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Tuesday, 14 August 2012
Page: 8588


Mr MURPHY (Reid) (21:35): Whilst the Leader of the Opposition constantly complains about the Labor government, members should by way of comparison contemplate the policy failures of the Howard government, a regime that is regularly held up as some sort of paragon of virtue. As an example of the sort of incompetence that characterised the Howard government's decisions, I will discuss tonight what developed in the radiocommunication systems used by the national railway industry during that time.

These days, as a considerable consequence of that government's mismanagement and obvious failure to regard the railways as important, there are 22 different train radio networks, often incompatible and all only usable in particular parts of the country. What this means is that, for instance, in New South Wales, train drivers may have to use a WB radio in the city and the country, a Metronet radio in Sydney and a CountryNet radio in country New South Wales. If a train originating in New South Wales enters Victoria, train drivers must switch to the Victorian non-urban train radio in the country, the Victorian urban train radio in Melbourne and ultrahigh-frequency radios in Victoria in the city and in the country. In Queensland, train drivers must use the Queensland Train Control Radio and so on.

Imagine the outcry if members of the public had to carry multiple mobile phones to be used in different parts of the country. Yet that is what confronts locomotive drivers today. It goes without saying that a working radio is an essential part of railway safety systems and is used, for example, to warn train drivers of obstructions on the track.

Even as the extent of the problem of incompatible train radio systems became apparent after the fatal crash at Glenbrook in the Blue Mountains in 1999, the then Howard government did absolutely nothing to address this serious issue.

The Glenbrook crash occurred when an electric interurban train ran into the back of the stationary Indian Pacific, which was stopped at a signal and hidden from the view of the interurban driver by a curve in the track. The primary cause of the crash was the fact that the Indian Pacific driver did not have a Metronet radio that he could have used to advise the nearby signal box of his position, whilst the interurban driver had been told through his Metronet radio to proceed through a faulty signal.

Plainly, the plethora of train radios was a serious problem that was rightly the domain of the national government. But what did the Howard government do at the time to ensure that such an accident could not be repeated? It did worse than nothing. The most obvious solution was, as proposed by the major radio equipment suppliers and railway operators, the introduction of a national network of proven GSMR train radios to replace the various existing incompatible train radios. Rather than acting on that expert advice, the then Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts instead sold off the radio spectrum needed for the GSMR train radios to other users. That was extraordinary.

An officer of one of the equipment suppliers informed me that he got in touch with the Spectrum Management Authority at the time, only to be told that the government was not concerned to reserve sections of the radio spectrum for essential services such as the railways. He was told that the government believed it was the responsibility of users, such as the railways, to buy the sections of the radio spectrum that they needed. Under the Howard government, parts of the very limited radio spectrum were privatised in a haphazard fashion without any consideration for important applications such as the safe operation of the railway network.

It is obvious that any Abbott government would recapitulate the worst aspects of the Howard years and, given the clear contempt of the Leader of the Opposition for the advice of experts, would make even more mistakes and bad decisions than the Howard government ever did.