Managing director Roger Fletcher also runs a truck fleet servicing his Western Australian abattoir.ENTERPRISING meat, wool and grain marketing agribusiness Fletcher International Exports has started running its own container freight trains, with a long-term goal of developing an inland “container port”.

The Central West NSW company has just launched three new 132-tonne US-built locomotives to pull freight from an intermodal hub adjoining its Dubbo grain terminal to Sydney’s Port Botany.

The latest move, which includes 62 freight wagons built in China and delivered in December, represents an investment about $40 million in Fletcher’s container business during the past five years.

The 3355 kilowatt (4500 horsepower) locos and wagons are replacing tri-weekly freight trains run by Pacific National and Qube carrying meat, skins, wool, grain, and other farm exports from Fletcher International’s sheep abattoir and grain packing site.

The intermodal depot will also load exports ranging from cotton to minerals for other businesses trucking containers to Dubbo from across western NSW.

“We’ve been working towards getting more efficient container movements and bigger capacity trains for several years,” said managing director Roger Fletcher, who also runs a truck fleet servicing his Western Australian abattoir.

“Everybody keeps talking about new export markets opening up for farmers, but it all relies on getting more cargo out of the bush.

“Our trains are carrying 900 tonnes more freight and using less fuel than other operators with 30-year-old locos, which is a step in the right direction when it comes to cutting agricultural export costs.”

He said export expenses could be shaved even further if the State government could free up a serious rail freight congestion leading into Port Botany and upgrade a relatively short section along the 480 kilometres of track east of Dubbo.

“We aren’t allowed to load our grain container wagons to capacity at the moment because the track can’t take the weight,” Mr Fletcher said.

“Even fixing one particular 500-metre section of track could be worth up to $10,000 in efficiency improvements for every trainload we send east.

“Freight is one of the biggest cost factors eating into farmers’ returns, but if we can get the government to do their part, there will soon be others getting involved in competition for rail freight.”

Restricted rail access for agricultural products remains a significant freight issue across NSW, and other States, particularly in grainbelt areas, said Australian Railway Association policy director Phil Allan.

“The ARA has started working with the National Farmers Federation to co-ordinate an agricultural freight strategy and identify some initial priorities,” he said.

“Low strength track is a big issue.

“A lot of these lines only have 19 kilogram profile track, but in many cases they need up to 30kg to realistically handle the volumes of grain expected of them today. Coal trains require even heavier track.

“The NSW government is putting money into improving freight congestion in Sydney, but there’s lots of work needed on lines in the bush.”

Fletcher International’s rail business has also opened the company’s interest in new import opportunities, which might include fertiliser, to fill its freight trains on their return leg to Dubbo.

“We’ll look at fertiliser. We’ll look at anything. I have no intention of running empty trains if we can avoid it,” Mr Fletcher said.

“You’d be surprised at some of the stuff we already do.”

The rail operation, managed by specialist business Southern Shorthaul Railroad, was part of a long-term freight investment which Mr Fletcher wanted to see grow to potentially create an inland container port without the need for routine customs checks.

The Australian Customs and Border Protection service has already flagged allowing shipments from “trusted traders” faster entry into Australia with fewer inspections.

In a plan to be implemented later this year, trusted trader compliance will offer speedy border clearance to companies which prove their security credentials and have a solid import history, reducing supply chain bottlenecks at sea ports and international airports.

The plan aims to help free up customs resources to crack down on criminal border activity.

Mr Fletcher hoped his business could eventually qualify as a trusted trader and in the longer term he wanted Australia would follow overseas leads and introduce special inland bonded import zones, with customs official based at approved inland port sites.

“There’s a hell of a lot of double handling and storage capacity taken up by imported containers occupying expensive real estate within Sydney,” he said.

“We could ease some of that congestion with regional zones set up to receive containers under special conditions.”

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