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Wednesday, 13 February 2013
Page: 1280

Mr NEVILLE (HinklerThe Nationals Deputy Whip) (10:16): I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate on Appropriation Bill (No. 3) 2012-13 because it allows me to examine one very important aspect of Australia’s transport initiatives that I think has been put on the back-burner. I refer to what is generally called the inland rail. This envisages an inland rail line from Melbourne to Brisbane or, to be exact, from the South Dynon yard in Melbourne to Acacia Ridge in Brisbane. It has been talked about for many years but in the serious sense since 1996. That is 17 years. One would have thought by now that we would have come to some sort of real resolution. I admit progress has been made and I certainly do not detract in any way from the people who put their efforts into it.

I am an unapologetic supporter of the idea of an inland rail. I know Everald Compton well, who has championed this cause when others have fallen by the wayside. His moves to form ATEC, the Australian Transport and Energy Corridor, were visionary. It not only envisaged a railway line from Melbourne to Brisbane but, in that corridor, to have gas and high-speed telecommunications. It envisaged the electronic and internet age that we now live in, even when those things were in their earliest manifestations. That group has now morphed into the ATEC Rail Group and they have widened their agenda. Amongst the other lines that they are looking at now is the Surat Basin line in your electorate, Mr Deputy Speaker Scott. This is a $1.3 billion exercise. I understand that that will be able to go ahead without any major government contribution. Then there is the Border rail line from Moree to Toowoomba, at a cost of $1.5 billion. Both of these lines will help decentralise south-eastern Queensland. Still further ahead is a line from Mount Isa to Tennant Creek. Whether that is to be done in conjunction with an upgrade of the Townsville to Mount Isa line or a line from Gladstone to Mount Isa is immaterial. The point we need to recognise now is that there is a lot of mineral extraction going on in parts of Australia that we never envisaged before and we do not have the rail corridors to pick up a lot of this freight. We have a pretty shabby record as a nation when it comes to rail. This was largely because pre-Federation the colonies were self-governing entities and each built a rail system they thought was adequate for their needs. Queensland, Western Australia and Tasmania chose narrow gauge because they wanted to push the lines out as far as they could, particularly Western Australia and Queensland, where they probably would have preferred standard gauge, but it was a matter of cost. Tasmania was a much smaller entity and probably did not need the heavy duty rail at that time. New South Wales chose the European standard gauge and Victoria the Irish wide gauge—five foot three. South Australia, which was sort of at the crossroads of all the systems, ended up with all three gauges.

We have had some improvements since but it took us until the 1970s to actually link up the capital city network from Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide to Perth, when the line was finally completed, and that was reducing the five foot three line to a four foot 8½ line between Melbourne and Adelaide—not the most satisfactory way of doing it and one which I reported on in a committee I chaired some years later. The concept was good.

Right up until comparatively recent times, although we had gauge right, we did not have our safety systems and signalling to a uniform standard, which meant drivers could not take trains across borders. That has been corrected to some extent. In fact, in the line from Brisbane to Kyogle the driver used to have to jump out and put the bars into the old device—I cannot remember its name—which allowed the train to continue to the next stop. That has only been removed in the last four or five years.

When you look at that it is a pretty sorry record. Even in the visionary Alice Springs to Darwin railway—and I applaud the concept of that—already we have recognised that the capacity of that line is not up to some of the minerals that it could be carrying right now. It should have been built to a higher standard with its bridges, culverts and track—sleepers and so on. So even there we have cut ourselves short.

In Queensland we tore up the railway line from South Brisbane to Tweed Heads through to the Gold Coast and within two decades we were putting it back again. But we have sold the corridor. That was not real smart. I am not saying that the corridor as it first stood was the ideal one, but we have to go very much further west to get a corridor and even now it is only part of the way down to the Gold Coast, to Robina. Our record has not been all that crash-hot.

One area that does give me a lot of heart is Western Australia. I recognise that the current government has done a tremendous amount and I also acknowledge the work of the National Party over there with their Royalties for Regions, allowing a lot of these things to happen. But it is a pleasure to go on any form of road or public transport from Perth right down to the Collie turn-off. Those roads are just remarkable. The roads are four and six lanes. They have bicycle tracks with different coloured asphalt demarcation so that you can see very clearly that that is not part of the road. Their spoon and table drains are properly battered so they can be regularly mowed. Their signage is superb. I imagine bushfire control is marvellous because they do not have trees up against the roadway. Then in various parts of that they have an electric train system running down the middle of it. In other words, they have got to a point where they have done something and they have done it well; they have done it once and they have done it well. I think whatever Compton wanted and still envisages is that we would do it once well. In a report I wrote once I quoted from Vince O'Rourke who, in my opinion, is the best railwayman in Australia. He said that with this inland railway we should do it once and do it well so we could double stack trains from Melbourne to Brisbane. That would be revolutionary, like nothing else we have in Australia.

I use this appropriations debate today to bring this back to the attention of government and, for that matter, to the attention of the opposition. We have talked about this endlessly. There have been eight or nine studies by both sides of politics and they have all gone to their neat pigeonholes on the walls of the department. I am not criticising the people who did them; what I am criticising is the lack of will to make things happen. We spent $9 billion on school halls and upgrading schools. I am not altogether a total critic of that. I know it has made a vast difference to many schools. I often ask myself if, say, in the $10 billion stimulus package, $5 billion of it had been spent on national infrastructure projects and $5 billion on school halls and the like, we may have had an even better result, one in which the whole nation could have taken some pride and from which we would have had future commercial benefit.

Another thing this inland rail envisages is a 20½-hour trip from Melbourne to Brisbane—in other words, you could turn a train around in 24 hours. That would make it competitive with road transport. The cost of it would be about $4.7 billion. That could be a mixture of government and private money. As we come towards the end of each year and see the road crash figures, we wring our hands and say: 'We have to do various things. We have to upgrade our roads to four lanes here and six lanes there. We need dividers down the middle of certain roads. We have to get trucks off the roads—there are too many trucks on the roads.' We wring our hands and do nothing about it. This would make a dramatic difference to the number of trucks on the road. That would not mean less business for trucks but it would mean that they would hub out of different locations, with less interstate trucking going on. That could be a large net benefit for the environment and for safety.

Also, the inland rail track from Melbourne to Brisbane would save seven hours in transport time and would be 170 kilometres shorter. I have a variation on it that I very much favour. I think the track should go from Moree to Inglewood, into Warwick, across the McPherson Range and come down into Rathdowney on the north coast line into the Brisbane. Not all people agree with me, nor does Mr Compton himself. I think Warwick already has the makings of a hub with transport companies like Wickhams and Frasers already located there and Woolworths having one of their major distribution centres there. Also, it would be a less expensive way of getting the link made between Melbourne and Brisbane. That is not to say that Toowoomba should not be included—it should. I think the existing narrow-gauge line from Warwick to Toowoomba should be upgraded so that Toowoomba would be integrated into this service. The important thing, however, is to get the thing done and to get the benefit of a Melbourne-to-Brisbane freight corridor completed with terminals organised at both ends so that we can achieve this 24-hour turnaround.

I would like to put that back on the agenda. I know times are tough for state and federal governments at present, but one of the things we lack in Australia at present is national vision. The Snowy Mountains scheme was an example of national vision with both sides of politics able to embrace this project. Australians would take pride in this inland rail as the start of a new rail network that opens up our country, with its vast resources and wealth, through the most productive corridor in Australia. It would change the whole economic direction of our country.