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Wednesday, 28 June 2000
Page: 18556

Mr NEVILLE (11:37 AM) —What a pleasure to be surrounded by three of my colleagues, including your good self, Mr Deputy Speaker Hollis, in responding to the government's response to the reports Planning not patching and Tracking Australia. I will not speak about Planning not patching today. I think the more important topic before us is rail. Few things I have done in this parliament have excited my imagination so much and given me so much personal satisfaction as being associated with Tracking Australia. I am sure that you, Mr Deputy Speaker, from your service on the previous committee as well as the current one—including your time as deputy chairman of this very fine committee—would share those sentiments too.

It was very much a hands-on inquiry that we participated in. We went to see the track and saw what the problems were in order to gain a feeling for the very nature of what we were dealing with. As we look over the landscape of existing infrastructure, we cannot but be impressed at the extent and penetration of our rail system. But, sadly, it is being viewed in the negative by several states and federal governments. It has been seen as a necessary evil and sometimes as a tolerated relic of the past. Of course, none of these things is true. It is a massive resource, it is an underutilised asset and, quite frankly, it is a huge opportunity.

With the completion of the standard gauge links between the various capitals two decades ago, we sat back, believing that all the transport sins of pre-Federation had been solved and forgiven. That is a myth. This myth disguises the failings of the rail system on the one hand and its potential on the other. It is like bringing a veil down over the stage so that you cannot see any of the players. When my colleagues on the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Transport, Communications and Microeconomic Reform—now the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Communications, Transport and the Arts—started on this endeavour we could scarcely have envisaged the interest that Tracking Australia would generate. It attracted 147 submissions. We took evidence from 84 organisations, held 14 public hearings and carried out a number of inspections. They were very much hands-on type inspections.

The seminal findings of the committee revolved around the principle that there is a role for rail in the national transport system. If we could not have established that, the rest would have been an exercise in futility. Therefore, it followed from that that the Commonwealth has a national leadership responsibility role in relation to rail transport. It should declare the national track for interstate rail services in conjunction with the states and territories. It must address the chronic deficiencies in the national track infrastructure. It must, as a matter of urgency, invest in the national track. The sum of $250 million is welcomed by the committee, I am sure, but it is only a drop in the bucket.

The individual issue that the inquiry threw up was the need for an integrated national transport strategic plan. I am saddened that it has been rejected in the response because I do not think we can go on throwing money at a road problem here and a rail problem there and never look across the two of them to say, `What is the cost-benefit analysis, firstly, on the individual projects and, secondly, as they integrate?' It just seems a terrible waste. You can drive now from the Gold Coast to Brisbane and see eight lanes and know that, within a decade or so, that probably will not be enough. Yet the high speed suburban rail from Brisbane, which is very good, has been slowly creeping down the coast. I think it should have an injection of funds and go straight through to Murwillumbah. That is my view of it. You really have to make these assets work instead of pouring countless dollars—not millions, not tens of millions but literally hundreds of millions and billions of dollars—into the road system.

We need to look at national infrastructure standards and consistency in safety standards and practices. We need a one-off grant to standardise communications equipment and safety operations. These are fundamentals, yet we are overlooking them all the time. We need national training courses at approved educational centres, establishment of a national regulatory authority and national consistency in accreditation practices. We need a more focused look at part IIIA of the Trade Practices Act to create greater certainty, transparency and accountability. We do have the ARTC. Although the states are supposed to be cooperating through that, we found evidence during that inquiry that it was not exactly what was happening. We need access pricing that is transparent and accountable. We need an examination of public liability insurance—and this is very difficult for small niche operators like the ones in the Northern Rivers of New South Wales. What we are doing by not addressing that is squeezing out all the small niche players. Then we need the control and management of the national track. I mentioned in my earlier comments my disappointment that we were not going to have a national land transport commission.

As we went around Australia we found that there were many things that could be fixed and fixed properly. These included double-stacking through the Adelaide Hills and the upgrading of the track into Adelaide. A lot of this has already happened near the electorate of the member for Corangamite. It was a sad thing when we were on that inquiry to know that when we inspected the track in his area, the train from Adelaide to Melbourne travelled the distance in 13 hours when 60 years ago it also took 13 hours. You just cannot have that sort of thing and have an efficient system.

The whole thing, as I see it, really gets down to the track, and in the parlance of the industry, below track and above track. The committee was essentially interested in the below track operation, that is, the permanent way—the sleepers, the track, and the basic infrastructure that goes with that. It is the operation on which the thing runs. If you like, we were saying to the government, `We believe that the line from Brisbane to Perth, both through Broken Hill and Melbourne, should be treated like a national rail highway, and it should be of a standard commensurate with that.'

This is not just a pipedream or people throwing ideas around in a flurry of rail excitement. In Queensland, two Labor and two coalition governments have had a focus on upgrading the north coast line, and especially the section from Brisbane to Rockhampton. Ten years ago it took 14 hours for a train to go to Rockhampton from Brisbane, and now it takes seven hours. You can get a train from Bundaberg to Brisbane at 5 o'clock in the morning and it gets you into Brisbane at 9 o'clock, faster than you can drive your car. In my own electorate it takes me 2¼ hours to drive from Bundaberg to Gladstone. The train does it in 1½ hours. These are not pie in the sky concepts, they can be achieved.

I commend governments of both political colours in Queensland for their approach. They know you have to get the track right—the big eight-inch tracks, taking out all the crook curves, and being game enough to scrap metal bridges and put up modern concrete ones. And I might say that these concrete ones are built to standard gauge so that in years to come, when the track has to go to standard gauge, all the bridges are in place. It requires that sort of vision. That is what we have to have: a vision of rail in Australia.

It is going to require a leap of faith by government. For example, we said we should spend $250 million a year in getting the preliminary bugs out of the whole system and then $202 billion over 10 years. That is only $200 million a year. Look at what we spend on roads. It is unbelievable that governments of both political persuasions in this country cannot see past that veil that I spoke about before. It is interesting that Smorgon was fairly complimentary, but I thought the Productivity Commission lacked a bit of vision when it came to this particular issue.

We believe, too, that there has to be operational uniformity. You cannot have a system where you have got signals meaning different things in different states and different safety standards. At the time we were doing the inquiry there were 14 different radio systems running across Australia. That meant more than one system in some states. That has to be taken out of the system, that is just absolutely fundamental, and a one-off grant could have done that.

We tried to take a practical look at things. You do not have to have an inquiry every time you do something. For example, we said that in matters of safety we need first to have a rail safety regulator—this was a concern expressed by speakers—particularly in Sydney at present. But, broadly speaking, first we need to have such a safety regulator, and the states would probably need to surrender some authority to that. Then you need a rail accident investigation unit, quite separate from the regulator, as we have in aviation. The model is already there; it is just a matter of paralleling those procedures. That would make a huge difference. It would be an incentive to the state rail authorities to come up to a national standard knowing that if there were accidents they were going to be scrutinised to a very high degree.

Training is very important. We said that there should be a curriculum for train drivers. They should not just be seen as people in sooty overalls, which is the vision of other people. These are young, well-trained men who can be the young technocrats of today's society. I am not suggesting they all have to traipse off to university, but I am saying that you could have a number of designated TAFE colleges in Australia that were delivering a standard training system. If you get in a plane in Cairns, Fremantle or Hobart, you know the pilot has been trained to the one national standard. That is what it should be in rail. It is a nonsense to think that you have got to change drivers at borders. If we are going to have a national rail highway from Brisbane to Perth, then we need to make sure that the training is uniform.

There is a fair degree of unanimity between Tracking Australia and the Smorgon report. I found the Productivity Commission report a bit too hard-nosed and a bit impractical. You cannot solve all these problems simply by saying that private industry will solve it. We have a huge deficit that has to be made up. I am a great states righter where states rights need to be sandbagged—I will not have any intrusion of the Commonwealth into it. But I believe the national rail system, by its very name, invites the surrender of some authority from the states to the Commonwealth—not in their intrastate rail system, but purely in the interstate system, the national highway idea. It has been done for roads. The state road authorities quite often do the work for the Commonwealth; they are quite often the contractors for the Commonwealth. It could be just the same for rail. It does not mean the states have been cut out of it; it means they are becoming more integrated players.

The other thing that comes through very clearly is that Smorgon also had a vision for rail not unlike the one we had ourselves. I am accused sometimes of being a bit of a socialist—I know that offends my colleague the member for Corangamite—but my personal view is that the ARTC needs—

Mr NEVILLE —I would be a socialist to the extent that I would like to see the ARTC become either a total Commonwealth instrumentality or an instrumentality to the states where it had full and unbridled control. If it was privatised after it had done its preliminary work of getting the rail track in Australia into order, I would not be so upset. I do not think we are ever going to catch up unless the funding can be poured, in a focused way, into a national rail system. As I said before, that means getting out the curves, redoing the bridges, double stacking on the east-west corridor, extending the loops so the trains can pass—all those sorts of things. It is all a matter of efficiency.

Some of the items in this response I am disappointed with, some I am heartened with. I continue to call on government for a greater national vision for the Australian rail system. I commend our original report which we will follow up in the future. (Time expired).

Debate (on motion by Mr Sercombe) adjourned.

Main Committee adjourned at 11.53 a.m.