- Opinion Piece -

Let’s get behind the wheel!

Shepparton is one of the busiest intersections on Australia’s national freight network that links Brisbane to the Port of Melbourne. This link is the spine that runs through Australia’s primary production heartland, from the Darling Downs to Dubbo and onto Derrimut (Dookie is a short detour from the main route).

This spine is essential to the movement of wheat, beef, wool, cotton, rice and horticulture production out of the regions – and the delivery of farm inputs such as fertilisers, seed and machinery.

At Shepparton, local and national freight moves north, south, east and west to and from domestic processors and markets, and export ports.

We know Greater Shepparton is home to more than a quarter of Victoria’s milk processing capacity and every major manufacturer has a presence. We also have local abattoirs, packing sheds and storage facilities that hold a wide variety of production produced locally and sourced from further north. These facilities are well located to release product to any Australian domestic market and to the Port of Melbourne – the busiest container port in Australia and handling almost 40 percent of all container movements.

In 2020/21 we exported more than $1 billion of product outside the Greater Shepparton region, with just over $520 million going to international markets – these numbers reinforce Shepparton’s position as a hub distributing to every point on the compass.

It makes sense that Shepparton is home to dozens of freight operators and a quarter of Victoria’s registered heavy vehicles. This flows through to the trades, businesses and careers that maintain and coordinate these critical supply chains.

More than five percent of Shepparton’s workforce is directly employed in transport and warehousing, across more than 400 individual businesses. This does not include the inhouse freight and warehousing operations that sit within our local businesses – from the grain grower supplying local dairy farmers, to the inhouse truck fleets moving locally produced horticulture to distribution centres and fresh markets.

Looking forward the opportunities for our region to become a freight and logistics powerhouse are real. We already have scale, we have location, and we have strong local demand that provides a year round base to our operations.

Between now and 2050 Victoria’s freight activity is forecast to double, and possibly triple. Logic suggests that a good portion of this growth will and can happen in our region.

So, what do we need to realise our destiny as Victoria’s freight and logistics powerhouse and secure the opportunities for research, innovation, new businesses and employment.

Firstly, we need to think and act like a freight and logistics powerhouse. By its nature, the industry is dispersed and always on the move, its not a single pit or port or plant – but its also not a little activity that happens off to the side. Without efficient reliable supply chains there’s no point planting, milking or picking.  We need to paint the picture of our local industry’s scale and capability through our stats and stories.

Secondly, we need to be realistic about road freight’s capacity to service a doubling or tripling of activity. Road freight alone won’t be enough, and we need to pursue opportunities for ‘fit for purpose’ rail freight services to and from the region and plan the infrastructure build before we need.

Unlike other parts of Australia where their freight capacity is built around one or two key commodities, heading in one or two directions ours is extremely diverse. As local freight operators have made clear, road freight has provided the flexibility to services all these needs but looking forward we know there is a genuine role for rail freight. Now is the time to plan its location, capability and operations so local and national freight operators can factor it into their future planning including where to base their expanding operations.

Third, we need to pursue changes to processes and investment in infrastructure than will optimise the performance of the national freight network. The obvious step here is for the state and federal governments to fully fund the planned Shepparton Bypass. Its 2022 and we have a key intersection on the national freight network rumbling through a regional city’s CBD at 40kph!

Alongside the infrastructure upgrades there is also opportunity for our region to leverage our proximity to the Port of Melbourne, our scale and our proven expertise to convince decision makers to make Shepparton a hub for freight activities – and in doing so level the playing field for regional freight operators. Examples include reopening the Australian Quarantine and Import Service (AQIS) office in Shepparton and allowing key port functions to be completed within a secure, purpose-built local facility.

Finally, and at risk of repetition, we need to begin thinking and acting like a freight and logistics powerhouse in our education offering and research priorities. We are already exploring the potential for our large year-round volumes of local organic waste and wastewater to generate energy for local industry, and to fuel local transport. Alongside this fuel source we need to build up the supporting skills to service hydrogen vehicles, but we also want to make sure our region’s collective knowledge of all things freight and logistics informs and creates partnerships to support further research and innovation.

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Lindy Nieuwenhuizen

Lindy Nieuwenhuizen