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Thursday, 25 June 2009
Page: 7272

Mr NEVILLE (10:00 AM) —I think it would be fair to say—and my colleagues sometimes tease me about it—that I am a bit of a train freak. I think we in Australia have totally underestimated the capacity of rail to do all sorts of tasks, whether it be carrying freight, whether it be modern passenger services, whether it be bulk commodities being hauled to port. In the last parliament I chaired an inquiry into Australia’s arterial road and rail systems and their connectivity to the ports. So I take this matter seriously.

It is true that if we could vastly improve both the capacity and the speed of rail we could make a huge indent in the amount of traffic on our roads. It is not an easy task and no-one should pretend that it is. On the other hand, we have figures that show the volume of freight traffic on Australian roads is going to double in the next 20 years and we already know the problems throughout Australia because of that. The report I just referred to talked about how almost every port in Australia has some form of connectivity deficiency, and in many instances that is rail. The fact that the government, in its recent major infrastructure packages, has spent a lot of money in the Hunter Valley is proof positive that rail really has to be upgraded.

I am disappointed both with my own side of politics and with the government’s recent infrastructure outlays in that we are not doing more about inland rail from Melbourne to Brisbane. That would make a huge impact, not only on national efficiency but also on national safety in the number of trucks it would remove from roads into hubbing systems, which would be far less dangerous and far less onerous on the surface of our roads. We all know that roads crumble very easily if they are not maintained all the time. So I am a strong believer in that.

What goes hand in hand with an improved rail system is technology. For many years now—and I understand it has now been corrected—we have had the old, virtually 19th century, regulations between Brisbane and the New South Wales border on the standard gauge line, where the drivers or firemen would have to get out of the cab of the train and put the passing key into the device. It is 19th century technology and it was still being used until comparatively recent times on one of Australia’s busiest rail systems. We have to get beyond that.

Also, we have got to recognise that trains are moving faster. The tilt train that is now operating in Queensland can travel at up to 160 kilometres an hour, and it does on some stretches. In fact, during the trials of the tilt train, a fully laden train, over a measured kilometre, at a place called Avondale, north of Bundaberg, was clocked at 211 kilometres an hour. That it is not European standard, but it is certainly much faster than anything we have ever seen in Australia. So I come back to my problem. The technologies that have to go with that must be at the same level. ‘Technologies’ can mean all sorts of things. It can mean an integrated IT system of train identification and the working of points and passing lanes and the like being controlled at central locations on an electronic basis.

The other thing that you have to look at if you have trains going a lot faster—and we have a lot of long trains now too, particularly coal trains and iron ore trains—is that level crossings have to be at a technological level that copes with those changes. Quite frankly, now they do not. The number of accidents that are occurring across Australia at level crossings is quite horrendous. We saw the recent case in Victoria. I am not for a moment disagreeing with the court or trying to apportion blame to any individual; I am just talking generically. You really have to ask yourself: if the level crossing identification had been better, might that accident not have occurred?

Our committee, the Standing Committee on Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government, decided to upgrade an earlier report by the corresponding transport committee in a previous parliament: the 2004 report about level crossings. I mentioned in my earlier speech on this matter that this was brought about by the heart-rending case of the mothers Merrilea Broad and Karen Morrissey, who appeared before us in 2004, having lost their children at a level crossing in Western Australia. It was a horrendous story. It possessed the committee to pull the level crossing component out of a road safety study and make it a separate study. We went to lots of level crossings and looked at technology and made a lot of recommendations. Some have been implemented—particularly by the Victorian government, I might add—and others have not.

In this report, we went over the areas that we have not dealt with for four years and had a look at what had happened. We travelled to Victoria, where we saw some very innovative work going on, particularly with rumble strips at level crossings. There are various forms of rumble strips, and I must say the Victorian ones are very impressive. You have a raised lump of bitumen, not to the extent of a speed bump but to the extent of a small mould. By setting those at a required distance, you can get a vibrating effect in the vehicle without causing it to run off the road or do anything like that. Inside the cabin—I know these sounds of mine might cause some trouble to Hansard—it creates a ‘bumpety, bumpety, bumpety’ effect. As you come to a level crossing, you are alerted to the fact that there is something ahead on the road.

That similar technology is used in Queensland at T-junction roads coming into major highways. So, if you are turning into the Bruce Highway or the Pacific Highway, you will have that bumpety effect as you enter the intersection. You do not just come swinging into the intersection, thinking that it is perhaps another passive road like the one you have just come off. We can all do it—it is just a bit of inner tension, or because you do not realise you are coming into a stream of very fast traffic on a major highway, and you can very easily be lulled into a false sense of security. That happened to me just recently at a major intersection in my electorate. I did not realise I was right on top of the stop sign and, before I realised it, I was through it. So it is important that we have additional signals at these places.

The rumble strip is one way of bringing level crossings to the attention of drivers, and I commend the Victorian government and think they should continue to pursue that—they did not want to have photographs in the report because they said that they are still working on it. I think it is worth commending the Victorian government and saying that all states should have a really good look at it. There are two types of rumble strips, and one is a mechanical one that comes out of the ground. Obviously, that is going to be much more expensive. You really have to work out whether you might be better with boom gates. That is another variation of it.

Intelligent transport systems are also important. Two suggestions came before the committee, both of which I think are worth pursuing. One of them involved putting a special audio signal into GPS devices. I do not know if honourable members in the chamber have got those GPS devices in their cars, but if you have you will know that, as you get a couple of hundred metres from a school, you will get an audible signal coming through your GPS device. The suggestion is that, as drivers come up on level crossings, a similar audible device might alert them to that circumstance. Another one is to have the alert come through the radio system of cars and trucks, by having a permanent loop near level crossings. Those things were not possible 10 or 15 years ago; they are possible today. You have to weigh up the cost and technological difficulties against the possible outcomes.

Another thing we found in this report was that there is very little uniformity of data between the states. If you want to seriously look at these things, you have to have uniform data, because that way you can have uniform solutions—and, more importantly, solutions that people recognise as they drive from state to state. I find that quite commendable, as well.

Another thing we recommended was that, on major highways, there be an 80km/h limit as you come up on a level crossing. To some, that might sound a bit excessive—I think not; we do have those things at schools. We drop the speed 20km/h in most states as you come up to a school during school hours. Why would you not do something similar at level crossings?

I also want to talk about driver behaviour. When you look at the figures, the same sorts of things apply: inattention, weather conditions, alcohol—they all affect people’s behaviour at level crossings, as they do on the road in general. The idea—and I saw this in Gladstone, which at the time was in my electorate—of trucks using a z-pattern to go through boom gates is, to my way of thinking, just madness. A $6 million bridge was built in Gladstone which, although it is used for other purposes and has a long-term arterial aspect to it, covers three level crossings. One of the reasons for eliminating those level crossings was people playing Russian roulette with the boom gates. I think that there should be a mandatory suspension of licence for anyone who drives a vehicle through boom gates after they have come down. People should just lose their licence automatically for three months. If they cannot learn the sensible way, they have to learn the harsh way. I am normally not draconian about road rules and those sorts of things, but having people put lives at risk, including mothers with kids in bassinettes in cars, is just not acceptable. I commend this very good report. (Time expired)

Debate (on motion by Mr Bradbury) adjourned.