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Port of Melbourne strives to lead the way in port and logistics technology

For nearly 150 years, the Port of Melbourne has been an important part of the growth of Victoria’s capital city. ATN takes you inside the wide expanses of the port and the current technological evolution being undertaken

What goes into a modern day port? For years, ports have played a vital role in both the transport landscape of cities and the wider economies of nations.

In Victoria, the Port of Melbourne has been part of the city’s evolution since the 19th century, where it acted as a trade gateway for ships coming through Port Phillip Bay. The foundation of the Melbourne Harbour Trust in 1877 formally established an authority to develop and manage the Port of Melbourne. Now, nearly 150 years onwards, new technology is set to keep the port at the cutting edge of logistics innovation.

“As Australia’s largest general cargo and container port, the Port of Melbourne is a vital trading gateway for south-eastern Australia,” Port of Melbourne CEO Saul Cannon told ATN.

“It facilitates more than one-third of the nation’s container trade and enables economic activity in the region. The port services south-east Australia, including Tasmania, and occupies a central position in the freight and logistics industry.”

Image: Prime Creative Media

Nowadays, the Port of Melbourne Group acts as the landlord manager of the port and is responsible for the strategic planning, development and management of the port under a 50-year lease from the Victorian government. As CEO of the Port of Melbourne since November 2021, Cannon’s prior experience at global logistics provider Toll Group has allowed him to continue growing the major port.

Owned by QIC, Future Fund, Global Infrastructure Partners and OMERS Infrastructure, the group’s long-term shareholders make investment decisions in the strategic interests of the port and its place in the national supply chain.

“We’re focused on growing the port’s capacity to cater for future demand while maintaining the operational efficiency of our assets and the port freight supply chain,” Cannon says.

While figures from 2019 say there are more than five million people living in Melbourne, the scope of the port is unknown to many. As ATN is taken out on a tour of the port on a brisk Friday morning, the space that the Port of Melbourne occupies is quickly made clear.

Image: Prime Creative Media

Starting just past the Bolte Bridge, the Victoria Dock is quickly overshadowed by the two-part Swanson Dock West and East. With Appleton Dock adjoining it and South Wharf hugging the other side of the water, containers and cranes fill the area.

The Swanson Docks house major port terminal companies like Patrick Terminals and DP World, allowing them to ship a multitude of items into Melbourne. Swanson Dock takes in a range of container ships, liquid bulk and other port-related activities, while the Appleton and Victoria Docks specialise in Tasmanian goods and dry, or break, bulk.

As part of a current five-year project, the Swanson Dock infrastructure is being remediated by McConnell Dowell. As the boat passes the looming dock, divers can be seen popping their heads out of the water before returning back under the dock to complete crucial works.

“The workers are currently reinforcing the wharf and deck from underneath, completing the project one berth at a time,” Cannon says.

From there, the boat continues out towards Port Phillip Bay and passes Yarraville and Holden Dock on the way to the West Gate Bridge. With a bridge height of roughly 50m, incoming ships have to be cleared to travel under Melbourne’s busiest bridge.

For those that can’t travel into the likes of Swanson, Victoria and Appleton Docks, the massive Webb Dock is the main port of call. On the eastern side, containers are welcomed, while motor vehicles, or break bulk, pull up to the western side of Webb Dock. In total, the Port of Melbourne covers 505 hectares of land, with 95,000 hectares of water declared port territory.

With 52km of commercial shipping channels and 21km of waterfront, the Port of Melbourne includes 30 commercial berths and wharves and houses 71 tenants. With the final parts of the port existing right down at the end of Williamstown at Gellibrand and Breakwater Piers, Cannon says the port is much bigger than many locals expect.

Image: Prime Creative Media

“We provide world-class port facilities and services while investing in infrastructure to drive port productivity that supports Victoria’s economic and social growth,” Cannon says.

“Stevedore operations are undertaken by our tenants, who aren’t Port of Melbourne employees, while our footprint doesn’t include Station Pier or cruise ship operations, but it’s a lot of land.”

Information provided by the Port of Melbourne says that the port contributes $1.95 million directly to Australia’s GDP, with another $3.663 million estimated to be contributed by the port to the GDP indirectly. In Victoria alone, $1.83 million directly adds to the state’s GDP, with a further $3.5 million indirectly contributed. On top of this, millions of dollars of value is added to both Australia and Victoria’s economy via the jobs it provides many.

As the boat tours the massive Webb Docks and a current roll-on, roll-off, or ro-ro, ship that is unloading its many motor vehicles, Cannon mentions the innovation and technological updates that the port is currently undergoing.

“The Port of Melbourne also includes the Victoria International Container Terminal (VICT), which is the only fully automated dock in Australia and potentially the Southern Hemisphere,” Cannon says.

“It also includes the two largest cranes in Australia. Recently, we’ve extended the VICT’s skyline length by 71 metres.”

On top of that, Ports Victoria is preparing to introduce an operational live radar system to help ensure safety clearances around bridges feature the latest technology. With rock walls around the West Gate Bridge and speed and tug requirements in place, the Port of Melbourne remains focused on safety.

Other ongoing projects include the Port Rail Transformation Project, where the Port of Melbourne is providing more infrastructure to use trains to move shipping containers to and from the port. This means a 600m train can take roughly 84 containers compared to a truck that takes roughly 2.8 containers on average.

“We completed practical infrastructure works for our major Port Rail Transformation Project in August 2023, which was a key milestone in delivering our Rail Access Strategy in 2020,” Cannon says.

The Webb Dock East expansion was finalised at the end of last year, with the Port Capacity Enhancement Program also lined up for 2036. On the environmental side, the Port of Melbourne has also introduced biodiversity initiatives, including a water surveillance pilot program, sentinel bee hives and seal the loop bins in the area, to manage the environmental impact of port activities on the area.

It all highlights a hive of activity that is allowing the historic Port of Melbourne to continue growing as a behemoth of logistics and shipping operations.

“We’re now looking forward to relocating our Tasmania terminals to Appleton and Victoria Docks while also developing a new Webb Dock North container terminal,” Cannon says.

“As part of our 2050 Port Development Strategy, we’ll then work with the state government to deliver the Webb Dock Freight Link and Rail Terminal/s before integrating the port with the former Melbourne Wholesale Market Site in Dynon, develop a new liquid bulk capacity and build Yarraville’s land up at 221 Whitehall Street.”

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