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Rail Infrastructure spending on track but warning light flashing

21/11/2009

After decades of neglect the national rail infrastructure is now about to be the recipient of $4.5 billion of funding from the Federal Government.

This money will be spent on direct heavy and light rail investment as well as studies that will lead to many more billions of dollars being invested in metropolitan rail upgrades in Victoria, New South Wales, Western Australia and South Australia.

The showpiece rail infrastructure spend from the last Federal Budget is a $3.225 billion contribution to the Regional Rail Express from Werribee to the Melbourne CBD.

This was followed last month by a scoping study for a $4.5 billion rail line from Footscray to Parkville and possibly the Melbourne CBD. At the same time the Federal Government is funding the investigation of Melbourne’s East West Rail Tunnel and an inner city rail system in Brisbane.

Even a rail line from Melbourne to Brisbane is also under consideration that would be one of the biggest investments in Australian rail history.

And while it isn’t being discussed at the moment a Very Fast Train is also something that be kept in consideration for Australia as they are now being rolled out across all developed (and some less developed) economies of the world.

While these projects are predominantly passenger services, there is a huge investment required to bring the freight rail network up to standards as well.

This recent National Transport Commission’s report predicts Australian rail freight volumes could double by 2030 but recognises productivity as a major impediment to its growth.

A major source of this frustration is the sharing of lines by passenger and freight trains.

Line separation needs to be undertaken on a national scale to ensure passenger and rail freight are not condemning these billions to creating further bottlenecks.

As was noted by the Productivity Commission’s separate report, released mid-2009, Australia’s economic performance is closely linked to the efficiency of its transport sector, due to the long distances between population and production centres.

It also observed that Australia’s rail network alone presently is overseen by seven state and territory regulators, with different access costs and safety laws applicable in each state. This is significant given the high percentage of rail freight movements (80 per cent on a tonne-kilometres travelled basis) that are interstate, due to the movement required of commodities such as coal.

The PC report acknowledged that while the Government has tried to create a defined interstate rail network run by the Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC) body, a major issue remains in inconsistent state-by-state approaches to safety regulation with rail operators requiring multiple accreditations to cross borders. There are also overlaps between rail safety and OHS legislation.

In a survey by the Australasian Railway Association (ARA) members estimated that the direct cost of complying to duplication and overlaps in rail safety regulation was costing $42 million to the whole industry.

This new, separate review by the NTC focuses on productivity, with a call for better track speeds, faster transit times, higher axle weights and improved service and flexibility. For one, it recommends open access regulation for key rail terminals, and pricing reform so that truck charges do not unfairly disadvantage rail.

Rail has massive advantages for passenger and freight transportation including vital reductions in green house gases produced by the dominant motor vehicle alternatives that now dominate our cities and freeways.

Now that the Federal Government has stepped in to kickstart much of this spending it also needs to take control and centralise it through a single authority to ensure it is securely and responsibly coordinated – we don’t went to end up with a 20th century version of the rail gauge fiasco of the 19th century that took 100 years to resolve.

The billions that are being spent, and the billions more required, will be a testament to the long term planning required to make Australia a greener country in the decades ahead.

O’Donnell Griffin is part of the Electrical & Communications division of Norfolk, an ASX listed company.



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