Upgrading northern Queensland National Highways to improve road quality including safety standards and greater flood immunity
The RACQ is appreciative of recent Australian Government investment in northern Queensland road infrastructure, including:
Outback Way upgrade ($33 million commitment)
Bruce Highway upgrade ($6.7 billion commitment over 10 years from 2013-14, with over $3 billion to be located in north Queensland)
Cape York Regional Package ($208.4 million commitment) to upgrade key roads and infrastructure
Other north Queensland roads upgrades ($139 million commitment)1.
Nonetheless, RACQ believes more needs to be done to improve the condition of Queensland’s northern roads, particularly with respect to improving flood immunity and safety standards.
Improved flood immunity
As the Green Paper rightly points out, inefficient transport and inadequate roads increase the cost of doing business and can affect the development of export supply chains2.
The quality of northern Queensland’s major road network and its ability to withstand weather extremes is vitally important to the efficient movement of both people and goods.
The national highway network in northern Queensland consists of the Bruce Highway, the Flinders Highway, the Barkly Highway and the Landsborough Highway.
Flooding is one of the key constraints to freight productivity, business competitiveness and general mobility in northern Queensland. This was obvious during the 2011 flood and cyclone events in Queensland, which affected major rail and road freight routes across much of the State.
Transport of goods within Queensland was at a standstill, with major road and rail routes flooded and damaged. For example, goods that would normally be trucked in to Rockhampton, had to be barged down the coast from Mackay. Extensive damage to central and north Queensland roads saw trucks take detours that added two to three days onto deliveries. Obviously, most perishable goods, perished.
More durable and less flood-prone roads are vital for improved business productivity. The magnitude of this problem has been evident for a number of years, particularly with respect to repeated closures on Queensland's primary transport route, the Bruce Highway. Between January 2009 and March 2011 the Bruce Highway was cut by floods and closed 530 times.
The issue of frequently flooded roads in northern Queensland is not restricted to the Bruce Highway. Details of Queensland highway road closures, due to flooding in the north of the State, are shown in table 1 below:
Table 1: Closures on major Queensland highways due to flooding
No. of major road closures
Gregory Developmental Road
Gulf Developmental Road
Source: RACQ road condition reporting data
Over the last few years the Commonwealth has injected significant disaster relief funding into Queensland though the Natural Disaster Relief and Recovery Arrangements (NDRRA). This has seen a lot of emphasis on fixing the flood damage on sections of northern Queensland roads. In some cases the roads have been rebuilt to modern engineering standards and emerged safer and more resilient. However, greater funding is required to improve flood immunity for northern Queensland and raise roads to a suitable standard.
The recent proposal to reduce Australian Government contributions to NDRRA will be a major step backwards for northern Australia. The existing 75% Australian Government contribution must be retained to support those parts of our country with a higher propensity for natural disasters and a lower quality of fixed infrastructure.
The Green Paper notes that northern Queensland has a relatively extensive highway system but there is heavy reliance on access roads that are not highway grade or are frequently flooded3.
In order to cater for population and economic growth in northern Queensland, the northern road network requires substantial investment to address safety and capacity issues. Across Queensland, freight volumes are expected to increase more than 70% by 20214 and capacity and safety of the Bruce and other major Queensland highways in the north will become increasingly compromised.
For major northern Queensland regional centres, where high rates of population growth will continue over the next two decades, road funding needs to address both safety and congestion issues. Urban traffic congestion increases transport costs through increased travel times, higher fuel costs and, for freight, increased labour costs and unreliability of delivery times.
To the west, where the population in northern Queensland is sparser, the key road concern is safety. Many of the roads fall below acceptable safety standards and are unforgiving of driver errors. Many of the roads are not fit for purpose and do not stand up well to resulting wear and tear from heavy freight vehicles.
The national network links in northern Queensland should be upgraded to improve the standard and the safety of roads and reduce the prevalence of serious crashes and fatalities.
The RACQ, in conjunction with the other state and territory automobile clubs, has developed the Australian Road Assessment Program (AusRAP), which maps crash risk and assigns star ratings according to design features of the road. Together, these highlight poor sections of road where engineering improvements have the most potential to save lives5.
As shown in Table 2 and graphically in Figure 2, most of northern Queensland’s national network is rated two or three stars. The exception is the Barkly Highway where 16% is currently rated four-star for safety. RACQ considers that afocus of government should be on eliminating all one and two-star sections of national highway in Queensland. Better roads safe lives and bring down the cost of crashes. When a two-star AusRAP-rated road is improved to three stars, the crash costs per vehicle kilometre travelled are halved6.
Table 2: AusRAP star ratings for Queensland’s northern national highways
Proportion in each Star Rating
A2 Barkly Highway
A6 Flinders Highway
A2 Landsborough Highway
M1/A1 Bruce Highway (all)
Source: AusRAP Star Ratings Report 2013
Figure 2: AusRAP Star Rating Map
Source: AusRAP Star Ratings Report 2013
To improve northern Queensland highways’ star ratings, RACQ believes a dedicated program of safety works is needed. Required safety improvements include:
Improving mobile communications along major highways
RACQ would like to see additional phone towers placed along major highways in order to improve mobile phone coverage. As a motoring organisation, RACQ is mindful of the need for motorists who break down in remote locations to have access to mobile phone communications.
Better mobile communication on routes traversing the north of Australia is important for driver safety. It could also help improve emergency response following a crash.
RACQ has always maintained that investing in better, safer roads via engineering improvements can limit the recurring cost of death and injury on our roads. It is now becoming increasingly apparent that having the communications in place to promptly alert authorities of a road crash and minimising the time taken to reach the crash victims can save lives.
Reducing post crash response is one of the five pillars of the United Nations Decade of Action for Road Safety 2011 – 2020 and it is now widely accepted that there exists a golden hour during which the application of pre-hospital support care can enhance patient survival. Studies of multi-fatality crashes show that in remote areas of Australia, of those deaths that did not occur instantaneously, 45% occurred before the victim received medical attention, compared to 21% when the crash occurred on an urban road. It is thought that the provision of more prompt medical attention, including regional trauma teams, has the potential to save 17% of Australian rural road crash fatalities7. Unfortunately, in many cases efforts to reduce post crash response are futile without first ensuring adequate mobile phone coverage. If we are serious about reducing road fatalities we need adequate mobile phone coverage, better response times and better post-crash care.
Increasingly sophisticated vehicles will also eventually necessitate the need for improved communication on all roads in Australia. None of the emergent vehicle-to-vehicle or vehicle-to-base systems (such as automated emergency calls or calls back to the dealer in the event of vehicle system problems) will be operational unless the roads are supported with adequate mobile communication infrastructure.
The Bruce Highway
The Bruce Highway is Queensland’s major transport and freight route. It is also the deadliest highway in Australia. It averages 40 deaths and over 400 serious injuries a year. In 2012 there were 53 fatalities on the Bruce Highway.
The 1673 kilometre highway is largely two-lane and is below the standard required for Queensland’s busiest transport route. A combination of weather impacts, heavy traffic and chronic under-funding has resulted in this highway degenerating.
All six sections of the Bruce Highway, including those in the north from Rockhampton to Cairns, made it to the Top 10 in RACQ’s 2011 Unroadworthy Roads Survey. These same sections performed very poorly in AusRAP analysis.
The 2013 AusRAP Star Rating Australia’s National Network of Highways report produced a damning indictment on the condition of the Bruce Highway8. Approximately half of the Bruce Highway from Rockhampton to Cairns scored one and two stars. This is considered well below the acceptable safety standard for a major transport route. The poor star ratings on the Bruce Highway are primarily a result of undivided roads with high traffic volumes that have narrow sealed shoulders, frequent intersections and hazardous roadsides.
The majority (71%) of the Bruce Highway from Rockhampton to St Lawrence and 44% from Rockhampton to Miriam Vale scored one and two stars in the 2013 AusRAP report. Similarly, 90% of the Sarina to Mackay link and 40% of the Mackay to Proserpine link was rated one and two stars. Most of the Townsville to Ayr link (73%) was rated one and two stars and 34% of the Townsville to Ingham section was rated one and two stars. Further north, 57% of the Innisfail to Cairns link and 48% of the Ingham to Innisfail link were rated one and two stars.
RACQ believes that a long-term strategy with attached funding commitments is needed to eliminate all one and two-star sections and rebuild this vital highway to an appropriate four-star AusRAP rating.
The RACQ has been pleased to see that in recent years both the Commonwealth and Queensland Governments appear to be united in the goal of upgrading the Bruce Highway. The Queensland Government has committed an additional $1 billion for the Bruce Highway over 10 years and the Federal Government has promised $6.7 billion over 10 years for the Bruce Highway. The Green Paper notes that $3 billion of the $6.7 billion in Federal funding is located in north Queensland.
The State Government has recently identified an alternative to the Bruce Highway, essentially an ‘inland highway’ of rural roads linking southeast Queensland to the Tablelands in far north Queensland. These comprise the Kennedy, Burnett and Gregory Highways as well as the Kennedy Developmental Road (Hann Highway) and Gregory Developmental Road.
While the program of works on the Bruce Highway is paramount, road closures due to incidents and flooding are unable to be resolved adequately and alternative routes are not of suitable standard. The RACQ sees value in upgrading an alternative route for road safety, productivity and efficiency improvements as well as delivering much needed network redundancy when the Bruce Highway is closed.
Peak Downs Highway
While not part of the federally-funded National Land Transport Network, the Peak Downs Highway is worthy of specific consideration for federal investment given its strategic importance. The Peak Downs Highway is approximately 267 km, running north-east from Gregory Development Road to the Bruce Highway. It links Mackay to the region’s mines.
In 2013 RACQ commissioned an Australian Road Assessment Program (AusRAP) study of this highway. More than half of the highway was given the worst ratings of one and two stars, with only one percent rated four stars (see Table 3). RACQ considers that State Highways should have a minimum three-star safety rating, so this is well below an acceptable safety standard.
On many sections of the Peak Downs Highway motorists face a high crash risk due to poor design features such as roadside hazards, narrow road shoulders and unsafe intersections. From 2007-2011, 15 people were killed and another 72 seriously injured on the Peak Downs Highway9.
Without investment in road safety improvements this crash figure is likely to increase given that traffic volumes on the highway are increasing by more than five percent every year due to the mining activity in the central Queensland region, making it one of the fastest growing corridors in the state.
Table 3: AusRAP star ratings for the Peak Downs Highway
Proportion in each Star Rating
Peak Downs Highway
Source: AusRAP Star Ratings Map for car occupants – Peak Downs Highway 2013
The AusRAP study found that an $80 million investment in road safety improvements would reduce the length of one and two star sections on the Peak Downs Highway from 59% to 10%. This could prevent about 70 road deaths and serious injuries over the next 20 years.
The top five road safety improvements required to reduce deaths and injuries on the Peak Downs Highway are:
Roadside barriers or roadside hazard clearing
Improved skid resistance
Additional (overtaking) lanes
Shoulder rumble strips
Right turn pockets at 26 intersections.
This $80 million road safety investment is in addition to a proposed Eton Range crossing upgrade that will address a significant blackspot. An Australian Government contribution to this project could bring it into the four year QTRIP funding program.
2. Development of an east west infrastructure corridor (Project Iron Boomerang)
The RACQ supports consideration of an east west railroad linking the north of Queensland to northern Western Australia and associated road and communication infrastructure.
A project to develop heavy rail across northern Australia (known as Project Iron Boomerang), has been developed by East West Line Parks Limited. RACQ considers that the railroad, combined with road and communication infrastructure, would form a valuable nation building project.
There is a need to improve roads and communication across northern Australia. The Iron Boomerang Project could be expanded in its scope to encompass a road and communication component, along with any other power or pipeline infrastructure needs.
The rail component of an east west infrastructure corridor would link the Pilbara iron ore mines in Western Australia with the Bowen Basin coal mines in north Queensland. The heavy haul railway would take full payloads each way over a 3,300 kilometre journey (coal to iron ore – iron ore to coal) to value adding first stage steel manufacturing Steel Parks at Abbot Point in Queensland and Newman in Western Australia.
The proposed railroad would be among the world’s most efficient heavy-haul, standard-gauge railroads. Project Iron Boomerangwould provide estimated productivity gains and value-add Australia’s coal and iron ore by 50% to export 44 million tonnes per annum (mtpa) of slab steel equivalent to A$22 billion per annum delivered to east Asia. The rule of thumb generated economic benefit is usually 3 to 1 in dollar terms for every dollar of steel produced. The outcome is A$22 billion of steel, plus A$66 billion of directly related economic generated benefit for a total of A$88 billion per annum.
Against current operating practice for world steelmaking, Project Iron Boomerang offers a world productivity gain of 20 - 30%.
East West Line Parks Ltd predict 35,000 directly related permanent jobs would result with 20,000 at Abbott point and 12,000 at Newman Western Australia and the rest around Australia.
The project would also meet a fundamental need given the limited existing road and rail routes from northern Queensland across to northern Western Australia. The Northern Territory is connected to Queensland by road principally via the Barkly Highway to Mount Isa. From there, the major road networks go north to the Gulf, south to Boulia and Longreach, and east to Cairns, Townsville, Mackay and Gladstone. The Northern Territory and Western Australia are connected by road via the Victoria Highway through Kununurra to the Great Northern Highway, which extends through Broome and Port Hedland to just north of Perth10.
The project has economic, environmental, national and global importance to Australia and its major trading nations and steelmaker partners in the steel industry. It is likely to be the most sustainable and lowest marginal cost steel supply chain in the world. Creating a multi-user, multi-purpose, open access infrastructure corridor including road and communications, will place this as a major nation building project.
The RACQ believes the Australian Government should assess the feasibility of this project with a view to facilitating progress across the commercial enterprises and governments involved. In an era of manufacturing departing our shores, the opportunity for a high technology value-add enterprise, principally funded by anchor tenants involved in Australia’s world class iron ore and coking coal deposits, should not be overlooked.
On the face of it, the proposal offers a major rail, road and communication corridor that delivers strong benefits for the economy and contributes to mobility, safety and accessibility for motorists and opens up new geographic areas for industry.
The RACQ welcomes the Green Paper on Developing Northern Australia as a good step forward. Northern Australia has a big part to play in Australia’s future economic prosperity, as do its roads and rail.
It is hoped that improved road and rail freight planning will raise the quality of Queensland's major northern infrastructure and roads. Roads should be fit for purpose and safe enough to accommodate heavy vehicles at high speeds sharing the road with other motorists.
1 Green Paper on Developing Northern Australia, Commonwealth of Australia 2014 p45
2 Green Paper on Developing Northern Australia, Commonwealth of Australia 2014 p31
3 Green Paper on Developing Northern Australia, Commonwealth of Australia 2014 p51
4 Queensland Government Draft Moving Freight: A plan for more efficient freight movement, Transport and Main Roads, June 2013
5 The Australian Road Assessment Program (AusRAP) report assesses the design features and safety performance of national highways across Australia against a star-rating scale, with five stars being the best and one star the worst. Information on how AusRAP Star Ratings are determined can be found at http://www.racq.com.au/motoring/roads/australian_road_assessment_program_ausrap