The big question facing WA’s port infrastructure
Nicole Lockwood notes with irony and amusement that, for a State synonymous with bulky commodities such as iron ore, one of WA’s biggest exports is air.
To all but those involved in ports and freight handling, it seems a little-known fact that many of the containers that bring WA its everyday consumables from overseas leave these shores empty.
In a funny sort of way, Ms Lockwood’s task as the head of a McGowan Government task force investigating the State’s container-handling capacity is to find ways of increasing WA’s air exports.
Ms Lockwood is chairwoman of the Westport task force, which was convened by the Government in 2017 to look at the future of the Fremantle, Cockburn and Bunbury ports in an integrated way.
Ahead of the release of the group’s draft report, likely in October, Ms Lockwood spoke to WestBusiness about the progress being made already.
But she also nodded to the immense job that would be needed to overhaul a system that has changed remarkably little in decades.
So what are the issues? And what are the ways of dealing with them?
First, Ms Lockwood’s mission has little to do with bulk commodity exports, such as alumina, mineral sands, grain and woodchips, and almost everything to do with containers.
For the uninitiated, as this correspondent was, the container trade involves fewer tonnes but more value. It largely sees the importation of common consumable items, including clothes, furniture, white goods and even the coffee people drink, with very little exported in those same containers.
According to Ms Lockwood, Fremantle has time on its side as WA’s principal container port.
The historic facility, largely made by famous engineer C.Y. O’Connor, is handling about 785,000 containers a year, and growing at a tick over 5 per cent.
Even assuming a more subdued growth rate, Ms Lockwood noted Fremantle could ultimately have a capacity of up to three million containers a year, suggesting the port had plenty of room to grow.
But she pointed out that the capacity of the port and the capacity of the freight network that enabled the distribution of container goods were two separate things.
And it was the freight network that was more likely to run into growing pains, she said.
Example A is the Perth Freight Link, proposed by the former Barnett government and killed off by Premier Mark McGowan over the Roe 8 road project through the Beeliar wetlands.
Ms Lockwood said that, regardless of whether Roe 8 went ahead, Fremantle was always going to be constrained by its footprint, which is hemmed in by the Indian Ocean, the Swan River and urban development.
She said there were also limitations to the freight network — the roads, train lines and shipping lanes — that supplied the port.
What’s more, the PFL would have serviced only Fremantle and done virtually nothing to cater for growth of the outer harbour in Cockburn Sound.
Although there were plans to de-clog longstanding bottlenecks such as the Fremantle rail bridge, on which passenger trains take precedence and freight trains are subject to curfews, Ms Lockwood said such measures could provide only incremental benefits.
“There’s a disconnect between what the wharf itself can accommodate, which is at least two million containers, potentially up to three million teu (twenty-foot equivalent unit) on the footprint of the port.
“The question we’ve got to answer is ‘how do we get them out’? Just because you can get them in on a ship doesn’t mean that’s the answer.
“Our task is to build capacity for a 50-year time horizon and our numbers are showing us a capacity of over 3.5 million containers that we’ll need in 50 years time.
“So the issue then is even if we optimise what’s on the wharf at that end state, Fremantle is unlikely to serve the task of Perth’s growth indefinitely.
“The question is when is that end point? Any solution that opens up Fremantle buys us more time.”
Another key task — with apologies for the awful pun — is to provide advice to the Government on where and when to develop new hubs where cargoes are swapped from trucks to trains, or vice versa.
Known as inter-modals, these hubs are critical choke-points that can enable or constrain the capacity of the overall freight system.
Perth has only one inter-modal, Ms Lockwood notes, meaning the city will soon need another.
Ms Lockwood, a former Shire of Roebourne president, is sanguine about the requirement, pointing out that land had been set aside all over the city for this purpose, from Muchea in the north to Canning Vale in the east and Kwinana in the south.
She said the Government’s increased subsidies for transporting freight by train rather than truck, which had rail’s share of the job increase from about 15 per cent 18 months ago to “just under” 23 per cent, would speed up the need for a new inter-modal.
“There’s a lot of land that’s available,” she said. “The question now is whether we start to unlock some of those. It’s not a big step forward. It’s really been a demand issue.”
Although Westport is canvassing the option of taking containers through Bunbury, Ms Lockwood acknowledged Kwinana was shaping as the logical successor to Fremantle port.
She said the State had already acquired big tracts of land needed for the trade at a site called Latitude 32, while road and rail corridors leading to the area could be much more easily expanded to boost freight levels.
On the thorny issue of building a container port in environmentally fragile Cockburn Sound, Ms Lockwood said new construction methods and materials offered the hope of avoiding or minimising many of the worst effects.
But she conceded that such a decision would require careful planning and a degree of trade-off, suggesting that replanting seagrass and protecting other parts of Cockburn Sound in marine sanctuaries could be pursued in the meantime.
“We’ve definitely got time but the timing of this exercise is opportune because we’ve had many reports in the past that have said we need this facility already and we clearly don’t,” she said.
“But doing this work at this time gives us sufficient time to plan and execute before we really come under pressure. I’ve made the comment before that a 10-year time frame from where we’re starting now to full delivery and operations is a realistic time frame to have something of that scale up and running.
“You really don’t want to leave it too close to when you need it because otherwise you don’t have the time from an approvals point of view and financing, funding and then construction.”
Source: The West