There are intersecting elements within my family history that touch both past and contemporary Australian logistical infrastructure planning policies. Derived of these same elements, I will seek to critique contemporary transport planning (focusing on rail infrastructure principally), and later introduce proposals for Eastern Australia.
I am under no illusion in respect of the difficulty in either nudging or displacing evolved interests within the planning development process. Infrastructure access and capitalisation initiatives have a long history in Australia of delivering sub-optimal developmental recommendations, those narrowly channelled to favour the immediate defence or growth aspirations of a particular interest group with a limited number of pre-designated beneficiaries. Yet, so too is there a long history of infrastructure gold-plating, and infrastructure pathway congestion, derived of political decisions that are found upon delivery to serve all interests equally poorly.
When examining the development of logistical networks in any state globally it is necessary to take a panoramic historical view that includes local politics, demographics, infrastructure, technology, and markets.
To open, I will firstly try to convey some of the perspective on the fairly unique pattern of historical Australian transport network development when compared to international analogues. The extent of this divergence came as a surprise to me when I first ventured overseas and engaged with those employing US, European, and Chinese transport infrastructure networks.
The aforementioned divergence (with the major developed economies) arrived, in part, as a consequence of Australia’s relatively polarised demographics & production centres, and also the greater propensity of bulk-to-port carriage in the transport mix. In transportation network terms, the movement of goods between the aforementioned poles has meant that we have long tended to prioritise the development and funding of transportation channels that facilitate the loading of trucks, trains, or ships at one point, and then moving them using the most direct route possible (with minimal interruption/ inter-modal transfers), to a terminal within close proximity to either the goods destination market, or an export port.
In essence, in Australia there has been very little emphasis on the employ of intraregional hubs that might bring opportunities to originate and consolidate transportation loads at similar levels of efficacy as those achieved at primary port hubs, or from bulk goods aggregation origins. Hence, decentralised productive potential, and greater export trade diversity /competitiveness, for products sourced or derived of fertile inland agricultural sources or industry, is being hindered by long extant infrastructure spending and access bias.
When I first visited foreign shores, my own bias in the above respect was already well embedded. At that time, I saw only that these far larger nations’ express transport organisations were often taking two to three days to deliver over distances that Australian express trucking transport companies were delivering in one day. In the Australian market this applied on our dominant East Coast capital sector connecting routes, and also from each of them to their secondary markets being their major intrastate regional centres.
This same style of certitude on minimising transit times by going as hard as possible on an overnight basis did find its place in the transport mix globally. New markets grew as a result. This modus rightfully retains a place, but it should not displace more economically viable transportation network solutions, those that better serve markets in competitive market economies.
Gordon Barton was a charismatic Australian monopoly & red tape fighter whose commercial efforts began in the 1950’s, and he had certainly seen it the way it is described above. Gordon was a shining light for myself, and many others in the transport industry internationally. One of his early commercial escapades was said in his obituary to have been transporting onions across Australian State borders at a time when domestic trade and transport licensing regimes were diabolical.
The reality is that a nation’s transportation infrastructure networks and regulation must be continuously optimised to serve trade potential. Hence, it is in the overall interests of a nation state to have entrenched positions challenged (disrupted) rather than perpetuated at key points. Notwithstanding this, making a case that we should facilitate specific infrastructure development, such that may increase disruptive & competitive potential, will be viewed as a radical stance in the Australian environment. We are, however, determined to do so because we believe that the potential to “grow the pie” may benefit even the many that might instinctively oppose such proposals.
We will attempt to take incremental steps in this series in developing our case. And hence next time we will be delving deeper into the 19th century record of the development of Australian transportation infrastructure that we mentioned at the outset of this post.
As I am in the mood for memorials, an excellent history of the express transport industry in western markets, one that includes Gordon Barton’s feats, can be found in the following three posts attributed by Post and Parcel to Paul Jackson: