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Minister says railways have been allowed to deteriorate to Third World standards; discusses the allocation of $250 million towards fixing existing rail networks.

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JOHN HIGHFIELD: The Federal Transport and Regional Development Minister, Mark Vaile, says Australian railways have been allowed to deteriorate to Third World standards.  He was agreeing with the assessment by a backbench transport committee which has found that at least $3 billion needs to be spent on our railways to stop them being lost forever.  But while the Federal Government has established a task force to advise on modernising the Australian system, the Howard Coalition has only earmarked $250 million for rail development.  Peter Rapp is discussing the discrepancy in the approach and the adequacy of the Government’s response with the Transport Minister.


MARK VAILE:  There are elements of that network that are substandard, that are very slow, that trains are travelling at much less than 80 kilometres an hour even, and those are the areas that we’ve got to strategically start to fix up.  As far as the rolling stock is concerned, I mean, that varies from one extreme to the other.


PETER RAPP: Mr Vaile, given the assessment that you agree with, the Third World assessment, is it realistic then to try to catch up, indeed, talk about several very fast train proposals, when road, air and sea, to varying extents, service the country now?


MARK VAILE: Well, they do service the country and the road transport industry services the land transport sector very well, but we do need to have integrated into that transport system an efficient rail network, and our focus is primarily on the interstate standard gauge network so that for the long haul, whether it be north-south or east-west, there is the opportunity to use, or the choice to be able to use, efficient rail systems.


PETER RAPP:  But are we getting ahead of ourselves talking about all these new lines, over thousands of kilometres and very fast trains as well.  I mean, is there the private capital around to drag the system out of Third World status, let alone build these new visionary lines?


MARK VAILE: Part of the exercise at the moment, the most heartening is the enthusiasm that’s been shown by the private sector to invest in rail transport infrastructure on a number different projects, but we are also, as a government, have allocated now, I know, and I publicly acknowledge, that it is not a lot of money in terms of what is needed, but we’ve allocated $250 million to start with, with the Australian Rail Track Corporation, in improving a lot of those impediments that are still on the existing standard gauge network.  We need that network as well as the proposals that are before us at the moment, in terms of some of the new lines that are proposed.


PETER RAPP: But doesn’t your committee essentially say that $3 billion is needed from State and private sources over a decade to stop the system going down the gurgler?


MARK VAILE: Well, what it says is to get to optimum capacity, that’s the view of the committee that it needs that sort of investment.  We believe, with a lesser amount of investment, we can leverage up both private sector investment and income from above-rail operators to reinvest in the track, to get that track up and going much more efficiently, and that will encourage more use of rail in Australia.


PETER RAPP: Just on your rail projects task force, if Australia’s railways have deteriorated to Third World standards, is it appropriate to appoint a former chairman of Australian National as chair of your new task force?  Presumably, he oversaw some of that deterioration.


MARK VAILE: It is absolutely correct to appoint Jack Smorgon as the chair of this task force because Jack Smorgon was the chair of AN when it went through that transitional stage, as we wound it down and privatised it, and he has an intricate understanding of the rail systems of Australia and what is needed to provide that service and integrate that into the transport network across Australia.


JOHN HIGHFIELD: The Federal Transport and Regional Development Minister, Mark Vaile, speaking to Peter Rapp in Brisbane.