Navigating Australia's Freight Future
Australia's freight network plays a significant and wide-ranging role across our economy, from moving major bulk export commodities to ports for export, to transporting raw materials and semi-processed commodities for further processing and finished products for household consumption.
Freight transport is essential to Australia's economy as it moves raw materials, semi-processed goods, and finished products across the country. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the freight industry even managed to maintain key supply chains to deliver goods, demonstrating its importance and resilience. To ensure efficient and timely delivery of freight, infrastructure needs to be adequate and fit-for-purpose, requiring appropriate planning and investment. Long-term forecasts of Australia's national freight task help inform future infrastructure plans and investment priorities. These projections forecast the likely growth of our national freight task by major transport mode to 2050.
This insight draws on the BITRE Australian aggregate freight forecasts - 2022 update Summary report. For more details, including information on projection assumptions and scenario results, see the full BITRE report.
Projected future freight task
Australia's domestic freight task is projected to grow around 26 per cent between 2019-20 and 2049-50, from 765 billion tonne kilometres to 964 billion tonne kilometres (see Figure 1). This growth is expected to be slower in the next 30 years, with an average annual growth rate of 0.9 per cent, compared to the historical rate of 3.6 per cent. This is mainly due to the slower projected future growth in bulk iron ore and coal export freight, which currently accounts for 50 per cent of all domestic freight.
Continuing road freight growth
Australia's road transport activity has grown significantly over the past 35 years due to the expanding road network and increased economic activity, resulting in a seven-fold increase in road freight between 1970 and 2007, and an eight-fold increase between 1970 and 2020. Road freight is projected to grow by 77 per cent between 2020 and 2050 with an increase in trucks, drivers, and distances travelled on our roads, albeit a slower growth rate compared to historical trends. This projection is based on assumptions around population growth, per capita income levels and road freight costs.
Rail freight nearing peak
Forecasts of future rail freight volumes are based on a combination of short, medium, and long-term Australian production and global demand outlooks. Under a central scenario, the total domestic rail freight task is projected to grow by around 5.7 per cent between 2020 and 2050.
Australia's rail freight activity is heavily influenced by the outlook of iron ore and coal exports, with these commodities accounting for 89 per cent of domestic rail freight.
Under a central iron ore growth scenario, world steel production is projected to grow by 34 per cent between 2020 and 2050. Australia's iron ore rail freight volumes are projected to increase by 31 per cent between 2020 and 2050 to 385 billion tonne kilometres in 2050.
Under a central coal growth scenario, Australian coal exports are projected to remain at 380 to 390 million tonnes annually to 2025, before declining to 270 million tonnes annually by 2050. As a result, domestic coal rail freight volumes are projected to decline from 93 billion tonne kilometres in 2025 to 64 billion tonne kilometres by 2050.
Interstate non-bulk rail freight, which is the third-largest domestic rail freight task, has increased from 4.7 billion tonne kilometres in 1971-72 to 24.0 billion tonne kilometres in 2019-20.
Coastal freight remains relatively stable
Australian coastal shipping is important for several major export commodities and domestic industries, including aluminium, steel, and petroleum. Coastal shipping is also crucial for transporting products from primary production or extraction to domestic locations for further processing.
Coastal shipping is the primary mode of transport between Tasmania and the mainland, and carries small volumes of freight between capital cities. Under the central scenario, the coastal freight task is projected to remain steady at 105 to 110 billion tonne kilometres per annum, with growth rates varying for different commodity and market segments.
Air freight is small but growing
Australia's domestic air freight, which accounts for less than 0.1 per cent of all domestic freight, is carried via dedicated freight aircrafts and in the cargo holds of passenger aircrafts. It mainly carries high-value, low-density freight, such as mail, small parcels, and perishables. Air freight has grown by 1.8 per cent per annum since 1984-85 to 290 million tonne kilometres in 2019-20. Forecasts predict that air freight will increase by around 3.0 per cent per annum to 589 million tonne kilometres by 2050. Assumptions are based on a model of air freight and domestic economic activity.