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Impact of freight transportation on our cities

Freight train with cargo containers

Aurecon's transport leader discusses the potential impact of poor population growth planning on Australian capital cities and suggests major rail freight tunnels could be the answer to freight logistics problems.

Aside from city states like Singapore and Monaco, Australia is the most urbanised nation on earth.

Currently, Australian capital cities rank high on global indices of liveability. However, poorly planned population growth could cost them this status.

The decisions we make today to build more sustainable and liveable cities will affect the prosperity and lifestyles of generations to come. For highly urbanised countries, a wrong step in urban policy can have national implications, especially when around 40 per cent of the national population live in just two cities, as we do in Australia.

The movement of freight to support the increasing population is however, often treated as an afterthought, or not integrated with the overall responses to solving the congestion problems.

State of Australian Cities 2013 (released by the Australian Government in July 2013) provides a rich picture of Australian cities, giving insight into the productivity, sustainability and liveability of our cities.

Australian capital cities rank high on global indices of liveability. Three reputable indices, the Economist Intelligence Unit's "Liveability Ranking and Overview", "Mercer Quality of Living Survey", and Monocle's "Most Liveable Cities Index" have Australian cities featured in their top ten.

The potentially more un-biased UN-Habitat City Prosperity Index rated Melbourne at 0.903 (2012/13), implying a strong integration of the five elements of prosperity being productivity, infrastructure, quality of life, equity and environmental sustainability.

Australia has one of the highest rates of population growth in the developed world, with a forecast to see four million extra people settled in the capital cities by 2035. A steepening inner-city house price gradient and congested road and rail systems threatens to lock out a significant proportion of the urban population of their city’s prosperity. Poor population growth planning could put Australian capital cities at risk of losing their status on the various liveability indices.

Heavy traffic on motorwayUrban Congestion

An increasing population undertakes more work related trips, and demands more goods and services. Inevitably congestion in our cities will increase. Typically, the focus of publications and policy responses to solving congestion problems has been on the movement of people. Freight movement has either not been integrated with the overall responses or has followed as an afterthought.

Cities around the world face serious traffic congestion. In some countries, such as the United States, a strong freight rail market has kept truck traffic through cities at manageable levels. Elsewhere, for example in Europe and Australia, freight rail has lost most of its market share. This has led to higher levels of truck traffic and intensified traffic congestion. In some cities, the emphasis on passenger rail has limited freight capacity and competitiveness.

International experience suggests that a strong freight rail system and a strong passenger rail network are incompatible. This is important, since many cities seek to reduce traffic congestion through expansion of passenger rail (intercity and commuter). Driving freight away from rail and onto road could worsen traffic congestion.

To contain urban traffic congestion, it is important the freight rail industry maintains or expands its market share. In some cases, the potential for freight projects to reduce traffic congestion is greater than for passenger rail projects. To reduced traffic congestion, public policy should aim at implementing the most effective freight or passenger projects.

Funding for urban transit projects should promote the reduction or containment of traffic congestion. Rather than being skewed toward a particular strategy, this requires a balanced approach that relies on the most effective traffic-containing measures. Given the difficulty of increasing urban roadway capacity and the tendency to transfer rail freight traffic losses to traffic-increasing trucks, public policy should avoid actions that make freight rail less competitive.

Freight rail competitiveness

Rail freight transport has a number of advantages over trucking. It includes the ability to move large volumes of freight comparatively inexpensively, and with less expenditure of energy. The intermodal market, consisting of truck trailers and ocean shipping containers moved by rail and truck, is growing rapidly and has significant potential for expansion, especially with a growing urban population.

Posing a significant external threat, new commuter rail systems and the expansion of intercity rail services could make freight rail less competitive. In the long run, this could cause diversion of large volumes of freight to trucks onto already congested urban highways.

Land use planning

Population growth, socio-economy and quality of life are all interrelated. Higher population growth can hamper social and economic development and affect the quality of life of the people in the area. The high population growth of Australian cities has the potential to threaten their liveability, unless planned well. As already mentioned, with an increase in population comes an increase in demand for products and services. Additionally, the environmental consequences of road based transport systems and urban land use necessitate the need for a change in thinking. Finding solutions to our freight transportation issues is becoming more challenging. It is time for some innovative solutions.

Innovation in freight transportation

Several innovations are under various stages of investigation throughout the world. One such innovation is the CargoCap system, a prototype of which is being planned in Germany. This system involves fully automated transport vehicles, the so-called Caps, each loaded with two euro-pallets, travelling in underground pipelines with a diameter of only 2 metres; it is independent of above ground traffic congestion and weather conditions. Other similar concepts include the MoleSolutions concept in the UK, the PipeNet concept in Italy and the Tube Cargo Express in Belgium.

CargoCap_Kolonne_2011-01 original source Computer graphics visaplan GmbH, Photos CargoCap GmbH

Another innovation under investigation is the TEAL, the Tube Enclosed Air Levitated Transport System. This involves larger tube like cargo modules able to transport standard containers in larger underground tubes, as opposed to the smaller systems mentioned above.

What these innovations all have in common is that they all seek to avoid the existing transportation networks due to congestion issues. Freight pipelines, predominately underground, appear to be the focus of investigations of new ways of transporting freight. Urban development has seen the increasing construction of public roads underground to service the needs of the population. The drive to move freight underground is inevitable, as the space above ground is becoming more valuable.

Modern, fast electric locomotive in dark underground tunnelUnderground freight rail

Fortunately, we do not have to rely on technology that is unproven or potentially incompatible with existing modes of transport. If we rethink the application of existing, proven technology, we can, at least for the foreseeable future, solve many of these freight transportation issues.

Advances in tunnel technology mean there is no reason for conventional rail freight trains to remain above ground, providing adherence to a few safety-related issues. It is therefore no surprise that cities like New York[1] and Antwerp[2] are considering major rail freight tunnels to solve their freight logistics problems.

Tunnelling can bring rail infrastructure closer to where it is required; eliminating the transfer to truck or expensive alternative longer routes generally involving more impact on existing above ground developments.

The combination of Aurecon’s extensive international experience in the planning, design and construction of tunnels and heavy haul rail infrastructure can provide cities with viable options to continue to grow economically through trade and supply the growing population with goods and services. No longer will the expansion of the rail freight network compromise the liveability of cities.


[1] Cross Harbor Rail Freight Tunnel between New Jersey and Long Island

[2] Liefkenshoek Railway Tunnel

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