Addressing the Challenges of Urban Intermodal Terminal Development

According to the WTO, global container shipping grew 5% in volume last year, while leading maritime and shipping industry consultants predict consistent growth of 4.7% through 2019. Coupled with statistics suggesting that global population will exceed 9 billion by 2050, it’s safe to say that consumer demand for goods in urban centres around the world will continue to rise.

The case down under

One region already confronting that reality is Australia, where population growth and increased reliance on imports has elicited forecasts of continuous growth in container throughput at all major ports. In addition to the land use challenges of urban port expansion, increased container imports will inevitably require more trucks and trains tasked with moving freight from the ports to their urban hinterlands. 80% of freight coming into metropolitan ports travels 60 km or less to warehouse destinations, but that relatively short journey is often congested. Pressure is mounting on the Australian government, which already faces growing public and political pressure to reduce the volume of large trucks on the urban road network in response to congestion, road safety and air quality concerns.

One response has been to embrace a shift towards rail-borne freight and intermodal terminals which, in addition to reducing the number of trucks on the road, offers numerous economic and environmental advantages including:

  • Greater energy efficiency
  • Reduced emissions
  • Improved supply chain efficiency
  • Reductions in urban road congestion
  • Improved community safety

A pivotal link

A critical component in the shift to rail reliance lies in the development of intermodal terminals (IMTs), the handling facilities where containers are transferred between trucks and trains. In the case of Sydney, a site at Moorebank was selected as the most viable for IMT development due to its proximity to road and rail networks, as well as future industrial and commercial centres. In December 2012, the Australian government formed the Moorebank Intermodal Company Limited to oversee construction and operation of the site and its associated infrastructure, facilities and warehousing.

WSP – On the front lines

WSP experts are acting as environmental assessment and planning process consultants to the Moorebank development, the largest of its kind in Australia.. Led by Paul Greenhalgh, Technical Executive with WSP’s Environment Planning office in Sydney, the firm engaged in the complex process of conducting a thorough Environmental Impact Study (EIS) for the project. From day one, several unique challenges added complexities to the EIS, beginning with the need for separate negotiations and assessments with state and national regulators.

A complex project

The Moorebank IMT project shone light on a series of challenges to be addressed if wide scale expansion of the rail freight-IMT concept is to occur successfully. For one, IMTs require large plots of land in order to accommodate very long trains, truck movement, container handling, warehousing and logistics. While better suited to industrial areas away from residential communities and sensitive land uses, the efficiency of IMTs depends on their close proximity to high demand services such as warehousing and logistics, as well as connectivity with regional road and freight rail networks. Further challenges were unearthed in the legacy of freight movement within metropolitan Sydney, which has historically relied on shared freight/passenger rail lines. While substantial investment to enhance the freight rail network has been addressed on a national level, completion of new freight rail lines is critical to achieving a comprehensive intermodal-based freight strategy.


The Moorebank development also faced numerous community and regulator challenges. Although garnering some local support due to benefits of job creation and investment, significant opposition quickly emerged from residential areas close to the site, primarily over concerns about noise and traffic impacts, air quality and public health and safety associated with the 24/7 operations and large volumes of truck traffic generated by the proposal.

Unearthing solutions

Given the scope of the Moorebank project, it was critically important to ensure that studies, impacts and community concerns could be mitigated, both to ensure successful implementation of the project at hand, and to streamline processes for future IMT development projects. Concerns that were mitigated include:


Biodiversity investigations undertaken for the EIS led to the establishment of an on-site Conservation Area to preserve riparian habitat, biodiversity and Aboriginal heritage. No intermodal development will occur inside the re-zoned Conservation Area, which will be managed from a conservation perspective. Furthermore, additional parcels of government land were secured for addressing future biodiversity offset requirements.


The EIS explored numerous design measures aimed at mitigating noise impacts, including the use of wide rail track radii to reduce wheel squeal, track damping and noise barriers on the rail spur leading into the site. For Moorebank’s internal operations, studies focused on technology substitutions for designing a quieter plant. We integrated targeted design recommendations from on-going studies throughout the planning process in order to ensure compliance with established noise goals.


In-depth traffic studies undertaken for the EIS established distinguishable differences between projected impacts of the IMT site and the traffic congestion impacts of broader population growth of South West Sydney. In addition to alleviating specific concerns relating to the Moorebank project, the assessment is subsequently being used by stakeholders as a guide in negotiations over the investment, timing and extent of general road network upgrades.

Air Quality

The EIS included air quality and health impact assessments. Environmental performance enhancement opportunities explored included electrification of the plant in lieu of diesel power. Requirements surrounding unnecessary emissions generated by idling diesel locomotives were also identified, and implementation of the aforementioned mitigation measures helped establish that the project would not exceed EPA or human health risk guidelines.

A case study for IMT development

With continued growth in population and consumer demand on the horizon, the Moorebank IMT development serves as a valuable case study for future projects around the globe. Most notable among the lessons learned is that early, in-depth planning for intermodal site development is essential at both the strategic and project levels.


This article summarizes a paper originally presented by Paul Greenhalgh at CORE2018, a conference on railway excellence held from April 30 to May 2, 2018 in Sydney, Australia.