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Wednesday, 9 October 1991
Page: 1506


Mr McARTHUR(10.40 a.m.) —-I would like to direct my remarks to the rail and road transport portfolios. In particular, I would like to say something about the National Freight Corporation which the Government intends to set up to improve interstate freight operations. This new arrangement is to begin in the second half of 1991-92. It is proposed that in three years it will control the whole interstate freight operation.

Those of us on this side of the chamber agree with this initiative. We live in the hope that the new Corporation will be a fully commercial operation. The briefings that I have received indicate that this can be done, that overseas best practice will be incorporated in terms of union and commercial control and in terms of the technical excellence that the Corporation may need to use in respect of rolling stock and some of the existing State rail authority equipment.

The Federal Government will make a capital investment of $295m over six years. The Federal Government, reluctantly I think, is going to put in $40m to start the Corporation. There has been some debate between the State rail authorities and the Federal Government. But I am pleased to say that a start is actually being made after some considerable delay. The States are going to contribute $118m over the six years. The estimated total contribution at this stage is $410m. This seems to be a fairly small investment to set up a freight operation through the rail network that might assist over the next 20 years.

The key point to be made is that, if the movement of freight through the rail system can reduce the heavy haulage traffic on the main highways by 50 per cent, a major contribution would be made to the maintenance and development of the national highway system. If the trend to bigger and heavier transports such as semitrailers and B-doubles continues, highways such as the Hume Highway will be overwhelmed by heavy traffic. The situation will almost be impossible if nothing has been done by the year 2000.

Everyone who has looked at the freight problems agrees that heavy goods should be carried by rail. The difficulty, of course, is that railways are inefficient in terms of their personnel and in terms of putting material on and taking it off again. The Australian wheat crop has always been a big contributor to the State railway systems. Minerals have also been a contributor.

Fertiliser has been a contributor to the Victorian rail system. In recent days it has been drawn to my attention that 8 per cent of fertiliser distributed by the Pivot company is carried by rail. The rail system in Victoria used to carry about 40 or 50 per cent of this product. This gives an indication of the inefficiencies in and the lack of cost effectiveness of the Victorian railway system. Of course, the incidence of featherbedding is well known. There has also been a lack of action by State governments to smarten up their railway systems.

I am pleased to say that in New South Wales there has been some attempt to rearrange the way in which the railway in that State should operate. The profit motive has been put into the system and the rolling stock has been upgraded. Also, non-profit stations and non-profit lines have been done away with.

In passing, I might say that the Australian National Railways, in which I have had some interest over the years, has done a good job. Australian National is seeking $59m as a supplement to revenue. We should bear in mind that Australian National took over the South Australian railway system and the Tasmania railway system. It has made every endeavour to run a sensible and efficient long haul freight operation between such places as Perth and Sydney. I think it is to be commended on the way in which it has approached its task.

I draw a comparison between Australian National and the estimated $4 billion of losses that are incurred by the State rail systems. I hope that something will be done to those State rail systems, which are a great drain not only on State revenues, but on the Federal purse which has to contribute revenues to those States which continue to run these quite dramatic losses in their State rail systems.

I note in passing my disappointment that the Very Fast Train project was disbanded in the last few months. I think it was a quite exciting project. Private sector money was being invested in an infrastructure project to improve the transport of people and goods around Australia. It was suggested in the feasibility studies that the train would move between the two major centres of population--this has been the case in France, America and around Europe--so, on my judgment, it was feasible. The Very Fast Train concept works well in Japan and Europe. Projects are now under construction in those centres of high population, whereas in Australia we disbanded it on the arguments of the Treasury. Whilst I am not familiar with the details of the argument, I think it is a great pity because for once the private sector was contributing, it was putting its money up front and was prepared to do something to make Australia more competitive and make it more effective in the longer term.

I turn now to the road funding argument and draw the attention of the House to the ongoing saga of Federal road funding. Whilst the Budget figures indicate some changes, in simple terms there has been no increase by the Federal Government to the Commonwealth contribution to road funding around Australia since it came to government in 1983.

The actual figure in 1990-91 was $1.469 billion. The Government has done a little trick in the new Budget statement by suggesting that the new figure will be $1.1 billion; but $323m will be allocated to the States in untied grants. I agree that this is a step in the right direction. Money is being given back to States where they can best spend it on roads. However, honourable members should be aware that this Federal Government has dramatically reduced its contribution to funding in the Australian road system in real terms. All it has really done is change the name from the Australian bicentennial roads development program to the Australian land transport development program; it has not given any more money.

I am pleased to note that the Premiers Conference in July 1991 agreed--along with the Commonwealth--that the Commonwealth's responsibility would be to national highways. I think this is a step in the right direction, taking some of the politics out of who pays for what and whose responsibility it is for particular roads. Hopefully, that is a step that will help in the longer term. The other interesting initiative by the Premiers Conference, with which I agree, is the interstate road transport charge where road users are charged for heavy vehicles--that is, to cover the cost that those heavy vehicles cause to the highways around Australia.

I have just returned from a parliamentary delegation to Europe. In reality, the 12 member nations of the European Community are doing their best to get a cooperative effort among themselves in terms of highways so that the 340 million people of Europe can move around that one entity on highways that are linking to one another and are of good quality. Let us take a lead from the Europeans in Australia and get some rational thinking about whose responsibility it is for what roads and the funding and construction techniques that we adopt in making better roads for Australia.

There needs to be some rationalisation in terms of national highways, what the main arterial road definition is, what local roads consist of and who is responsible for local road maintenance and construction. All honourable members would be aware of the ongoing arguments in their electorates about local government complaints that there is insufficient money from the Federal Govern- ment or from the State Government for local roads. It gets down to a definition of these particular roads and whose responsibility they might be. (Time expired)