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What’s big, empty and clogging up Sydney streets? – Sydney Morning Herald

Date: 29/09/2012
Words: 967
Source: SMH

Few topics are as sexless as container movements. Of all the human endeavours, and there are some good ones, packing stuff into big boxes and moving those boxes around would have to be well down the list of thrilling things to spend your time doing, or thinking about.

But I’m going to write about containers anyway. There’s a lot happening in the world of container movement at the moment. And what’s happening says a lot about the type of economy Australia is and is becoming, and has implications for the type of cities we live in.

Take the problem of “empties”. Last year stevedores unloaded just over a million containers of imported goods at Sydney’s Port Botany.

Almost all of those containers were full – with manufacturing equipment, food, televisions, clothes. More than a third of the containers came from China.

But Port Botany does not only receive containers for import, it also loads them back onto ship for export.

The difference is that the majority of containers that leave Port Botany are empty. Last year almost 550,000 departed from the port with nothing inside.

It is hard to think of a more complete waste of space or resources than driving empty containers through the clogged streets of Sydney and loading them onto ships bound for another part of the world.

But that’s what needs to happen, I suppose, when the Australian economy does not make all that much stuff that the rest of the world wants to buy.

(Major export products, such as coal and iron ore, are shipped out of the country at ports like Port Kembla and Newcastle.)

The container disparity – full ones in, empty boxes out – is becoming even more pronounced.

Seven years ago, stevedores loaded about 700,000 containers onto ships for export through Port Botany.

Back then the split was pretty much 50-50 between empty containers and full ones for export. These days, the empties beat the full exports by more than 100,000.

(The fastest-growing export item out of Port Botany, by the way, is waste paper to China. The largest export item remains grains and cereals.)

But if empty containers are revealing for what they say about Australia’s economy they also highlight the growing difficulty of managing the movement of containers through crowded city streets.

It’s easy to forget that it is only relatively recently that Botany, in Sydney’s south, became the focus of the city and the state’s container trade.

Before the introduction of modern, standardised containers – the ubiquitous steel boxes you see piled up around the port and Sydney’s Airport – most trade moved in and out of Sydney at Port Jackson. The trouble there, among other things, was a lack of room to store the boxes.

To the anguish of locals, and amid a lot of environmental concerns, the government started to build a port area at Botany in the early 1970s.

The port started operating in 1979 and has grown rapidly since.

In 1970, 175,000 containers moved in and out of Sydney. These days about 2 million containers a year head to and from Port Botany, and for the past 15 years, container growth has risen about 7 per cent a year on average.

There will be a lot more to come.

One catalyst for all the future growth out of the port was the former Labor government’s decision to approve the construction of a third terminal at the port in 2005, against the advice of its own independent inquiry into the matter.

The third terminal should start next year. When it does, the port will have a capacity to handle upward of 7 million containers a year – right up there with major port cities like Hamburg.

There’s just one major impediment to all this expansion.

And the impediment, interestingly enough, is not the government. To salve the concerns of locals, when Labor signed off on the new terminal it also imposed a cap of 3.2 million container movements a year on Port Botany.

The cap was meant to mean something. It could be breached only after the government approved a new environmental assessment, which would require a new traffic management plan.

But the NSW Treasurer, Mike Baird, who is privatising the port next year, has already said the cap will simply be removed.

No – the main impediment to the expansion of the port is the Sydney street-map. It is the difficulty of getting containers from the port through the streets of Sydney and back again. The rail links are inadequate; the streets can’t cope.

On Wednesday, therefore, Barry O’Farrell’s advisers Infrastructure NSW will recommend a major expansion of Sydney’s motorway network, geared towards making it easier for trucks to get to and from the port.

At different times over the past two decades there have been proposals to expand the capacity of ports at Newcastle and Port Kembla to handle the next wave of freight traffic for Sydney. But the State Infrastructure Strategy, when it is handed down on Wednesday, will reject these ideas, focusing on making the most of Botany.

It will propose at least two new motorways – an eastward expansion of the M4, which currently stops at Strathfield, and another M5 Tunnel – to run to the port.

Infrastructure NSW will describe the projects as economic game-changers for the state, liberating the movement of containers – full and empty – through Sydney and to and from Botany. Other projects, like expanding the CityRail network with another harbour crossing, will be asked to wait.

Under this plan, the big new infrastructure items for Sydney will orient the city more towards its port, with the aim of making life easier for its containers.

The plan might make business sense. But at the same time, it’s one I imagine few residents would feel they have signed up to.

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