Just over 30 years after the tragic crashes on the Pacific Highway in the closing months of 1989, the completion of the conversion of the old single carriageway road to a modern divided dual carriageway motorway between Hexham near Newcastle and the Queensland border, has ushered in a new era that promises a safer, more efficient road link between Sydney and Brisbane, that is set to save the country the tragedy of lost lives as well as billions of dollar in faster and better transit for trucks.
For someone who travelled the Pacific many times in the old days, and since and who personally came within inches of being in a collision with a truck on the infamous old O’Sullivans Gap section, just two nights after the tragic Kempsey bus crash in December 1989, the completion of the new road could not have come soon enough.
For years of delay and obfuscation by politicians, of both colours, the time it has taken to complete the road has been totally unsatisfactory. Excuses that the cost was too great and that budget was not available, cannot be countenanced. The reality is whatever the cost of the road at any point in time, it was never going to get cheaper over time and the longer the delays the longer we would have to wait for the massive efficiency and life savings we would reap as a society.
This week politicians have been clamouring to take credit for the completion of the Pacific, but as has been often noted, success has many fathers but failure is an orphan.
NSW minister for regional transport Paul Toole, was one of the pollies making statements around the opening of the final section of the highway, rightfully declaring that the freight industry will benefit from huge road safety improvements and time savings of up to three hours with the completion of the Pacific Highway upgrade.
Let’s just stop there for a second and wrap some more figures around that.
So if each heavy truck saves around three hours on its journey and you multiply that by the estimate of around 4500 heavy truck journeys made between Sydney and Brisbane each day then the new road is saving around 13500 man hours each day.
That is a phenomenal saving. That means that every day of the year our economy and businesses are saving a huge amount of money. Let’s say that every driver costs a conservative $20 per hour, but we all know it is more than that in real terms, but let’s be conservative. That means every day the transport industry is saving at least $270,000 in wage costs alone or on an annual basis that is around $100 million.
That doesn’t count fuel savings, of which that is a vast amount that is difficult to quantify, but with better grades, a minimum of stop start ( except for the yet to be bypassed Coffs Harbour) and less potential for being baulked by other vehicles, the savings would have to be in the order of at least 20 litres and that again is conservative. At say $1.20 a litre each truck would save about $24 in fuel on each Brisbane-Sydney run so each day the industry would be saving around $110,000. Across a year that is about $39 million.
This is all before we start calculating the human cost in death and injury which is much more about the saving of misery and suffering. So in that regard the cost for the construction in completing the majority of the Pacific as a dual carriageway is worth every cent and a whole lot more.
In 1989 more than 800 people lost their lives on NSW roads, 57 of them in the two dreadful bus crashes at Cowper and Clybucca. The Pacific accounted for almost 15 per cent of the state’s fatalities that year. At the time of writing, the total NSW 2020 road toll stood at 294, but over the past 30 years close to 1000 souls have lost their lives on the Pacific. Any way you study those figures they could only conclude that duplicating the Pacific and the Hume could only have been considered national priorities.
NSW Minister for regional transport and roads, Paul Toole justified the completion of the 657 kilometre Pacific Highway duplication between Hexham and the Queensland Border byu also saying that primary produce, supermarket goods and hospital supplies will hit shelves faster. An interesting mix of products but in reality it will speed up everything.
“It has taken over two decades to finish the biggest regional road infrastructure project Australia has ever seen and the benefits to the freight industry are immense,” Mr Toole said.
“The Pacific Highway is the second busiest road freight route in Australia, behind the Hume Highway, with freight volumes on the upgraded section forecast to nearly double over the next 40 years,” said Toole.
We think he has undersold it, with the freight task said to be actually doubling every 10 years and we reckon that the highway is already carrying at least 40 million tonnes a year.
What Paul Toole did say that we agree with is that the completion will allow more modern higher performance vehicles operating under PBS to safely and efficiently travel between Sydney and Brisbane.
“The upgraded highway not only reduces travel times by almost three hours, but more modern and efficient vehicles means fewer vehicles on the road which improves safety, increases productivity and reduces freight costs,” said Toole.
One bloke who should know the highway and the economics of a dual carriageway completion is Jim Pearson, who of course operates the long established family business Jim Pearson Transport.
Jim said that one of the biggest benefits of the upgrade has been improvements to safety.
“We have a fleet of about 260 modern higher productivity vehicles which make over 60 trips a day and the dual carriageway means there is plenty of room for higher capacity vehicles, making it safer for all road users,” Jim Pearson said.
“It also means we can carry more goods in less time to get where they need to be, including supermarket shelves.”
Another aspect that hasn’t been factored into our crude back of envelope calculations, but the fact is the Pacific Highway upgrade has also contributed to significant regional growth on the NSW North Coast, including benefits to local services, tourism and the economy.
An example is Sunshine Sugar, which provides more than 400 direct jobs and is one of the largest contributors to the local economy, producing around 25 per cent of the domestic sugar market.
General manager operations, David Wood said the Pacific Highway was critical to the timely delivery of products to customers with the duplication providing quicker, safer and more direct delivery into the Sydney and Brisbane markets.
“The upgrade has definitely been a positive for us, delivering savings in journey time, increased productivity and safer conditions for our drivers,” Mr Wood said.
“The highway upgrade has reduced the amount of time required to move between our three sugar mills and has eliminated the risk for trucks turning directly on and off the highway at our sites.
The opening of the new Wardell Bridge across the Richmond River as part of the upgrade has also seen the last remaining load-restricted bridge for HML vehicles on the Pacific Highway bypassed.
Not surprisingly the ATA has lauded the completion of the road and the contribution it will make to the nation.
Chair of the ATA David Smith said that the completed duplication will save lives, especially as traffic increases ahead of the Christmas holiday period, whether the Covid flair up in Sydney’s Northern Beaches reduces that traffic load or not.
David Smith said the project was of great significance to the trucking industry and every road user.
“The completion of the Pacific Highway duplication is an important moment for Australia and road safety,” Mr Smith said.
“It’s important for Australia because it’s a key freight route. It is the second busiest interstate road freight corridor in Australia,” he said.
“The safety importance of the upgrade is highlighted by the tragic Grafton truck and bus crash, which occurred on 20 October 1989. A semitrailer veered into oncoming traffic and hit a bus on the highway near Grafton. Twenty-one people died and 22 more were injured – the worst crash in Australian road transport history at the time.
“A key recommendation out of the coronial inquiry into the crash was to duplicate the highway.
“The Australian Trucking Association was also established in response to the tragedy,” Mr Smith said.
“The completion of the upgrade is an enormous win for our industry and every road user, and we are so thankful that after so many years of strong bipartisan government commitment, we have finally seen the completed duplication,” he said.
“The upgrade will deliver better safety outcomes for our drivers. Drivers play an essential role and are out on our roads every day, working hard to keep Australia supplied. They deserve better roads,” Mr Smith said.
“On behalf of industry, I want to thank successive NSW and Australian governments for their action and recognition of the importance of this nation building project.
The only missing links now are the Coffs Harbour bypass, which has just received its approval from Federal environment minister Sussan Ley.
Deputy PM and minister for infrastructure, transport and regional development Michael McCormack says the 14-kilometre bypass, is one of the 15 major projects that the Federal Government has committed to fast-tracking.
“The bypass is going to take more than 12,000 vehicles a day out of the centre of Coffs Harbour, reduce travel times by as much as 12 minutes by bypassing 12 sets of traffic lights, and improve safety for all road users,” McCormack says.
“Transport for NSW has now received the final stamp of approval, after close scrutiny by the NSW Minister for Planning and Public Spaces and the Australian Minister for the Environment.
The approval includes proposed tunnels at Roberts Hill, Shephards Lane and Gatelys Road, as well as assessing the project for its social, environmental, heritage and economic impacts, and gives the project team the green light to go ahead with major work.
The project is expected to take around five years to build and along with the planned Raymond Terrace to Beresfield by pass with a new high level Hunter River Crossing which is also advancing and should be completed by 2028.
All we can say is hallelujah! Skimping on road funding particularly key interstate freight routes is folly and as a nation we should never again tolerate such massively long delays in delivering safer, more efficient and highly valuable projects like the Pacific.