Jun 22, 2010

Building Rail’s next “Golden Age” – Opinion – Track and Signal

Unquestionably, the Rudd Labor Government has been a strong supporter of rail.

We have not only honoured every commitment we gave in Opposition, we’ve gone so much further during our first two and half years on the Treasury benches: reversing decades of underinvestment and correcting the long standing funding imbalance that favoured road.

Under the leadership of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, this Labor Government has matched its nation building rhetoric with an unprecedented $9 billion, six year capital works program. When compared to the former government’s record, that represents more than a tenfold increase in funding.

This is more than just an investment in new sleepers, track, passing loops, boom gates and signalling technology; it’s an investment in a more productive and prosperous Australia.

The interstate freight rail network:

From the outset, the modernisation of the interstate rail network has been central to our broader efforts to lift national productivity, curb harmful carbon emissions and take the pressure off the nation’s highways.

Accordingly, we’ve substantially increased public investment in this vital piece of infrastructure to $3.4 billion over six years – money the Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC) is using to build 235 kilometres of new track and upgrade a further 3,771 kilometres of existing track.

Detailed planning and design work is also well advanced on an $840 million project which will speed up the movement of freight trains through Sydney, currently the biggest bottleneck on the main line between Melbourne and Brisbane.

To overcome the delays caused by the priority given to commuter trains and limited track capacity, we will build a dedicated freight line from North Strathfield to Gosford. Construction is expected to start later this year, and once completed, the new line will have the capacity to carry up to 88 freight trains a day – a significant improvement on the current situation.

Further south the ARTC will build a similar dedicated freight line between Macarthur and Chullora, improving transit times and providing 24-hour access to Port Botany. This project has had challenges resulting in a delay but is expected to be completed by 2011.

As well as investing in the existing network, this Government has fulfilled an aspiration as old as the Australian nation itself. At the begin of this year, I had the honour of presiding over the official handover to the ARTC of the line between the Queensland border and the Brisbane suburb of Acacia Ridge, creating for first time a truly national rail network connecting Brisbane to Perth.

But modern, reliable infrastructure will not be enough to fully restore rail’s competitiveness; it also needs to be better integrated with other modes of transport, namely the nation’s ports and roads.

That’s why we’ve committed $70 million to advance planning on the staged development of an intermodal facility in Sydney’s south west. Once operational, this new facility will create hundreds of jobs and transform the movement of freight into and out of Port Botany, taking over one million trucks a year off the M5.

Beyond rebuilding the network we inherited and completing the unfinished business of nationhood, we’re also planning for the nation’s future.

A good example of this was our decision to commission the ARTC to determine the economic benefits and commercial viability of a new multi-billion standard gauge railway between Melbourne and Brisbane via the Central West of NSW. This exhaustive study is due to be finalised within coming months.

More broadly,Infrastructure Australia is developing the nation’s first ever national port strategy and national freight strategy – long term blueprints which will guide future public and private investment in our nation’s transport infrastructure, including rail. Both are expected to be released this year.

Urban passenger rail:

Critically, our rail investment program recognises you can’t have a plan for moving freight without a plan for moving people. That’s why in last year’s Budget we took the historic decision to become the first ever national government to finance urban passenger rail projects.

In partnership with the governments of Western Australia, South Australia, Victoria and Queensland, we’re investing close to $4.5 billion to modernise and extend the rail infrastructure which provides the residents of Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth and the Gold Coast with a cleaner and faster way of getting around.

This includes Regional Rail Link in Victoria, the country’s biggest public transport infrastructure project.

Better regulation:

As well as rolling out the largest ever rail investment program, the Rudd Labor Government is also implementing historic reforms to the way our nation regulates the owners, operators and users of this infrastructure.

After more than a century of failed attempts and false starts, Australia is now closer than ever before to having a national rail safety regulator and one set of nation-wide laws – as opposed to the existing multiple state-based regimes.

This new body will be based in Adelaide, and up and running by 2013.

Conclusion

With a relatively small population spread across a vast continent and much of its natural wealth located in remote areas, Australia has always been heavily reliant on its transport infrastructure for its continuing economic development.

Here lays the logic behind the unprecedented investment we’re making and the sweeping reforms we’re pursing, namely that a modern transport system that better connects all our regions and cities could be the difference between Australia’s future success or failure.

That’s why we’ve used our first term to restore rail to its rightful place at the heart of the nation’s transport system. And unlike the circumstances enjoyed by our predecessors, we’ve done so without the luxury of record tax revenues flowing into the Treasury.

To the contrary, we’ve had to confront the worst global recession since 1929.

Here again our rail investment program, augmented with additional funding from our Economic Stimulus Plan, played a critical role. As well as laying the modern, well-planned rail infrastructure vital to Australia’s future, it created jobs and economic activity at the very time both were needed.

But despite the progress we’ve made, there’s still much to do. For starters, we’re only half through the delivery of our $9 billion capital works program and our sweeping regulatory reforms are yet to be bedded down.

What’s more, the successful implementation of our tax reforms will not only give all Australians a fairer share of the wealth flowing from the resources they collectively own, it will inject billions of dollars of new investment into the nation’s port, road and rail infrastructure.

Having said all that, here’s the bottom line: call me old fashioned, but I think political parties should be judged on what they deliver – and on any objective assessment, this Labor Government has been the best friend rail has had in a very long time.

But Labor’s appreciation for the role rail can play in unlocking our nation’s economic potential is nothing new.

Not only was one of our most revered leaders – Ben Chifley – a former train driver, the transcontinental railway is a legacy of the nation building vision of Australia’s first majority Labor government and its leader, Andrew Fisher, who at the time declared rail “an urgent necessity for reasons of economy, transport and effective defence.”

A century after the Fisher Government, rail is enjoying a renaissance globally and the Rudd Labor Government is making sure Australia is part of that action. Our economy, productivity and the environment all stand to benefit.