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Thursday, 25 October 1956

Mr FOX (Henty) .- As a member of the Government parties' committee on the standardization of railway gauges, I wish to associate myself with the sentiments expressed by the honorable members for Stirling (Mr. Webb), Mackellar (Mr. Wentworth) and Hume (Mr. Anderson) on this very great problem. The honorable member for Stirling drew attention to the way in which costs have increased over the years since the report on the cost of rail gauge standardization was made in 1921. Reports on this subject date back prior to federation, when the whole job could have been done for approximately £2,000,000. But, due to procrastination and interstate jealousies, nothing has been done and various reports have been shelved. Never has there been complete agreement between the Commonwealth and the States on this matter. Even to-day, some people agree that standardization is desirable but they state that the time is not opportune. They argue that we should be endeavouring to reduce government expenditure at the present time.

I say that this argument has no basis in fact. In the view of these people, the time has never been opportune and it never will be opportune for the standardization of rail gauges. In the period since federation, we have had two world wars and a long and serious depression. In one way or another, the excuse has been made that the time is not opportune and that no money is available for this job. We of the Government parties' committee say it is not only desirable but it is necessary that the job of standardization be commenced without delay, on the score of both defence and economics. During World War II., as a member of the Royal Australian Air Force, I was stationed in various parts of Western Australia and on five occasions travelled between Melbourne and Perth. I know from personal experience the inconvenience suffered by troops due to the various breaks of gauge and the necessity to change trains at Melbourne, Port Pirie and Kalgoorlie. I believe that if the heads of the various defence departments could be assured that the work of standardization of gauges could be completed without cost to defence votes they would support the scheme to the utmost.

As a matter of economics, the members of the committee are convinced that standardization would pay for itself many times over because of the increased revenue which would flow from the greater use of railways, both by passengers and consignors of freight. We are of the opinion that the Commonwealth would be able to recover completely the cost of the work. A link between Brisbane and Perth would enable the various State governments to replace their out-of-date steam locomotives with diesel-electric locomotives, which require long hauls for economic operation and which are able to haul freight at a fraction of the present cost. This would result in greater business for the State railways which, in turn, would improve their financial position and, possibly, could even result in converting their huge annual deficits into surpluses. Since the Commonwealth continually is obliged to make special grants to help State governments balance their budgets and recoup losses on the rail systems, the Commonwealth budget would benefit accordingly. The members of the committee believe that standardization of the section between Wodonga and Melbourne, and of that between Broken Hill and Port Pirie, would each result in an immediate saving of more than £500,000 a year because of the additional freight that it would be possible to carry, and also because of reduced handling charges, particularly in respect of the section between Wodonga and Melbourne.

By the use of diesel-electric locomotives and the making of long hauls, the present heavy traffic on the Hume Highway could be reduced in volume, with a resulting reduction of the huge expenditure on road maintenance. In support of that contention, I point to the fact that, at the present time, road hauliers who travel between Adelaide and Perth make use of the railways on a pick-a-back system. Their vehicles are transported by rail from Port Pirie to Kalgoorlie and then transferred back to the road. In other words, it is cheaper for them to pay the freight on the goods and the vehicles for transportation by rail rather than to meet the cost of road transport between Port Pirie and Kalgoorlie. As the honorable member for Perth (Mr. Chaney) reminds me, that system also saves a great deal of time. The standardization of railway gauges does not present an insuperable problem. Both the United States of America and the United Kingdom had to face the problem, and both countries had a greater variety of gauges than we have in Australia. The solution of the problem demands a national outlook and a government with sufficient foresight to give effect to the recommendations contained in the report which the committee completed recently. I sincerely believe that this Government will do something about the matter. On the ground of common sense, and as a matter of pounds, shillings and pence, it cannot afford to do otherwise.

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