Bunbury beckons

DAVE HUME is a Fremantle councillor and a maritime lecturer at Tafe. In this week’s THINKING ALLOWED, he says a new container port at Kwinana won’t work for very long, so the state government should look further south to Bunbury.

BUDGETS are about choices. And in this latest state budget Fremantle was front and centre.

The decision to effectively sell Fremantle Port blindsided both the council and, I suggest, Fremantle Ports.

The previous announcement of the gold-paved tollway from Midland to Canning Highway appears now as gift-wrapping for this jewel in the state’s crown.

It’s worth pointing out the current port contributes strongly to the state’s coffers and its revenue will be missed in future budgets and generations.

But what the announcement does bring into focus is the future of port operations in WA.

Just over 100 years ago a great visionary engineer, CY O’Connor, built the existing port and set the state up for a century.

Very sad

But a century on its very sad that our current leaders have trouble looking past the next election, let alone a generation or, God forbid, a century.

Currently Fremantle is the sole container port in Western Australia, a position not envisioned a century ago. With about 600,000 TEUs (20-foot equivalent units) annually it is forecast to grow to 1.5 million to achieve full capacity. One wonders capacity for what.

And if the government is intent on maximising the sale price one suggests it will be upping that figure using the golden tollway as its selling point. I am sure I’m not alone thinking the current level of containers on either rail or road feels like it’s at or above capacity right now.

More rail containers means more trains and without a third rail line over the river an unlikely prospect, and if 30 per cent of 1.5 million were on rail, how would residents along the line (both city dwellers and suburban areas backing onto the rail reserve) feel about trains 24/7 at five or 10 times the current number?

And of course three times as many trucks is almost unimaginable.

So where should the increased trade go?  The most spruiked answer is a new port in Kwinana.

However, the hydrology and geography suggest to me this is a short-term answer that will face identical problems in 20-30 years to those we face now.

There is only one shipping channel through the Success Bank, and there is limited depth available in Cockburn Sound. The seagrass down there is struggling under the current pollution load and any increase in dredging and port operations will kill it quickly (in retrospect, a causeway to Garden Island was not clever).

The land-based side currently enjoys better road and rail access than Freo, but with a statewide population projection of 3-4 million by 2050, we soon will face similar problems with suburban encroachment on the port.

It still is fundamentally flawed that we have the freight forwarders on the eastern side of the city and the port on the west.

So if that is not so straightforward what other choices do we have?

Well, I’ve long favoured the building of a completely new container port at the north side of Bunbury. It is already served by a rail line to the eastern suburbs (where the road freight companies are) and with an upgrade could carry doubled containers at high speed.

Additionally the intermodal terminal at Bunbury could be designed to world’s best-practice and efficiency setting us up for a century.

Easing pressure

Over time I’m sure the container service industry, customs, freight forwarders, etc would establish themselves near the new port easing pressure on moving freight between terminals.

So am I a Fremantle councillor advocating getting rid of the port? Actually, no.

WA will need more than one container terminal for the next century. Keep Fremantle at its current size (or a bit smaller?) and vehicles and passenger boats will still use Fremantle. However, removing some pressure will free up land north of existing port operations (currently with redundant fuel tanks on it) for high-density residential development. And with the removal of noxious cargos from Freo (lead, chemicals, etc) the buffer zone can be relaxed allowing for some residential development on the south side of the harbour.

Will it happen? Well, I reckon it would be a better expenditure of $1.5 billion currently being touted for the golden tollway. We just need to convince the holders of the purse strings.

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