In a country with a landmass as large as Australia’s, transport infrastructure is essential. From fresh food to minerals - avocadoes to zinc - commodities often have complicated logistics and travel long-distance routes of 1000 kilometres or more that can be enormously expensive for producers.
A combination of infrastructure investment and regulatory change can bring about substantial reductions in transport and logistics costs. But in order to optimise value from the investment options available, we need a good evidence base: a comprehensive overview of routes and vehicle selections, along with system strengths and vulnerabilities.
That’s where TraNSIT comes in.
TraNSIT is the Transport Network Strategic Investment Tool. It’s a spatial computer model that creates incredibly detailed maps of Australia’s supply chains, freight movements and costings - and 2022 marks the tool’s 10-year anniversary.
Early days: a focus on farmers
“In the early stages of TraNSIT, back in 2012, we started off with a focus on cattle in the north of Australia,” says Dr Andrew Higgins, TraNSIT Project Leader. “We were looking to provide an evidence-based approach for investment in roads and more efficient transport of livestock.”
“We have been blown away by the support the tool has received during the past 10 years. It has been credited with helping to overcome a range of national challenges such as reducing carbon emissions to mapping supply chain disruptions during floods.”
Led by CSIRO, with support from government and industry, the tool was developed to map the routes between farms and their domestic and export markets, with a view to making transport solutions more efficient. For each supply chain path, TraNSIT was able to select the most cost-effective route that accounted for travel distance and time, vehicle configuration, road conditions, driver fatigue regulations and vehicle decoupling costs.
TraNSIT’s application in this context was a resounding success. As well as reducing costs for farmers and enabling them to deliver food to the market more quickly, the models generated by the tool allowed the Government to direct road investment to the areas where it would have most impact, committing to upgrades such as new bridges, sealing, and widening roads.
“We worked closely with Federal, State and Territory, and Local Governments,” says Dr Higgins. “But we also worked with industry and with freight operators. There was a lot of grassroots support for the tool that helped drive adoption. Having farmers and industry leaders vocally support TraNSIT in national forums and request the use of TraNSIT to help make decisions for major Roads Programs – that was a big catalyst for growth.”
Moving beyond beef
In 2015, the Federal Government used the opportunities afforded by the Agricultural Competitiveness White Paper to fund the expansion of TraNSIT to 98 per cent of agricultural transport across Australia.
It was later expanded a second time, to include fuels, forestry, mining, manufacturing and general freight. The tool now accommodates over 160 commodities, representing more than 25 million vehicle trips and 200,000 rail trips per annum. Additional commodities continue to be incorporated.
“When we were initially developing the tool, we planned it as a dynamic, evolving space that could be built upon,” says Stephen McFallan, co-developer of TraNSIT. “While the focus of the tool is still very much about cost and efficiency, it’s been rewarding to see it grow and become useful for a wide range of different applications.”
It has also been satisfying for the TraNSIT team to see a number of important co-benefits realised. These include reduced carbon emissions from more efficient journeys; less food damage and wastage, especially with degradable products; and improved, safer driving conditions for all road users.
“We’ve even done some work looking at meat quality implications, and whether that is impacted by the length of time an animal spends in transit,” says Mr McFallan. “There’s more to do in that space but we now have a bigger team and that’s helpful to have individuals who can take the time to explore those different metrics.”
New and varied applications
In recent years, the range of TraNSIT’s applications has continued to grow – sometimes in surprising directions.
It has been used to investigate biosecurity issues, including the logistics impact of tick-free zones for cattle; it has helped researchers assess the impact on supply chains of extreme events like fire and flooding; and one 2018 project focused on the tourism industry, where the goal was less about getting from A to B as quickly as possible, and more about how to optimise roads for visitors.
The tool also continues to be used for informed decision making around major infrastructure investment, including Inland Rail, where recent modelling found that the project could save close to $213 million in transport costs each year.
Leo Soames is Acting Head of the Bureau of Infrastructure and Transport Research Economics (BITRE), which is currently leading a review into the resilience of Australian road and rail supply chains.
“TraNSIT is the best network analysis model of freight movements in Australia, and we are using it to help inform our evidence base for the resilience review,” says Mr Soames. “The tool is helping us understand what the impacts of closures and disruptions are on freight routes and the broader supply chain – and how we can prioritise government responses to improve network resilience.”
“The TraNSIT team are able to explain complex concepts really well,” continues Mr Soames. “They have been helpful at unpacking some of the recent supply chain issues we’ve faced with extreme weather, and the tool just continues to get better as more commodities and routes are added. I can’t sing TraNSIT’s praises highly enough.”
Beyond Aussie borders
TraNSIT now incorporates information and expert knowledge from over 400 agencies and organisations across Australia, and its domestic success has led to an overseas expansion. A prototype has been developed for Indonesia and Vietnam, where it is hoped it can have a role in decision support for transport costs in local and national food supply chains.
A user-friendly, web-based version of the tool is being developed to allow organisations to undertake projects and test infrastructure and regulatory scenarios themselves, while a second spin-off product, the Supply Chain Benchmarking Dashboard allows government and industry users to develop a shared understanding of supply chain performance.
“It’s almost like magic,” says Ross Slater, an Assistant Director at the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications who was involved in the development of the dashboard. “It provides a much richer knowledge base and more sophisticated level of detail around freight performance than we could through previous approaches. The critical thing is that it demystifies where costs are coming from, providing an incredible basis for informed conversations between industry and government about pain points and opportunities for collaboration or policy action.”
“TraNSIT is a real testament to what can be achieved through sustained policy and science collaboration,” continues Mr Slater. “The benefits are staggering, and the team is absolutely peerless.”
The TraNSIT tool at work showing the annual road freight movements around Australia.