Port Botany doesn’t need another expensive rail project – here is the evidence

Far from being stretched, rail resources at Port Botany appear distinctly under-utilised. Reuters/David Gray

Every year, more than two million containers cross the docks at Sydney’s Port Botany, a number forecast to triple over the next 15 years. To avoid putting even more trucks on Sydney’s already congested roads, the NSW government plans to double the share of containers carried by rail, from 14% currently to 28% by the year 2020.

To meet the target, Duncan Gay, the NSW Minister for Roads, Maritime and Freight, recently suggested duplicating the line into Port Botany; a move he hopes will increase rail capacity.

But our analysis has revealed that, far from being insufficient to meet future container demand, rail resources at Port Botany appear distinctly under-utilised, including the single-track line, which on a busy day sits idle more than 60% of the time.

Our analysis shows that the peak capacity of Port Botany’s current rail resources is 1.78 million containers per annum, which is well above the levels needed to achieve the 28% rail targets over the next decade and beyond.

Project duplication

The current proposal to duplicate rail into Port Botany has a sense of “déjà vu”: the same idea has been discussed numerous times before, including in 2011 by the NSW State Parliament when it was estimated to cost $210 million.

The identified single-track line has long been regarded as a source of congestion by the port community and is seen by many players as a major impediment to growth. Duplication of the line is part of a more general argument which says that current rail infrastructure at Port Botany is inadequate.

For example, according to one analysis from industry media, “Not only is rail capacity [at Port Botany] insufficient for current container demand, there is no rail capacity to meet future container demand”.

Similar sentiments echo throughout the port community: they can be found in government updates to industry and they can be observed in more recent statements issued by industry lobby groups.

Proposed solutions to fix the rail at Port Botany include the aforementioned line duplication, upgrades to existing terminals and even the construction of an entirely new centralised rail facility where containers can be loaded and unloaded away from the waterfront.

Understanding the benefit from any of these proposals is difficult and comparing between them is harder still as the different options have never been studied from a principled scientific perspective.

In a project that spanned over a year, we analysed rail operations at Port Botany with unprecedented detail and fidelity. We had access to six months of daily operations data, from September 2012 to February 2013. The datasets contained information about every single train movement in a 20km “last mile” corridor between the Sydney suburb of Enfield and Port Botany. You can see a visualisation of some of these movements in this video.

For every train operating at the port, we knew exactly its length and number of wagons, how many containers it was carrying, how much time it was waiting or travelling in the network, and how well the stevedores performed their service. Using this data, we could measure the performance of the port from a range of perspectives: train timeliness, train utilisation, terminal utilisation, and rail yard congestion.

We could also construct a simulation model to reproduce rail operations in and around Port Botany with unprecedented fidelity. The model considers all critical sections of rail track and features realistic servicing operations at container terminals.

The simulation model also makes it possible to accurately measure the peak capacity of current rail infrastructure (in terms of container volumes) and evaluate the efficacy of a range of infrastructural case studies, including Minister Gay’s proposed track duplication project.

Our analysis shows that capacity gains do not depend on any investment in new tracks or trains: they can be achieved just by improving operational practices at Port Botany. Indeed, our analysis also isolated the reasons why the rail infrastructure at Port Botany appears congested: low-volume trains, unproductive staging practices, and peak-hour congestion stemming from poor train scheduling.

For Port Botany to achieve its target rail numbers, the key lies in streamlining its operations. Our recommendations include:

  • a dynamic train scheduling system to replace fixed servicing times at stevedore terminals;

  • train staging outside the port precinct; and

  • standardising all port-bound trains so that they contain a minimum number of containers.

These operational practices should suffice to realise the full potential of the existing infrastructure.

In contrast, building expensive new infrastructure will produce marginal volume gains: 4% for a new centralised rail terminal, 0.4% for upgrading the current ones, and no improvement at all for the proposed track duplication project.

We let the data speak and the data told us a story about Port Botany that is very different from the one we know. Streamlined and flexible operational practices are the key to unlock the potential of rail at the port; not heavy infrastructure investments that will not address the existing bottlenecks.

It is a compelling story and one that can be replicated elsewhere.