Aug 21, 2012

The road to rail – on track to a more productive Australia – Opinion – The Australian

The next time the people of Perth order a dress from Net-a-Porter or a book from Amazon, there’s every chance the parcel that lands on their doorstep will have spent the last hours of its trip on a train. Early in July, Australia’s main parcel carriers decided it was cheaper and faster to put their Perth-bound international deliveries off road and onto rail. What had been a 53 hour trip can now be done in just 44. That is because of the Federal Government’s investment in more passing loops and a better, stronger track allowing for longer, faster trains.

And Woolworths. The grocery giant is one of the biggest freight carriers in the country. A couple of months ago it began transferring 34,000 tonnes of dry goods from road to rail on the busy Brisbane Melbourne route. It is doing that because the line is now more reliable and faster thanks to nine new passing loops, better crossings and signalling systems, and the removal of tight curves. For Woolworths, it’s a commercial decision that has not been made lightly. There’s new transfer arrangements and new deals with rail carriers. So, what once was done by fleets of trucks is now done on rail. That decision alone is removing 1,000 B-double trucks from our highways, freeing them up for regular motorists.

Let’s look at the agricultural sector. It’s been a bumper season for grain growers across South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales. In the past, much of that crop would have been carried by road. Now track repairs, extra passing loops and resleepering means rail can cope with the extra load, allowing the grain to reach markets faster. From Parkes to Broken Hill alone there are new rails and a million new concrete sleepers.

And finally, mining. Big improvements including seven new passing loops to the rail line linking the Hunter coal fields with Port Waratah is enabling output to grow from 97 million to 200 million tonnes per year. It’s a similar story in the mineral rich region around Coober Pedy where IMX Resources now sends six trains per week to Port Adelaide, up from only three trains two years ago.

It mightn’t crowd the front pages but there’s been a quiet revolution underway along the nation’s 10,000 kilometres of freight track. More than one-third of the track is being rebuilt, replaced or improved. Beyond the millions of new concrete sleepers and passing loops there is  also new sturdier track that doesn’t buckle under the Australian heat.

These improvements are changing the transport face of Australia. The poor cousin, freight rail, is now being seen as a serious alternative to the big trucks. The benefits of getting freight from our roads onto rail are obvious. For the everyday motorist, it means safer highways. For the commuter, less congested city streets. And for all of us, cleaner air and a cut to our greenhouse gas output.

But the biggest winner is national productivity.  Through our six year Nation Building Program, Federal Labor has committed $36 billion in road, rail and port projects across the nation. There has been no greater spend on transport infrastructure in Australian history. This has included a more than ten-fold increase in rail investment. The game-changer in this process has been the creation of Infrastructure Australia four years ago.

IA has enabled us to prioritise our investments so as to maximise the economic return.  This has removed the politics from decision-making by making funding decisions based on national rather than electoral interest. This does not make the Federal Government popular when pet State projects are not supported.  But the evidence is in. The Bureau of Infrastructure and Transport Economics finds that every dollar invested under the Nation Building Program is returning $2.65 to the nation. This focus on productivity will continue with Nation Building 2 which will roll out over five years from 2014 and where rail will again be a centrepiece.

Rail’s role in raising national productivity extends far beyond the national freight tracks. It extends deep into the heart of our major cities. Urban congestion remains the single biggest drag on our national productivity. Time spent idling at the wheel of a car is time not spent at the workplace or with the family.

This points more than ever to the need for public transport that is so reliable, so frequent and so affordable that it becomes a far better choice than reversing the car from the garage. That is why the Federal Government has made historic contributions to urban rail, despite public transport being a State responsibility. Our funding extends to every mainland capital city and is now at levels higher than all previous Federal Governments combined since Federation.

The Government is also investigating the viability of a high-speed rail network down the east coast. This all fits into our national plan for our infrastructure, a seamless integrated network of road, rail, ports and shipping, connecting the nation for decades ahead. There is much more to be done but the Federal Government recognises that investment in rail has enormous productivity pay offs. The 21st century will be the new age of rail.