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Northern Territory Cattlemen's Association

Road improvement not about comfort

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Press Release

The constant debate around the state of the Northern Territory’s roads has nothing to do with comfort. It has to do with the extra $51.7 million in costs added to the cattle industry and by default the consumer.

Last week ABC Radio’s Country Hour was inundated by truckies and pastoralists all wanting the roads they traversed named as the worst in the NT. It was a tough competition.

But what became obvious is that cattle producers are avoiding major roads in central Australia at a huge additional cost because of disrepair. In some instances, pastoralists are having to send their cattle hundreds of extra kilometres to bypass major outback roads, adding thousands of dollars to their freight bills and making cattle stay on trucks for extra hours increasing animal welfare concerns.

The ABC Country Hour crew spoke to Jay Gook, the manager of Huckitta Station, which straddles the Plenty Highway, about damage 280 kilometres north-east of Alice Springs.

He told them he recently sent cattle to Winton in Queensland – also on the Plenty – but could not justify driving cattle trucks along the road because of the corrugations, potholes and bulldust.

The trucks ended up taking a 900km detour along the Barkly Highway, at an additional cost of about $8,500 per truck.

And this is where the economics of the roads becomes so critical. This poses significant challenges to industry due to the increased costs of transport.

The Northern Territory Road Transport Association (NTRTA) has calculated the cost of transport for heavy vehicles on unsealed roads in NT as 30 per cent higher than those of sealed roads, with many transport operators charging a fee of $0.10 per head/ per deck/ per km or $0.60/road train/kilometre for working on dirt roads on top of their standard cartage rates.

Transport costs are among the biggest expense to the pastoral industry; up to 35 per cent of the sale price of an animal in the NT given the average distance to port or processing for NT stations is 835km, so the additional costs to pastoralists are significant.

Examples of the additional costs (over and average standard freight rates) for a typical station on three major roads are:

Buntine Highway: For Victoria River Downs to send cattle to live export at Wyndham or Broome, the distance across the dirt section of the Buntine/Duncan Highways is 406km. With the additional charges of working on the dirt, for every road train travelling this route, the additional cost of transport is $245 per road train.

Barkly Stock Route: For Anthony Lagoon Station (an AACo-owned property) to transport cattle to its own company abattoir in Darwin or to live export depots the distance across the dirt is 225km. The added cost for each truck is $135 per road train.

Anthony Lagoon sells around 12,000 head (or 77 road trains) of cattle each year, so the additional cost to this station is $10,395 per year.

Plenty Highway: For a property such as Jervois Station, which is located 277km from the bitumen of the Stuart Highway and 467km from the bitumen in Queensland, to sell cattle in Alice Springs, Darwin, or the southern states via the Stuart Highway, the averaged additional cost due to the unsealed road is $166 per road train.

To sell cattle into Queensland, the additional cost is $280 per road train.

Unsealed roads, and those unsealed roads which are not well maintained, add an extra $33.10 per head per trip. Then there is an additional cost per head for extra travel time and that is $37.50. In addition to that cattle can lose up to 12.5kg of weight – again adding to the cost.

All up we are talking about unsealed roads and poorly maintained roads adding $51,717,249.21 in costs. So it isn’t about comfort it is about the economics and the impact this has.

And having driven all three of those roads in the last four weeks the complaints regarding the rapid deterioration are justified.

It is why the Northern Territory Cattlemen’s Association is constantly arguing for more road funding and for that road funding to be properly targeted.

We have circulated Roads of Strategic Investment Importance which will add substantial productivity value to the pastoral, resources, and tourism sector. These are:

Marindja Road  – seal selected sections
Key supply road for live export depots in Darwin. Up to 75,000 head of cattle or stock with a value of $75m is transported along this route. The road is not all weather and therefore can spend large amounts of the year unpassable. It is less than 130km from Darwin. If we seal just 18km of it the level of productivity will improve access all year round.

Sandover Highway – Seal selected sections
Requires upgrade and seal to entire length.  Critical 12-month access to Qld and Central Australia, for pastoral, tourism, mining and community.  Region is experiencing growth beyond the capacity of the road.  Seasonal rainfall and poor maintenance render large sections inaccessible for long periods.  Costs of freight or preparedness of contractors to use the road costing business and having untold social costs.

Tablelands Highway – Strengthening and Widening
This road is part of the 24 per cent of sealed roads and requires major upgrade and reseal along its entire length.  Currently deteriorating rapidly. Roughly 100,000 head of cattle traverse this road to Queensland primarily for either the domestic market or the live export market via the Port of Townsville. The “rutting” on the road is so bad trucks travel at 50km per hour when loaded. Rutting is where one side of the road has sunk.

Carpentaria Highway – Strengthening and Widening
Upgrade to crossings, and bridges, seal widening, shoulder and seal maintenance required.  Critical pastoral, mining, tourism and community road. Increasing pressure with further development of the region and expansion of pastoral, communities and mining. This has become increasingly problematic with live export peak supply moving towards the wet season.   The advent of an onshore gas industry will also place increased pressure in the area.

Buchanan Highway – Selected upgrades
Seal and upgrade to crossings and bridges. Major supply and link road through to the VRD from the Stuart Hwy for pastoral, mining and community. This has become increasingly problematic with live export peak supply moving towards the wet season.  Road trains in the area can travel as slow as 20km/h due to road conditions.

Roper Highway – Seal selected sections
Part seal and upgrade.  Major route for pastoral, mining and community. Coming under increasing pressure with further development of the region and expansion of communities and mining.

In a post-Covid-19 environment at a time when funding resources should be spent wisely then it makes economic sense to spend on infrastructure which will generate an economic return and create jobs.

The pastoral sector kept 10,000 people employed directly and indirectly in urban, regional and remote communities throughout Covid-19, Government needs to recognise what the benefits of investments like the ones outlined above it will create a foundation.


Ashley Manicaros.

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