The math behind commodity transport
A new tool designed to reduce the cost and time of transporting cattle could not only give the nation’s commodity transport industry a much needed efficiency boost, but improve infrastructure planning on a global scale.
According to the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), cattle face some of the longest journeys of any Australian commodity – in northern Australia, they travel an average of close to 1,000 km, and as much as 2,500 km to get to the nearest east coast facility.
That’s why the Organisation developed a new TRAnsport Network Strategic Investment Tool (TRANSIT), which is meant to identify ways to reduce travel distance and time for the livestock trade – with the ultimate goal to save fuel costs, cut down on wear and tear and minimise stress for both transport staff and cattle.
“In developing this tool, we completed the most comprehensive mapping of the cattle supply chain in Australia,” says Dr Andrew Higgins, Lead Researcher for the project at CSIRO. “We can now use TRANSIT to identify key investments, large and small, at critical points in the supply chain, along with policy changes that might allow for better planning in the future.”
As well as establishing the most direct transport routes between A and B, TRANSIT can identify the best opportunities for infrastructure and policy development, including increased access for higher productivity vehicles on some roads, and improved links to rail. “By providing a holistic view of the direct and indirect transport costs across the entire road network, TRANSIT is able to help government, industry and the community at large evaluate infrastructure and policy opportunities more effectively,” says Andrew – revealing that the system is actually not as new as it may seem.
Officially, TRANSIT has only been launched in early 2014, when the first research phase ended. It has been promoted widely since – mainly with the goal of raising interest beyond the cattle market and secure on-going support for the project – but behind the scenes, its development has already reached stage two.
The goal, now, is to help Government and Industry investigate how to best spend infrastructure money in Queensland and the Northern Territory, by testing a range of different scenarios. For example, TRANSIT modelled the potential benefits of sealing the remaining 105 km of the Hann Highway north of Hughenden in central Queensland. According to Andrew, it predicted the move would reduce travel time on the Highway from five hours to three and a half hours, saving about 1,160 hours for the estimated 1,300 road trains currently using the road per year – a feasible business case for the local transport community.
TRANSIT also helped identify that the number of road trains using the fully sealed Hann Highway would increase by 25 per cent, as it would become a so-called ‘optimal travel route’ and thereby remove heavy vehicles from the congested eastern seaboard. ”All up, these benefits translate to a modelled cost saving of $1.23 million per year, not including the additional savings from shorter return journeys for empty trucks and benefits to other road users down the track,” says Andrew.
“Other advantages from a more efficient supply chain are improved safety and welfare of the live animals and the truck drivers themselves taking these long journeys, reduced emissions and a more sustainable industry at a time of growth. It just goes to show how TRANSIT can maximise the effect of every dollar spent in infrastructure.”
But, how does TRANSIT actually know what’s best for us? “For northern Australia alone, the TRANSIT project takes in data on 12,000 properties, finishing farms, sale yards, feedlots, export yards, rest stops, abattoirs and ports; as well as 15,000 road segments, ranked according to highway, major road or minor road, sealed or unsealed, among many other factors,” says Andrew. “That way it can model which way will be the least restrictive for a truck to travel on, taking all factors into account.”
What’s more, his team also consulted with transport operators such as Liz Schmidt, Director of Schmidt Livestock Transport in Townsville and past President of the Australian Livestock and Rural Transporters Association (ALRTA), to include a ‘human variable’ into every calculation. “Working with local transport business has given us a truckie’s view of the supply chain, factoring in thousands of small decisions in planning routes,” Andrew explains. “Of course TRANSIT is a theoretical tool but we wanted to make sure it would end up giving advice that is pragmatic and applicable to real life – especially in the north of Australia, where the industry has gone through a bit of a slump recently and is now recovering.”
According to Andrew, the initial northern Australia focus of the project doesn’t mean TRANSIT will be restricted to a single region of Australia. In fact, his team has already started rolling it out nationally. “We’ve already begun growing the project at a national scale, at least for the cattle market. We have already mapped the path of about 60,000 origin-to-destination movements Australia-wide, representing some 20 million cattle transported.”
The next step, Andrew says, is widening the scope of the TRANSIT project. “Beyond cattle, TRANSIT can be applied to a suite of other agricultural transport, particularly degradable produce. We have received a lot of interest from the grain and sugar industries, for example, and there is no reason why we can’t adopt the technology to suit them.”
While the technology started of in a government spending context, Andrew says a commercial use of TRANSIT is now easily conceivable. “For example, we could run a simulation for a trucking business to see whether they are using the best possible route to transport a specific product, taking into account vehicle type, speed and so on, or we could advise the meat industry on where to build an abattoir for maximum efficiency. The technology behind TRANSIT is pretty variable in that regard, but we’re only just scratching the surface of commercialising it.”
According to Andrew, TRANSIT can even take into account fatigue management regulations by picking routes that include rest stop facilities in strategic places, next to issues like flooding, shrinkage or bio-security – making it a world-first for the agriculture community. “It’s a very unique design that’s only comparable to metropolitan traffic simulation technology, but the size and scope make TRANSIT much more complex – especially its ability to consider the characteristics of the freight on board.”
Andrew says that complexity is exactly why TRANSIT is now rolled out nationally. “It’s a decision-making tool that can help high-level government organisations as well as transport businesses and the agriculture industry in general to make more informed decisions on where to put their money. In that sense, it has enormous potential for Australia’s commercial road transport industry and everyone involved in the commodity supply chain.”
While the existing TRANSIT system is a tool only trained experts are able to operate, Andrew says the development of a simplified version for the Queensland market has already started. In fact, even a co-operation with the National Heavy Vehicle Regulator (NHVR) is imaginable, given the vast road database TRANSIT has created over time. “Extending a relationship with the NHVR could indeed make sense, especially with the Performance Based Standards scheme in mind, but there has been no direct interaction yet,” he says – indicating a meeting will be scheduled shortly to find out just how far a potential collaboration could go.
“It’s an exciting time for us as we are only just exploring the true potential behind TRANSIT. We don’t know exactly where it’s going to take us yet, but what we do know is that it has opened up a lot of opportunities for Australia’s agriculture transport industry and is testament to our country’s pioneering role in the transport space.”