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Thursday, 26 February 1987
Page: 841

Mr PETER MORRIS (Minister for Transport)(5.27) —in reply-I express appreciation for the very complimentary remarks that have been passed about me today in this very interesting and constructive debate. It is one of the most constructive debates on any transport matter that I have heard in the House in my 13 or 14 years as a member of parliament. It illustrates to the people of Australia that there are issues on which governments and oppositions are in accord and that both sides of the House have a positive view to put. It shows that when an issue is common, people can work together for the betterment of this country.

There were some 13 speakers on this debate which is a large speaking list for an issue of this nature. All speakers in the debate today recognised the fact that the Australian National Railways Commission-or Australian National, AN, as it trades-is passing through a process of change. There is a very simple message in that: It is that if we are to survive we have to adapt and if rail transport is to survive in the scheme of things it has to adapt and that means change. After all, the test of efficiency is the ability to adapt to changing circumstances. For the railway industry that is extremely difficult because it is a very proud and loyal industry, a very traditional industry which employs a very strong group of people. Much of our development in this country owes its origin to the development of railways and much of our social structure developed around the railway employees who staffed the railway system from its earliest days. Having said that, in the case of AN we are facing up to that change. Change breeds fear which breeds uncertainty which breeds instability. It is essential that in that process of change there be good quality communication between government, the authority of management and the work force, through its trade unions. The reason we have been able to gain the change that is taking place in Australian National is the quality of communication and the fact that the people involved understand what the objective is, what the task is. There has been a general recognition that not only must the railway industry adapt to changing circumstances and improve its efficiency, productivity and reliability but also we, as a nation, must do similarly in the railway system.

Some of the speakers in the debate this morning and this afternoon referred to what kind of service we are providing. When railways were set down they were the basic passenger service-before the time of road transport. They replaced in the main horse-drawn transport, river transport or transport by sea. The service and the nature of the service were acceptable and desirable at that time but have been superseded in many cases by better forms of personal and freight transport. So we find today that for a price-sensitive service people look to roads; for the cheaper service to coaching; and for a speed service, for the time-sensitive person, to air. Railways in many cases, particularly for long distance passenger services, are stranded somewhere in the middle, not being one or the other. There is an essential problem of identifying the market: What does the public want, what kind of service and product? Having identified that product it must set about providing it in the most efficient and competitive form possible. That to a large extent is what has been happening with AN passenger services. As I said in my second reading speech, passenger services across the world are generally not financially viable. With Australian National, where we have a cost recovery rate of about 45 per cent, we have set an objective of 60 per cent by 1988-89 and then we will modernise and improve the service and make it more attractive to encourage people back to long distance rail passenger services.

This amending legislation enables Australian National to provide entertainment services. They have been detailed by some of my colleagues on both sides of the House in earlier contributions-as well as by me. But it is the provision of that service, its efficiency and its reliability that will attract people back. It has to be a service that people want to use. Reference is made to the fact that the entertainment service will be introduced first on the Ghan service-the Adelaide-Alice Springs service. It is not generally recognised that the rail link from Tarcoola to Alice Springs of 830 kilometres contains two pieces of steel-two continuous welded strands of steel. Those who travel that service will find that they miss the clickety-clack because the joins are no longer there. It is a more silent service. Some people complain that they miss the magic of the clickety-clack noise which puts them to sleep. That is one of the best pieces of rail track in the world. It is an example of what Australian rail technology can provide. The extensions to the service pick up the quality of ride that is involved.

In my view AN is the best performing of all our rail services. We have mentioned earlier that AN has reduced the real level of revenue supplement from government by some 50 per cent since 1982-83. We will continue to work at improving that further until we get the freight services, particularly, on a fully commercial basis and meet the targets set for the passenger services.

I will quickly run through some of the comments made by other speakers that I think are worthy of response. The honourable member for Murray (Mr Lloyd) made a constructive contribution when he expressed support for the Government's initiatives, particularly the Inter-State Commission and its working relationship with interstate road-rail cost recovery. It is encouraging on this side of the House to receive such whole-hearted support, apart from a couple of discordant notes that I will come to about the legislation. The honourable member mentioned the Alice Springs-Darwin railway, which is an intraterritory service. Everybody is fully aware of the history of that matter and I do not propose to go over it again; but suffice it to say that it is a matter for the Territory to decide in its own time and way if it feels that the financial investment is worth while. It is the Territory's concern and I do not propose to go into it.

The honourable member for Grey (Mr O'Neil) represents a major section of the area serviced by Australian National. We all know the energies he put into representing that area, particularly the railway workers of the towns of Port Pirie, Port Augusta and Peterborough. He properly has a major concern for the performance of AN and the welfare of its employees. Earlier today I was pleased to have in the House to see me the well-known, well-respected and energetic Mayor of Port Pirie, Alderman Bill Jones, who again has a task in representing railway interests in that area.

The honourable member for Fadden (Mr Jull) referred to the new facilities that are being provided by AN being extended to the Indian Pacific passenger service. That may well happen. We are starting out on a stage by stage system of providing them first on the Ghan service and we will develop from there. The honourable member for Throsby (Mr Hollis) wants a Cabinet meeting on wheels. I heard that suggestion, and we shall put it to the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke). It will be for the Prime Minister and Cabinet to decide. Certainly it would be something new. From AN's point of view, we would like the business. We want every dollar's worth of business that we can get. I will put it to the Prime Minister on behalf of the honourable member. Who knows, we may have a Federal Cabinet meeting on wheels.

Mr Tim Fischer —As long as the train is not derailed.

Mr PETER MORRIS —These trains are providing that most efficient and reliable service in the nation and I tell my friend that they will continue to do so. But at the same time we want every bit of business that we can get. The honourable member for Ballarat (Mr Mildren) emphasised that progress was already being made in the need to attract passengers back to rail. I think I have covered that generally in emphasising that rail has a difficulty, because of the provision of other passenger services, in identifying a role in long distance passenger services. The comments of the honourable member for Farrer (Mr Tim Fischer) related to the very fast train. Clearly, that proposition will stand or fall on its own merits, but it is really an interstate matter, a matter for State governments, not this Government. I am quite sure from the comments that he was making that he is not looking to this Government, at a time of utter discipline upon public spending and at a time when his colleagues are calling for a nil Federal deficit, to put money into that. The honourable member for Lyne (Mr Cowan), in his usual courteous style, put very well the case for railway workers and the services being provided by railways generally-and more specifically by Australian National.

I thank all the 13 speakers who participated, from both sides of the House, for their comments and contributions to the debate. I particularly thank them for their kind words about me. This is a task that I enjoy and it is extremely important in the interests of this nation. I just end on the note that, generally, people do not realise the impact of transport on their lifestyle, their standard of living, or the performance of this nation. When all is said and done, this nation rides on the shoulders of its transport systems. When we get to the time when each form of transport performs the task to which it is best suited technically, economically and socially, only then will we be able to maximise our export opportunities and the benefit of the resources with which this nation has been endowed. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

Bill read a second time.