing Australian towns.

“No one knows how much a freight disruption actually costs the industry and local communities and businesses,” Dumesny says.

“It’s not just about the wage of drivers left sitting in their trucks – it’s the cost of fresh food that has been held up for three extra days and the reduced shelf life it then has, as well as many other factors.

“If a truck coming out of WA is carrying key parts, then a certain project may be delayed, resulting to more costs. I would suggest the cost is a far bigger number than many may think.”

To combat this rising issue, Dumesny and WRF have released a comprehensive 19-point plan to guide the federal government in securing key freight routes from severe weather events. It was presented in March to national and state government agencies, with the plan searching to secure national leadership and coordination, focus on a freight system solution and call for a targeted infrastructure investment.

“The terminology of the three themes on the plan may sound grandiose, but the recommendations under each are pragmatic, multimodal and, most importantly, realistically deliverable,” Dumesny says.

“Despite two federal parliamentary inquiries and with no sign of any national action plan, WA’s peak body for transport and logistics industry, the Western Roads Federation, has taken the lead. The climate is changing, and so must our freight system.”

The end goal is for the federal government to respond to freight disruptions in WA, SA and the NT much like how it currently does when rail or road networks are forced to close on the eastern coast. Ideas that can help secure freight resilience in the nation include introducing more intermodal terminals so that freight can be swapped from road to rail at certain points if disruptions force it to be.

Dumesny would also like to see pre-positioning containers and major rest areas added alongside these key freight routes, so that trucks and road trains have a place to go when held up without having to begin lengthy detours.

“When there were major fires on the Eyre Highway and it was shut for 12 days, we saw trucks spread over hundreds of kilometres over different rest areas,” Dumesny says.

“Why don’t we make large sealed areas on these popular routes that include toilets and telecommunications so that trucks can be housed when there’s an outage without having to turn them around and crowd smaller rest areas?”

Dumesny also wants Australia’s transport industry to increase its communications capabilities, so that drivers leaving their destination can find out when they’re on the road if there’s a freight disruption. By learning earlier, they can detour sooner and complete journeys in a faster and more efficient timeframe.

“Bushfire mitigation is also critical, as a lack of funding on land that is experiencing multiple bushfires shows that more can be done to protect highways,” Dumesny says.

While there are many ways that freight can be secured in Australia, Dumesny is currently seeing no federal action being taken. It’s already taken a political turn, with the West Australian this week featuring empty supermarket shelves on its front page. Dumesny’s latest freight security plan is seeking to find various solutions to this issue before it becomes a major national debate.

“Government policy must focus on achieving a symphony of efficiency and reliability if it is to avoid more empty shelves, higher cost of living and reduce business costs,” Dumesny says.

“Every transport mode needs investment and a greater focus on productivity that is achieved by working smarter and reducing the inefficiency costs and delays out of the system.

“Unless the federal and relevant state governments work together to start conducting the freight system as a symphony, we will continue to suffer increasing bare shelves and rising costs.”

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