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Wednesday, 15 August 2012
Page: 8820


Mr BALDWIN (Paterson) (10:47): I rise today to speak on this important legislation, the Transport Safety Investigation Amendment Bill 2012. Rail safety in terms of passenger and freight movements attracts a high level of attention in my electorate of Paterson as well as for the residents of the Hunter as a whole. Exactly one century before Federation, in 1801, Governor King sent out an expedition to the region after facing food, fuel and material shortages at Sydney Cove. The expedition was headed by Lieutenant Colonel Paterson, after whom my electorate is named. He sailed 40 miles up the Hunter River and confirmed reports of coal resources urgently required by the Sydney Cove settlement. From then on convicts shouldered the heavy burdens of coalmining and the safety risks associated with its transport. Their legacy is the hard-earned reputation of today's Novocastrians and Hunter residents, people made of sterner stuff. After almost 100 years, the Australian Agricultural Company based in Newcastle opened the first railroad in any of our colonies by constructing the first of three gravitational railways to service pit coalmines.

Today the New South Wales government receives about $1.25 billion in mining royalties and coal accounts for over 95 per cent of this revenue. As Australia has grown, so has our dependence on this fuel. We are ever more reliant on trains to bring to bring the coal into Kooragang Island so that it can be shipped from the world's largest coal export port of Newcastle. Transporters access a range of risk variables in determining safe load limits and operating speeds. BHP Billiton, for example, holds the record for the largest minerals transport in one run. One train comprised 682 wagons, with a total length of 7.353 kilometres. The route for this delivery of 99,734 tonnes was the flat and straight 275-kilometre iron ore railway from Port Hedland in Western Australia.

It is not unusual to see heavy-laden coal trains traverse the Hunter Valley with carriages numbering 60 or more. The route network features variable gradients and snakes around the hills and valleys, farms and townships and intersects with our road network level crossings throughout the valley. Coal train drivers and controllers have further complicating factors to consider in addition to curves and gradients. Train length and loads on electrified railways, especially low-voltage 3,000 DC volts and 1,500 DC volts, are limited by traction power considerations.

Drawgear and couplings can be a limiting factor as can be crossing loop lengths. Freight trains with a total length of three or four times that average are possible with the advent of distributed power units—DPUs—or additional locomotive engines between or behind long chains of freight cars, referred to as a 'consist'. These DPUs enable much longer, heavier loads without the increased risks of derailing that stem from the stress of pulling very long chains of train cars around curves. Finally, the burgeoning demand for Australian coal from India and China exerts pressure to supply enormous volumes. All the while this is timed to match mine site extraction rates and shift times at collection and the efficiency of port operators loading cargo ships.

The transport safety investigation amendment is another logical step from the decision by the Council of Australian Governments to establish the Australian Rail Track Corporation as set in 1997 under the Howard government. The ARTC was set up both to help 'plug the gaps' in national rail infrastructure caused by a significant underfunding by individual state governments while ensuring there was a one-stop shop for all operators seeking access to the our nation's interstate network.

The natural corollary to this was to have a national authority responsible for rail safety on that network and in July 1999 the Australian Transport Safety Bureau was duly established. Modelled on the National Transportation Safety Board in the United States, the ATSB seeks to ensure that safety standards are constantly monitored and improved upon from thorough and detailed investigations into transport accidents and incidents, rail included. It also records and analyses safety data to foster general safety awareness. The cornerstone of the ATSB is that it is independent of transport regulators, policymakers and service providers. It works not by seeking to cast blame or by seeking to determine blame but by ensuring that lessons are learnt and world's best practice is followed and enhanced. However in relation to the ATSB, rail investigations were only conducted on the interstate network leaving different safety laws for the interstate ARTC-owned and leased corridors and for other intrastate networks, and there were similar situations in relation to maritime and heavy goods vehicle industries. In order to improve efficiency, COAG decided in 2009 to work towards national transport safety standards and to change the burden on businesses facing 23 often-disparate regulators with differing regulations. By consolidating these 23 regulators into three national ones, productivity benefits equivalent to $30 billion over 20 years are expected to be achieved.

This bill, when combined with the rail safety national law which was passed by the South Australian parliament in May 2012, will therefore be the culmination of these efforts and replace seven separate regulatory bodies and 46 pieces of legislation. It will see the ATSB becoming the national rail safety regulator from 1 January next year. This will mean that the ATSB, at the behest of state and territory ministers, will be able to investigate accidents and incidents on our various rail networks. Not only will this include our freight networks; but it will also include our urban railway rail lines whether they be the Newcastle or the Central Coast line, Melbourne's City Loop, more regional lines such as the Hunter line and Countrylink or, indeed, Trans WA's Australind services.

I also think the bill provides a flexible and more efficient model of federalism in our Commonwealth that could be adopted more widely. At its core the bill's provisions seek to build on the existing framework by giving states and territories the ability to pay for the investigations that their ministers have asked the ATSB to carry out within their jurisdictions or they can choose to use their own established investigators, which is the case in New South Wales and Victoria, and meet their own costs. The $11.2 million of Commonwealth funding should enable the ATSB to prepare for its larger role in national transportation safety.

This side of the House also welcomes the clarification in regards to confidential reporting encouraging cooperation from those involved in a safety investigation, allowing for disclosure without fear of reprisal. It is vital that fear of reprisal does not prevent our safety regulators from learning lessons that help prevent injuries and loss of lives going into the future.

Earlier in this speech I alluded to my home region of the Hunter and the importance of the coal industry. The coal industry brings undoubted prosperity to our region and the state of New South Wales, which receives about $1¼ billion in mining royalties, 95 per cent of which is accounted for by coal. Our coal companies are amongst the world's best and have been good corporate citizens. I particularly welcome the work they have done in dust suppression sites around mines and roads as part of their $15 million annual funding of the Australian Coal Association Research program.

All the rail wagons on their way from the Hunter Valley to the port of Newcastle pass through my electorate and there is growing community concern regarding air quality and the impact of coaldust emanating from these trains as they travel through, concerns that have been growing with each additional train hauling coal to Newcastle as the mining boom has picked up steam. The extent of this can be seen from the proposed fourth coal loading terminal, which would double the volume of coal being transported through my electorate, leading to an extra 80 train movements every day of the year.

It is a concern that I myself understand. I live near the railway line that runs from Maitland to Newcastle, and one only needs to take a look at the dust sitting on my roof or the roofs in my region to see there is a problem that needs to be addressed. Whilst I do not hold fears for the structural integrity of our family home, I do think about the potential health impacts on my community.

I have to acknowledge the efforts by the Newcastle Herald to bring this issue to public attention through their Great Cover Up campaign. Their campaign encourages Herald readers to sign a petition which calls for the introduction of mandatory coal wagon covers. This is not just an issue engendered by the local media. Community grassroots organisations have also been very active. There is an alliance of 14 Hunter community and environmental groups who have taken it upon themselves to conduct an independent study into the impact of coaldust on the region's air quality.

Bringing us to back the bill, it is the Australian Rail Track Corporation that is investigating the level of particulate matter generated by Hunter coal trains. I hope this work includes monitoring air quality along rail corridors and in surrounding suburbs, for this is every bit as important a safety issue as the investigations into derailments. Dr Peter Lewis, Area Director of Public Health for the Northern Sydney Central Coast, has indicated:

… any increased particulate exposure is associated with increased adverse health outcomes, even if the levels are below the current guidelines.

Therefore evidence of increased coaldust fallout on clothes, roofs and vehicles increases the prospects of greater inhalation by the public.

I think it irresponsible for any MP or senator without medical expertise in respiratory health to draw conclusions about the dose-response relationship between inhaled particulate matter and the level of associated risk for developing a lung infection, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or a cancer of some sort. I would also counsel any colleagues about jumping to conclusions about causes of dust, which we know from recent research will come from a variety of sources. I remind the Australian Greens in particular of the outgoing New South Wales Labor government's investigation of a cancer cluster in my region. When properly investigated, it was determined by the Population Health Division that the cases of ill health amongst this group of neighbours was coincidental.

Not long ago people similarly jumped the gun and blamed mining for high dust particulate readings in Toowoomba, only to learn other much more significant contributions were made by vehicle exhaust, ploughing, dry weather and winds. The federal coalition supports, therefore, the Prime Minister's process, and lends its encouragement to the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport in running a thorough investigation. We look forward to his tabling of the facts once they are properly investigated.

When the Prime Minister visited the Hunter last week she called for more scientific investigation of coaldust's impact on Hunter communities. This is aligned with the New South Wales government's establishment of the Upper Hunter Air Quality Monitoring Network. This dust monitoring system is managed by the New South Wales department of agriculture, funded by the minerals extractors in the region, and under the coordination of the New South Wales Minerals Council. Impacts of dust from open top coal carriages are being investigated by the ARTC in conjunction with the Environmental Protection Agency. It should be allowed to report and should not be pressured to cut corners in its work. It is in everyone's interest to resolve this issue.

The coal industry, other businesses and Hunter residents need to be able to live in harmony for everyone's benefit. So too do the people who live alongside or work on the rail tracks carrying the coal have the right to enjoy an air quality that does not exceed nationally acceptable levels of particulates. Although not related to coaldust from coal trains, it is particularly concerning that acceptable air quality standards may have already been exceeded in the Hunter at Stockton and Muswellbrook several times in the past 12 months.

I am encouraged, though, that there are solutions at hand, either through the covering of individual wagon covers or through the chemistry of agglomeration and binding dust particles through spray techniques. The solution needs to be effective, affordable and deliverable. If it is to be wagon covers, they should only require minimum additional infrastructure. If the chosen solution is a spray, it should be quick to apply.

I know of one Hunter company at Kooragang called Hammersley Products. It believes it has found an alternative solution. It has developed a product which, according to the NewcastleHerald:

agglomerates fine particulate matter and provides an elastic protection for the surface and top-layer areas of the coal.

Its strong wetting properties apparently maintain the de-dusting effect and inhibit the treated surfaces from drying out.

Whilst this amendment bill seeks to deliver a safer national transport framework by learning from past incidents and ensuring the provision of the world's best practice in terms of safety, I hope that an innovative solution will also be found, so that those who live near or work on the coal trains can also be reassured that they too are safe—safe from possible increased health risks, such as asthma, bronchitis and emphysema, that may be caused by exposure to coal dust alongside other risk factors. In tandem with this, there should be continued health studies to ensure that the cause of adverse health effects are determined by evidence based science and not erroneously attributed to exposure to coalmining or coal-fired power generation activities. I accept that further investigation is necessary to determine the impact of pollutant exposures. Therefore, I look forward to reading the report from the New South Wales Environment Protection Agency, due at the end of this month, to further my understanding of this issue. I commend the bill to the house.