Apr 20, 2011

Road and Rail on Track for National Growth – Opinion Piece – Newcastle Herald

Today I will be in the Hunter Valley to celebrate the start of construction of the second stage of the $1.65 billion Hunter Expressway. When it is finished in two years time, the new 40 kilometre four-lane expressway will vastly improve travel times for commuters and business operators in the region, cutting up to half an hour off the trip between Newcastle and the Hunter.

It will also free up the New England Highway for local traffic, removing up to 30,000 vehicles each day so the residents of Thornton, Maitland and Rutherford will be able to move around their towns without the daily congestion caused by the large trucks and other vehicles competing for road space. Critically, the Hunter Expressway will also improve the capacity for economic growth with the faster passage of people and commodities across the region and between the Hunter Valley and Sydney.

With Australia’s freight load expected to double by 2030 and triple by 2050, the Hunter Expressway is a critical plank in the Gillard Government’s $37 billion National Building Program which, through targeted funding of new rail and roads, is preparing Australia for a period of considerable economic expansion.

Despite being raised as a ‘good idea’ by successive governments since the mid 1980s, it wasn’t until 2009 that the Hunter Expressway was finally given the go-ahead. This followed a recommendation from Infrastructure Australia, the body set up by the Federal Labor Government to independently assess and advise on our infrastructure needs, that the project be ranked top priority. Through the Building Australia Fund, the Federal Government committed $1.45 billion towards it in partnership with $200 million from the NSW Government.

Those building the Hunter Expressway face an unusual challenge, to protect the new work from subsidence from the labyrinth of underground tunnels, remnants of the area’s coal mining past. A 60-person team is injecting 200,000 cubic metres of grout into the tunnels, some of which are 120 metres underground.

About 1300 construction workers, general staff and subcontractors will be employed directly on the expressway with flow-on effects for businesses right across the Hunter region. Construction materials and landscape supplies will be sourced locally wherever possible, creating opportunities for a large range of suppliers and service providers.

There are Aboriginal employment programs with 13 Aboriginal staff already engaged as carpentry apprentices, construction trainees and in other positions. A university undergraduate program supports work placements for engineering students as well as internships and scholarships through the University of Newcastle with several new engineering graduates employed to learn on-the-job skills alongside more experienced industry professionals.

When Labor was elected in 2007, Australia’s infrastructure investment was in a parlous state. Australia ranked 20th out of 25 OECD nations when it came to investing in public infrastructure as a proportion of national income. Put simply, many of our roads and rail networks were not capable of meeting the demands of the rapidly growing Australian economy.

When the financial crisis gripped the globe in 2008, the Federal Government acted decisively by accelerating many road and rail projects. This fuelled investment and jobs and now, almost three years later, Australia has avoided recession and is in the process of building a much improved transport network.

NSW is receiving $12 billion or about one-third of the funds from the Nation Building Program. Much of this investment is taking place in the Hunter. Apart from the expressway, we are addressing serious under-investment in the Hunter Valley’s freight rail capacity.

In partnership with the Government’s investment arm the Australian Rail Track Corporation, $1 billion is being invested in the Hunter on five major rail track upgrades, including the duplication of the line between St Heliers and Muswellbrook and a third track between Maitland and Minimbah. This will vastly improve the flow of coal and commodities such as grains and cotton to Port Waratah.

A quarter of a century after it was first proposed I am delighted that the Hunter Expressway is finally becoming a reality. I know there is still an enormous amount of work to be done to ensure our transport sector can meet the demands of a growing population and economy. But this new road is one of many that will help us achieve that. I look forward to waving through those first vehicles in two year’s time.