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By Mary-Lou Considine 26 July 2018 5 min read

The Northern NSW and southern Queensland region is dissected by a legacy network of roads and rail lines. Picture courtesy ARTC.

A COMPUTER model originally developed to improve the transport of beef cattle in northern Australia is now being used by shire councils in northern NSW and southern Queensland to quantify how transport regulatory change and upgrades to roads, rail and other supply-chain infrastructure can benefit local producers’ bottom-line.

TraNSIT (Transport Network Strategic Investment Tool) was first developed in 2012-13, when federal and state governments commissioned CSIRO to model northern Australia’s livestock supply chain to identify bottlenecks. Since then, TraNSIT has been applied to the beef industry nationally, and to other supply chains across the country.

Andrew Higgins, TraNSIT’s project manager at CSIRO, describes the modelling tool as “an evidence-based approach to evaluating transport cost-savings, for example, by investing in road upgrades.”

He says TraNSIT now covers 98 per cent of all agricultural and horticultural supply chains nationally, involving around 250,000 enterprises and almost 500,000 supply chain paths – not just for delivering product from farm to market, but to and from storage and processing facilities.

In the model’s latest application, eight local councils in NSW – Gwydir, Moree Plains, Gunnedah, Liverpool Plains, Narrabri, Walgett, Coonamble and Tamworth – together with Goondiwindi in southern Queensland have worked with CSIRO and industry stakeholders to use TraNSIT for estimating transport cost savings from improving or constructing new rail-enabled storage and handling facilities.

Legacy rail/road network

Northern NSW and southern Queensland contain some of the country’s most productive farmland, supporting, among other industries, beef and dairy cattle, sheep, pigs, grains, cotton, and horticulture.

The landscape is dissected by a legacy network of roads and rail lines, built at different times, and for different vehicles. So, for today’s producers, deciding how to get goods quickly and cost-effectively from farm to processing or storage, or directly to market can be something of a logistical puzzle.

“If you look at the Newcastle to Narrabri rail network, for example, you have the capacity to run 120-tonne-gross wagons,” says Michael Clancy, a business manager with Australian Rail Transport Corporation (ARTC) and one of the contributors to the CSIRO study. “But once you go north of Narrabri, the capacity drops to 92 tonnes – a 25 per cent drop in payload capability.

“If you go on to the smaller branch lines north or west of Narrabri, the capacity drops again to 76 tonne-gross. That’s 60 per cent of the payload capability you had a couple of 100 km away in Newcastle.

“That has implications in terms of cost, which was a focus of the project report.”

Although his background is in rail logistics, Clancy says it’s essential for all players in the supply chain to work together to identify opportunities for cost-savings – faster loading and dispatching of goods on farms, for example; or increasing the size of trucks by upgrading key roads; or flagging roads prone to closure from flooding.

“The ‘last mile’, the shorter distances where you accumulate goods at a railhead or deliver from a railhead back to an end-user, will always be by road. So the road–rail divide that people talk about is not really there – it’s more a matter of how we work together to make it cost-effective. What’s the most efficient way to get my product from A to B?

“All constraints have a cost impact. Until you have a full overview and understanding of where they are, across the supply chain, you’ve got no way of ascertaining where the best spend is, in terms of infrastructure responses.

“TraNSIT allows you to calculate the economic benefit of, for example, improving a stretch of road or rail, or inter-modal hubs, where product is transferred between rail and road or vice versa, or upgrading or building storage facilities.

“It’s an extremely powerful tool to demonstrate to government and private industry what their investment is worth if they choose to go down a certain path.”

Strategic ‘lens’ over supply chains

Clancy notes that it was CSIRO’s trusted reputation and independent status that enabled it to access sensitive datasets from industry and government.

This has been key to TraNSIT’s evolution from application to application, across supply chains, and across the country. Andrew Higgins says CSIRO has collaborated with more than a hundred different industry associations and government agencies since 2012 to gain access to this data.

“It includes 170,000 road segments, for example. We constructed TraNSIT’s road networks with information from state and federal agencies, industry, and local governments. It’s a very good network.

“For the northern NSW–southern Queensland study, we used this baseline model to look at three aspects of the supply chains: the impact of expanding existing facilities; the impact of improving efficiency, such as reducing loading times from 11 to around 5 hours; and the impact of future rail improvements.

“Some facilities in the region are limited by the size of the train and capacity of the wagons – a 42-wagon train with two locomotives, for instance. We’re looking at future options for longer, faster trains with higher capacity or what would happen if you were to upgrade roads that supply grain to these sites, say going from B-Double to road-train access?”

For the northern NSW–southern Queensland study, TraNSIT looked at supply chains aspects including expanding existing facilities, reducing loading times and the impact of future rail improvements. Image: ARTC.

The study results showed savings of up to $10 per tonne in moving from 42- to 76-wagon bulk trains with a faster loading time of 5 hours; with additional savings from upgrades to roads.

A partner in the northern NSW study is GrowerCo, a logistics enterprise formed by grain-growers in the region to move grain more efficiently from farm to customer. Business manager John Picone says the TraNSIT study has given GrowerCo confidence that significant cost-savings can be made if an overall view is taken of the grain supply chain, from farm gate to market.

Where to next?

Higgins says CSIRO is extending TraNSIT to other commodities including fuels, general freight and minerals. This development, says Higgins, will provide decision-makers with a more accurate overview of freight movements and infrastructure capacity around the country.

Higgins says CSIRO is also looking at to the potential to link TraNSIT to short- and medium-term climate scenarios – for example, working out the supply-chain impact of floods if a La Nina event is predicted, or identifying the most efficient supply chains for stockfeed delivery from other states during drought.

Interestingly, TraNSIT may soon be extended beyond supply chain scenarios to tourism. “It can help tourism bodies understand how the safety and accessibility of roads contributes to the attractiveness of different tourist sites,” says Higgins. “It’s a different application, but potentially a high-demand area, particularly in northern Australia.”

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