May 6, 2011

Economic Stimulus puts rail back on track – Opinion – The Australian

Geoff Thomas has a big job. As general manager of logistics for Woolworths, he and his team need to make sure that the tub of yoghurt you collect from your local store is fresh, undamaged and makes it into your shopping trolley in the fastest time possible from cow to shelf. It is the complex art of logistics and it is something that occupies the minds of some very smart Australians. Central to every decision is whether to use road or rail.

For a long time, there was no contest. Though rail was the mode of choice for some long distance runs between, say, Brisbane and Cairns, on the busy Melbourne/Sydney/Brisbane route rail was simply too slow, too unreliable. In fact in 2007, Woolworths stopped using rail on that route altogether. It was more reliable and quicker to send everything along our highways by truck.

Four years later, our nation’s largest supermarket chain is considering changing its mind. According to Thomas, sometime later next year Woolworths is looking to switch to rail to carry the 2,000 tonnes of goods that are moved north each week from Melbourne to Brisbane and the smaller quantity that returns the other way.

It is not a decision that Woolworths can take lightly. There is the cost of new rail containers, as well as new systems, new staff to manage those systems and the development of a relationship with the new rail carrier. And while cost is the main driver, Thomas says Woolworths recognises that rail transport is safer and has a lower carbon output than road so the switch offers the opportunity to shore up its credentials as a good corporate citizen.

That the nation’s largest supermarket chain is considering such a monumental change is only possible because of Federal Government’s Economic Stimulus Plan which we introduced just over two years ago to counter the effects of the world economic crisis that was devastating the economies of the advanced world.

The plan fast-tracked 17 major rail projects, accelerated work on 14 major road projects and improved the safety at hundreds of black-spots and dangerous rail-crossings.

We have invested more in rail over the past 12 months than our predecessors did in 12 years. Among these projects were much needed improvements to the Brisbane to Melbourne freight line. Extended crossing loops, new signalling systems and the removal of severe curves are part of a $3.4 billion investment by the Gillard Labor Government in interstate rail. This is helping the Australian Rail Track Corporation upgrade the north-south line that will see 11 hours shaved off the trip, reducing the earlier travel time by one-third.

Making rail attractive to companies such as Woolworths makes great sense. One 1500 metre train can carry the load of 100 semi-trailer trucks. Woolworths alone has 160 B-double trucks on the Melbourne Brisbane route. Carrying those loads via rail leaves our roads safer and less congested for private motorists and reduces our global footprint.

The stimulus plan has worked. We have saved jobs. We have helped parents continue the job of raising their families with a sense of confidence that they weren’t about to lose their livelihoods. Our unemployment rate is less than half that of most industrialised countries. While the advanced world has shed 30 million jobs, there are now 740,000 more Australians in work than before the financial crisis began.

We have doubled the national roads budget to more than $27 billion. Two of the major road projects are now finished and open to traffic. One of those is the $564 million Northern Expressway in South Australia which opened last August three months ahead of schedule. Drivers now save up to 20 minutes in travel times to and from Adelaide.

The jobs created to support this activity are considerable. Just one example – manufacturing 1.2 million concrete rail sleepers has given work to factories in five towns in New South Wales, Victoria and Western Australia. This has employed hundreds of workers with flow-on effects right throughout their communities.

We have also accelerated the black spot program targeting some 600 known dangerous sections on our roads with a further $150 million to improve safety at some 300 rail level crossings. This sensible investment saves lives and prevents injuries by making our roadways and crossings safer for everyone.

Figures just out by the Bureau of Infrastructure, Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics show some impressive results. Average infrastructure construction between 2007/08 and 2009/10 was almost double the average over the previous 11 years in real terms, from $28 billion per year to $54 billion per year.

There is nothing new here. Nation building is what Labor governments do. The Snowy Mountains Scheme, the transcontinental railway and today’s national broadband network are three fine examples of Labor nation building programs that protect the livelihoods of Australian workers while providing a legacy for generations that follow.