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Tuesday, 13 March 1973
Page: 531


Mr DRUMMOND (Forrest) - I would like to enlarge on some remarks I made last Tuesday night regarding railway sleepers. I am deeply concerned for this industry and so bring this matter to the notice of the House once again. The Australian timber sleeper industry is important to the livelihood and wellbeing of the whole community. It is a decentralised, labour intensive industry providing employment directly and indirectly for more than 1,500 Australians. Representations made on behalf of concrete interests in South Australia for the development of a new industry are understandable, but immediately at stake are some 300 jobs in the south west of Western Australia. The employment situation in Western Australia has been lagging behind the rest of the Commonwealth over the last couple of years. South Australia has an almost over-full employment situation. Loss of the market for Commonwealth Railway sleepers will cause great hardship and loss to many country workers in Western Australia who will have little option but to gravitate to the city in search of alternative employment for which they will have to be retrained.

The loss of this market will also cause long term hardship to the business community in the south west of the State and to a large number of persons residing in the Forrest electorate who rely on sawmill employment as a means of financially assisting their farming activities. It is understood that an analysis of figures quoted in the report of the Bureau of Transport Economics suggests that concrete sleeper manufacture would be necessary at Kalgoorlie for the major part of the transAustralia track requirements. This possibility plus the claimed reduction in maintenance personnel required would, I suggest, have an adverse effect on employment in the Port Pirie and Port Augusta areas. With exports overseas of railway construction timbers currently earning in excess of $3m per annum, it will be obvious that this important contribution to the country's export trade will be jeopardised by an Australian Government decision to use concrete in preference to timber in the nation's own principal railway system. It is very significant that a number of overseas countries purchased timber sleepers at prices in excess of locally manufactured concrete sleepers. As far as can be ascertained, all overseas countries utilise local hardwood resources for sleepers to the limit of availability. In this regard an in depth study by the United Nations Economic and Social Council has revealed that in 1972 there were 707.5 million sleepers in use in Europe - 75.7 per cent of wood, 15.4 per cent of concrete and 8.9 per cent of steel. If information from Russia, Bulgaria and Roumania were incorporated, the proportion of timber sleepers would rise to 82 per cent of the European total. In this connection it is pertinent to bring to mind that over 20 per cent of the total of Western Australian hardwood production is in railway sleepers.

In today's technological environment I believe there is no need for government sponsorship of new cement based products. These have already displaced timber in many uses, such as major buildings and bridges, where the economics of their use are clearly and demonstrably viable. It is therefore not in the national interest to allow timber to be displaced in an area where even using the most negative assumptions the economic justification for other material is purely marginal. I understand that the Commonwealth Railways in its cost-benefit analysis of the Port Augusta to Whyallaline 'guestimated' that the saving would be approximately 10 per cent taken over a 50-year period.

With the increased public interest in environmental considerations, it is pertinent to note that timber sleepers are produced from a naturally replenished source of organic material. The Western Australian forests are managed to provide a perpetual yield of raw material to industry while at the same time maintaining forest areas for water catchment, recreational pursuits and tourism. At the end of its useful life the timber sleeper faces ready sale for the construction of stockyards and the like. At the very worst they will rot away or be burnt.

By contrast, the concrete sleeper is produced from once only limestone and stone quarries which are usually responsible for undesirable scars on our natural features and environment. Further production is carried out in cement making and stone crushing by techniques which give rise to dust pollution. At the end of its useful life as a railway component, considerable problems of disposal will exist. That factor was not considered in the Bureau of Transport Economics report. The report stated:

No allowance was made in the evaluation for the disposal of old sleepers as the cost of disposal, or the possible resale value, is largely a matter of unpredictable local circumstances.

That may have reduced considerably the 10 per cent which was estimated earlier in the report. I understand that there are sound technical reasons for the continued use of timber, which are evidenced by the fact that the 4 iron ore consortia which are operating in the north of Western Australia, after evaluating timber and concrete, opted for the timber sleeper in their recently constructed tracks. This year they will carry 75 million tons gross compared with an estimated 5 million tons by Commonwealth Railways and 72 million tons by all other railways throughout Australia. Although solid arguments can be put forward to support the continued use of timber for sleepers, one wonders whether the Commonwealth Railways Commissioner has not decided already to use concrete sleepers. In his annual report 1971-72 the Commissioner stated:

From the point of view of long-term planning and future maintenance cost reduction, one of the most satisfactory aspects of the year just concluded was the progress achieved in the laying for the first time in Australia of a rail link on concrete sleepers, viz the Port Augusta-Whyalla Railway.

By continuing to specify timber sleepers for Commonwealth Railways maintenance work and new track construction the Government will assist positively in keeping a major decentralised Australian industry viable. Finally, I believe that the timber industry in all States provides basic stable employment leading to a confidence which allows the establishment of local economic business interests, community activities, development work programs and tourism, and provides an incentive to rural pursuits.

Question resolved in the affirmative.







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