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Now it’s built, will they come?

Last week was a notable one for the rail industry. At the local level, the report into last year’s train crash at Waterfall, near Sydney, blamed management failures by RailCorp (formerly…

Last week was a notable one for the rail industry. At the local level, the report into last year’s train crash at Waterfall, near Sydney, blamed management failures by RailCorp (formerly StateRail) for the deaths of seven people. But on the same day as the former NSW transport minister faced calls for his resignation, the first freight train to use the new Adelaide to Darwin rail link pulled out on its landmark journey.

Both events raise important questions. In NSW, they are asking how senior rail managers could allow medical, safety, engineering, training and risk-related failures to lead to tragedy? In Darwin, they are wondering how the coming of the railway will shape not just the future of the Northern Territory but the role of Australia in the Asia Pacific region.

The commercial vision of a new Darwin is breathtaking, and the completion of the rail link to Adelaide is not the end of a process but the beginning of one in which international business and politics will attempt to deliver that vision.

FreightLink, the owner and operator of the new line, expects 350,000 tonnes of freight per year to be transported along the route, with a long term target of 800,000 tonnes annually. The Port of Darwin expects container volumes to rise from 10,000 to 50,000 per year within the next five years and to 100,000 within 10 years.

These increases are dependent on hauliers transferring goods from road to rail, with increased competition in the freight industry bringing with it savings for retailers. And at least one NT trucking company has said it expects increased volumes of freight to relieve the pressure on profit margins this competition will bring.

But increased freight volume also depends upon the broader commercial development of the Top End — or, more accurately, the two are interdependent — and this is where the big picture gets really big. It is hoped the completion of the rail link and development of Darwin’s deepwater East Arm port will lay the foundations of an “Asian landbridge”, joining Australia with its Asian neighbours and providing a conduit for importers and exporters. Singapore, for example, is only four days away by sea — less than one third of the time taken to reach southern Australia.

As the railway arrives from the south, so gas will arrive from the north as production from the Timor Sea reserves ramps up. A liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant is under construction in Darwin’s harbour to handle the new product. And while the gas offers the prospect of industrial development in the region, it may also herald development of a nationwide gas pipeline.

Law firms engaged on the rail, LNG construction or gas projects are likely eagerly eyeing the raft of project work that this level of development would bring.

But it doesn’t stop there. New links and commercial development are, in theory, set to transform the region dramatically. No longer a stopover on a journey elsewhere, Darwin may become a junction or gateway, and a cosmopolitan, competitive city that some estimates put as growing from 90,000 to a quarter of a million. Such a city would provide opportunities for regional growth and development, while the rail link “will change the face of how Australians view the territory and its importance to this country,” Chief Minister Clare Martin told The Australian.

These are big dreams, of which the Adelaide-Darwin railway is only one part. However, if they are to become reality, last week’s freight run may well have been the beginning.

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