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Thursday, 17 November 1938


Mr PATERSON (GIPPSLAND, VICTORIA) - I present the following report of the sub-committee on the standardization of railway gauges: -

In view of the progress which has been made in road and air transport, this committee considers that, before any decision is arrived at with respect to standardization of railway gauges, a further inquiry by a competent body should be made, having special reference to the economic and defenceaspects.

Report adopted.

The latest reply given on the matter by the Prime Minister is that it is to be the subject of consideration at a conference on transport matters early in the new year. This Parliament after approving of an expenditure of £43,000,000 in the next three years is now being asked to commit itself to further heavy expenditure on defence, and the public mind is being prepared with suitable propaganda based on fears the veal cause of which, if any, has been kept from the knowledge of the elected representatives of the people. I know nothing of what the real cause is for the expenditure of this additional money on defence, but if it is necessary because an attack on our territory is feared, some thing practical should be done to enable us to move troops with facility to points of danger. Not one word has been said by the Government so far on the question of standardizing the gauges, either out of the £43,000,000 for 'the three-year programme o'r the special vote which is to supplement it. The Prime Minister at the opening of the connexion link of 56 miles, between Port Pirie and Port Augusta said: -

The new route was constructed as a result of the joint efforts of the State and Federal Governments and indicated that when the interests of Australia as a whole were involved, governments could act unitedly for the common good.

The Prime Minister's election speech presented the Government's policy for the interests of Australia as a whole. It included the standardization of gauges and the Government demonstrated its capacity to handle the job, a major one at that, involving 6,450 miles of railway, by completing in four years 566 miles of line, at the rate of 14 miles a year. What an effort! At that rate of progress it would take 460 years to complete the job. Yet that is all this Government is capable of doing.

I must confess that when I listened to the Prime Minister who had just returned from his triumphal overseas visit, speak so enthusiastically of the Government's gratification, and indicate its hopes for the future, and when I heard at the banquet provided that night at Port Pirie the carefully prepared speeches which were delivered by the then Postmaster-General (Senator A. J. McLachlan) and the then Minister for the Interior (Mr. Paterson), although driven to calculation of figures as to the rate of progress since the royal commission had made its report, I, too, felt a spark of hope that a rejuvenated Prime Minister was at last about to get his Government into action. My hope, like that of many others who listened, was dashed to smithereens on the altar of the Government's irresolution, incapacity and reliance on conferences.

On the 22nd October, 1937, I asked the Prime Minister whether -

In view of the heavy increase of expenditure upon defence and us no definite steps have yet been taken to put into operation any part of tlie Government's policy concerning the standardization of railway gauges, will the Prime Minister state whether the Government will consider the appointment of a non-party parliamentary committee to examine and report upon defence expenditure including the possible effect upon defence of the standardization of railway gauges?

The Prime Minister replied -

The matter will receive the consideration of the Government.

That is the end of it. It has been forgotten ever since.

The honorable member for Flinders and others have since that time commented on the need for examination of expenditure on defence by a parliamentary committee. It will probably be under consideration when the Government finally falls to pieces ; signs of its disintegration were very apparent recently and are obvious now. "Under consideration," or "on the agenda for discussion by a conference," or " the matter will be inquired into " are the refuges in which the Government shelters itself when confronted with the need for going into action. It spends the intervening periods in devising ways and means of reconciling the divergent views of its polyglot components sufficiently to enable it to carry on the policy of shutting up Parliament while its leaders make overseas visits and return with some new display of showy propaganda which will divert attention from its otherwise conspicuous failures.

Although the matter is one which, until recently, received only occasional publicity in the daily press - with the exception of the Melbourne Age, which has ably and consistently -advocated it over a period of years - the press is now almost unanimous in advocating that this work should be commenced without further delay. If time permitted, I would quote from many recent articles, but as it does not, I shall make only a few quotations. As far back as 1924, the then Prime Minister of the same sort of government as that which now exists, Mr. Bruce, speaking at Lithgow on the subject of a standardized railway gauge throughout Australia, declared that the problem would have to be faced some time. He must have had in mind a governmentcomposed of members of the United Australia party, whose chief characteristic is that they face urgent matters at some time in the dim and distant future. He went on to say that "Its solution depended upon the vision displayed by the people; if they dallied, then the burden would be heavier." The Melbourne Age made the following statement in a leading article : -

It is obvious that a uniform trunk line would be of incalculable value in time of national emergency. It should be ranked as an absolute necessity. ... A uniform gauge is a sound productive investment in peace, an imperative need to full efficiency in war.

On the 15th October last, the Age published the following comment: -

In view of the great practical value oi unification to Australia, it is not unreasonable to suggest that half the cost be met by the Commonwealth, which would leave £1.500,000 a year divided between the live mainland States. From a defence point of view the value of the railway network cannot he overemphasized. The main highways have not been built to carry heavy military loads, and even now require continual maintenance. lu the last six years Victoria has spent in unemployed relief works sufficient money to have converted the gauges in Australia to the standard of 4 ft. 84 in.

On Uie 18th October last, the Argus published the following: -

One outstanding problem that has not been faced - probably because it seems formidable

What a commentary on the Government - that it cannot face anything because it seems formidable! The quotation proceeds - is the problem nf transport. It must be faced. Courageous nien must be found to face it.

I doubt whether mcn of courage to implement national policy are to 'be found in the ranks of the Government. The quotation concludes -

And in view of the time the completion of thu practical work will occupy, it- must be laced now. . . . Our great highways are magnificent for thu motorist; with caterpillar traction, necessary for the transport of heavy military material, they "would be crushed to pulp and powder within a few weeks. Only on sited rails laid upon substantial foundations could these great burdens be carried. The railways must be used for that purpose. They cannot bc used as they are to-day, because many are single-track for long distances. TI 10 incidental advantages of embarking upon the undertaking now include the absorption of the unemployed, the provision of work for newcomers (assuming that the policy of encouraging immigration is to bc put into immediate operation) and the stimulus which it would give to general development. The direct effect of developmental works upon our ability to defend Australia should not be overlooked. For these reasons, this great enterprise is desirable; for effectual defence, it is necessary.

These are people who have been giving the matter consideration over a long period of years. They now realize that if the Government undertakes further expenditure without tackling this great work, it will not be facing up to the situation. The Melbourne Herald^ on the 29th October last, published the following: -

The unsuitability of- existing roads for military traffic is one of the aspects for serious review. Bridges a'nd culverts have been constructed for light traffic and road formations are unsuitable for continuous streams of heavily-laden vehicles. The problem of moving the normal traffic diverted from the sea tn the land intensified by the heavy demands of wartime would fall on the railways. These have been designed to carry freight within the States to the capital cities, but not for the conveyance of large volumes of traffic across the borders. . . ." The need for the unification has been stressed by the highest railway authorities in Great Britain recently.

I realize that the time available to me to make these quotations is limited; but I think that I ought to quote some recent remarks of Lord Craigmyle, chairman of the Peninsula and Oriental shipping group, and also a director of the Bank of England. He stated -

If you could only have a uniform gauge, say of 4 feet 84 inches throughout the continent I am sure it would be a great help to commerce in Australia. At first, of course, it would be to the disadvantage of shipping, but I think that in the long run it would be in the interests of shipping companies trading to Australia, because the prosperity of shipping to Australia depends on the prosperity of Australia. No doubt the provision of a uniform gauge would cost millions of pounds, but I can think of no better investment. Nothing is so calculated to hold up the progress of Australian industry as the continuation of the present system of varied gauges. I am looking forward to having a talk on the subject with Lord Stamp, who is at present in Australia and is one of my colleagues on the Board of the Bank of England.

There are other quotations which time will not permit me to make. They all go to show that the newspapers have now reached the stage of being practically unanimous in their approval of the scheme. The Government, by sitting with its head buried in the sand and refusing to tackle this problem, while asking this Parliament to vote millions of pounds for other works, is doing rank injustice to the whole of the people of Australia. [Leave to continue given.'] I thank honorable members for giving me the opportunity to discuss the matter further and to quote the following from another article published in the Argus of a recent date, headed " The Nation's Need "-

It goes without saying that the most useful first step in such an expansion is to undertake public works of a character that will facilitate national defence, such as the unification of railway gauges. To embark on such projects requires a far-sighted and courageous financial policy - a policy of casting bread upon the waters in the confidence that it will return after many days. Many big problems are interwoven in the one transcendant problem of making Australia safe from external aggression.' For their solution they call for big men with big ideas.

The Melbourne Herald on the 10th November last published the following contribution by a political correspondent, presumably from Canberra -

That old political plaything, standardization of at least Interstate railway gauges, should be given a swift and final survey. It should then be decided upon and carried through. The fullest employment of our workers must all through be a first principle. Indeed the whole defensive project would almost justify itself if it got rid of the very wasteful and expensive fag-end of relief work upon hole and corner shows, which as a rule contribute neither to defence nor to anything else. lt concluded with the following: -

The latest administration has not had an auspicious opening. But it is not yet doomed. If it will boldly and spaciously lead, the Parliamentary parties and Australia as a whole will gladly follow.

The Argus on the 11th November last published the following: -

The seeming inability of federal Ministers to see the relation of developmental works to defence preparations is very disconcerting. It does not appear that any serious consideration has been given to the question of railway gauges.

That is how the matter strikes everybody. The Government promises, but does not appear even to give consideration to the fulfilment of its promise. It boasts of its accomplishment in connexion with the Port Pirie to Port Augusta section. If that rate of progress be continued in relation to the balance of the standardization project the work will not be completed before we are all mummies. Honorable members who sit behind the Government do not attempt to stir it to action in matters which they know ought to be tackled. I continue the quotation -

Yet the relation of rail transport to military measures is close and obvious. Mobility is not in the motto of the Ministry. To make railway communication efficient and rapid is a real military measure, and one of the highest importance. The bitumen-surfaced high-' ways would break like pie crust beneath the loads of military material which it would be necessary to move from point to point if we were at war. Such changes in the railway system should be undertaken at the earliest moment. If the altered system never carries a gun, the work will remain as something permanently useful - a national asset, as Mr. Dunstan would call it.

The honorable member for Barton (Mr. Lane), by interjection, has referred to New South "Wales. That State's share of the work has already been done. Apparently there are people in New South Wales who do not wish the whole project to be completed, and put forward new schemes involving millions of pounds which have no relation to the accepted scheme. I venture to affirm that New South Wales would derive considerable benefit from the prosecution of the balance of the work on the original plan. In it are situated the steel works, which would produce such things as axles, points, crossings, rails, girders and other materials required. Queensland and Tasmania would benefit, because they would assist in supplying the necessary timber. In any case, there is an obligation on the people of New South Wales to see that other States obtain their share of the work, particularly as national security is involved. The Government appears to be able to stand up, or lay down, to a good deal of deadly criticism, and yet continue on its sleepy and inefficient way. At no time previously has there been such unanimity as there is now amongst the leading newspapers of Australia in regard to the urgent need to proceed with this work. Public opinion has at last been aroused in such a way that the Government's hesitancy and incapacity stand out in bold relief. Nothing but a bold, even if a belated, effort will convince the country that the Government has either the will or the constructive energy needed to handle the project. In to-day's Canberra Times appears a report which should make clear the position which the railways occupy in relation to interstate traffic. Sir Ragnar Colvin, First Naval Member, is reported as having said that, for every 1 ton of produce carried on the railways, 16 tons are carried on ships between Australian ports. While the breaks of gauge continue to exist, this state of affairs will operate, to the great advantage of the wealthy private shipping companies, and to the disadvantage of the Government-owned railway systems. The financial groups exert considerable influence, and it is apparent, that their interests have been utilized with a view to preventing the consummation of the scheme to the point where it could be seen that Australia is almost disastrously situated should it be called upon to transport troops for defence . purposes. I repeat and emphasize that although the New South

Wales and Queensland portions of the scheme recommended by the royal commission have been completed, both of those States would benefit from the further prosecution of the scheme, particularly New South Wales, because of the fact that the iron and steel industry is situated within its boundaries. Employment would be stimulated from one end of the Commonwealth to the other, and we should not have to ask for Christmas grants for -the unemployed from a government which is unable to visualize and undertake a big project. The issuing of new money would not be necessary. More than sufficient has been expended in each period of seven years since the royal commission presented its report, to cover the cost of the scheme. In the last seven years, no less than £30,000,000 was expended on the railways of Australia, in connexion with rolling-stock and other requirements. The scheme could have been completed for less than that.


Mr Lane - What States have incurred that expenditure?


Mr DRAKEFORD - The States as a whole I shall take an opportunity during the budget debate to give full particulars to the honorable member, who apparently needs stimulating, because he knows nothing about the subject.

I conclude by saying that honorable members have the opportunity in this debate to express their views regarding the need for proceeding with a generally accepted plan, and of urging this jaded custodian of the people's authority into some semblance of activity. I trust that, although the Standing Orders prescribe a time limit for the debate, private members will regard the subject as of such importance as to warrant an extension of the time, so that expression may he given to the feelings of both Government and Opposition members on a matter which cannot longer be neglected with safety, and which is of paramount importance to the citizens of Australia.

I draw attention to the absence from the chamber of Ministers 'and ministerial members. If we were debating a proposition from which they might derive an advantage they would be in attendance as they were yesterday during the discussion on the Ministers of State Bill, but as the matter is one concerning the benefit of the people they are absent from their places in this House. They know that the charges I am making cannot be satisfactorily answered. They realize quite well that they have neglected to fulfil the promise made to the people, and they prefer to Leave one Minister to carry on the debate. No matter is of greater public importance, and nothing would be of more benefit to the nation at the present time than the standardization of the railway gauges. No doubt ministerial members are in their party-room trying to patch up the ever-growing differences that exist in their ranks. I trust that they will indicate to the Government that it must proceed with this work, which is useful in peace time as well as for defence. The result could not fail to be of real advantage to the whole of the people of Australia.

KIt. McEWEN (Indi- Minister for the Interior) [3.35]. - The subject brought under our notice by the honorable member for Maribyrnong (Mr. Drakeford) is of the highest national importance, and his decision to discuss it would have obtained the almost entirely unanimous approval of the House had he not seen fit, unfortunately, to reduce the issues involved to the level of the most paltry party politics. In doing so, the honorable gentleman did a great disservice to the cause he has espoused. However, ] do not propose to take my cue from him. I shall endeavour to discuss the subject apart altogether from party political controversy, and perhaps my best course would be to recount the history of it.

The standardization of the railway gauges of Australia has been considered by practically every Commonwealth Parliament for many years. After I have dealt with the historical background, I shall indicate what the Government proposes to do in the immediate future. Probably this will be the last opportunity that an honorable member will have to raise the issue as the honorable member for Maribyrnong has raised it this afternoon, for the Government intends to call a conference of Ministers of Transport of the various states early in the new year, and to submit to it various proposals, first and foremost of which will have relation to the. standardization of our railway gauges. As a matter of fact, the

Commonwealth Government has, on several occasions, attempted to secure an agreement with the State governments for action on this subject, but so far its efforts have not met with very great success.

The matter was first brought under definite notice at a conference of Commonwealth and State Ministers held at Melbourne in July, 1920. It may be said that this was the first occasion on which the standardization of our railway gauges came within the realm of practical politics. On that occasion it was resolved -

That this conference is of opinion that two experts from outside this country should be appointed, along with one Australian outside the railway services of the Commonwealth and the States, to consider and report upon the unification of thegauges, the question as to what gauge it is desirable to adopt, and the question of the cost of conversion.

The Commonwealth and the States agree to abide by the decision of this tribunal.

The Commonwealth to bear one-fifth of the total cost, and four-fifths to be borne by the five States concerned on a per capita basis.

The royal commission then envisaged was subsequently appointed. It made exhaustive inquiries, and recommended the 4-ft. 81/2-in. gauge as the standard gauge for the Australian railways. The scheme it submitted made provision for -

(a)   A 4-ft. 81/2-in. gauge railway from Fremantle to Kalgoorlie linking with the existing railway from Kalgoorlie to Port Augusta.

(b)   A 4-ft. 8-1/2-in. gauge railway from Port Augusta to Adelaide, via Bed Hill.

(c)   Conversion of the whole of the 5-ft. 3-in. gauge lines of South Australia and Victoria (including the conversion of the 3-ft.6-in. line between Terowie and Peterborough, in South Australia).

(d)   A 4-ft.81/2-in. gauge railway linking Sydney and South Brisbane, via Macksville, Kyogle and Richmond Gap.

These works were estimated to cost £21,600,000. The 4-ft. 81/2-in. gauge railway from Port Augusta to Port Pirie has since been constructed. At Port Pirie it joins the5-ft. 3-in. gauge railway to Adelaide. It may be noted, in passing, that the only two effective steps in connexion with this scheme have been taken by Commonwealth governments, and non-Labour governments at that. The Bruce-Page Government was responsible mainly for the construction of the 4-ft.81/2-in. gauge railway which links Sydney and South Brisbane; and the

Lyons Government was responsible for the building of the 4-ft.81/2-in. gauge railway from Port Augusta to Port Pirie. This work was done while my predecessor, the honorable member for Gippsland (Mr. Paterson), was in office. '


Mr Martens - Does the Minister say that the Commonwealth Government paid for the construction of the Kyogle to South Brisbane line?







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