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Thursday, 26 February 1987
Page: 776

Mr TIM FISCHER(11.55) —I would like to add a new dimension to this wide-ranging debate on the Australian National Railways Commission Amendment Bill. I indicate my support for the Bill. Before considering it I would like to refer to the comments of the honourable member for Throsby (Mr Hollis), who suggested that the Federal Cabinet should take to travelling by train for a future Cabinet meeting by using the Australian National Railways Commission business car. I have only one fear about that: In the same way that the Federal Cabinet is derailing this economy, the danger exists that it would end up derailing the train to which the Cabinet business car is attached. So there is some risk. Nevertheless, there is some merit in the proposal advanced by the honourable member for Throsby that a future meeting of Federal Cabinet should be conducted on an Australian National train in this special business car.

I also join him in supporting the concept of greater tourist promotion-especially for international visitors to one of the key gateway points, Sydney-using the magnificent escarpment line to the south of Sydney down to Wollongong, back up to the tablelands and then back into Sydney via Campbelltown by operating some form of escarpment tourist XPT on the weekends. That line is under-utilised. It goes past some of the truly magnificent vistas that are in close proximity to Sydney and which are accessible only by rail. It is a round route, so people would not have to travel on the same route twice in one day. The trip would be of about four to five hours in duration, which would be almost perfect timing for such a venture. Yet the State Rail Authority continues to drag its heels on this matter, despite the efforts of the honourable member for Throsby and others.

Turning to the honourable member for Ballarat (Mr Mildren), his comments, particularly at the end, injected a much-needed note of reality as we look at the future of rail. He referred to the Royal Commission on Grain Storage, Handling and Transport. I highlight to the House that that Commission has decided to take its meetings on to rail-the Royal Commission on Wheels-because it travelled by special Commissioner's train from Sydney to Junee, the Rock and Boree Creek in January. I happened to hear about this, almost accidentally, the day before and thought that it was very secretive of the Commission that its members proposed to travel down one of the controversial branch lines under review without notifying the wheat growers and other local people, giving them an opportunity to meet informally with the members and staff of the Royal Commission on Grain Storage, Handling and Transport under Commissioner Jim McColl.

I moved very quickly and was able to get on radio early in the morning and notify all my wheat growers that this special Commissioner's train was coming through later that morning and suggested that they might like to meet its occupants informally. I sent a message to those on the train once I found out the train's exact times of arrival. I do not know whether members of the Commission were overly impressed by my initiative in this regard but we mounted one of the most successful ambushes of a special Commissioner's train that has ever been mounted in the Riverina. I am pleased to say that large numbers of wheat growers met the train at the Rock, further down at Lockhart and finally at Boree Creek. There were two reasons. The wheat growers were genuinely interested in discussing informally with the Royal Commission on Grain Storage, Handling and Transport the branch line situation, the so-called option 3 of the State Rail Authority, and the costs for wheat growers of grain handling and the like.

The other thing was that it was the first time that any carriages of the Southern Aurora had ventured down this very delicate branch line. It was billed to some extent as perhaps the last ever passenger train to go down that branch line, which is mainly a wheat-only branch line-so interest was attracted in that regard. I thank the Royal Commission for going along with the exercise and for offering information and liaison to the wheat growers who turned up to meet that important special Commissioner's train.

Reverting to the Bill before the House in a fundamental way, I would like to say that not only do I support the Bill but I also recognise the need for Australian National and all railways to become more commercially oriented and more viable, especially in these tough economic times. Undoubtedly we almost have a situation of two economies existing side by side-one more related to the capital cities, which are enjoying boom conditions in some respects; and one in the rural sector of the economy, where there is a great deal of economic agony at present. That economic agony is partly tied up with the railway infrastructure of the country, and the costs associated with moving grain and the like by rail. Yet in making that comment I want to say to the House that I fundamentally believe in the future of railways as a mode of transport in Australia, as long as they are modernised and commercial viable, and as long as work practices, which have dinted the commercial viability of railways for far too long, are dealt with solidly and savagely by governments at State and Federal level. It is a matter of proven record that so many of these State railway systems have work practices and employment levels far in excess of what would be required using modern equipment and productivity procedures.

It should nevertheless be pointed out that railways, when properly operated, still have a fundamental advantage over road transport. I guess it all revolves around the statistic that a steel wheel on a steel rail produces one-seventh of the friction of a rubber-tyred wheel on a bitumen surface. So there is one-seventh of the friction, or thereabouts, using rail as against road. Therein lies the great strength of economy of movement of bulk grain, and bulk commodities of all types, and large numbers of passengers-in that one particular statistic. As we look to the future we must also look to the next generation of rail transport and, to some extent, this legislation before the House does point to the future in its provision of an entertainment car on the Australian National passenger trains, initially on the Ghan.

The Sydney-Melbourne transport corridor is undoubtedly the most important corridor in Australia. Other members may disagree but, in terms of actual population at each end, potential for freight movement and the like, and the fact that our national capital is also in the same transport corridor, I think it is a fair comment that the Sydney-Melbourne transport corridor is not only the most important but also, to some extent, the most congested. Yet, in the search for a solution for the future of transport links between Sydney and Melbourne, an exciting, dynamic new proposal is offering which would do much not only to boost rail transport between Sydney and Melbourne-with or without entertainment cars-but also to ease the pressure on this Minister for Transport in respect of the Mascot airport congestion and the very complex issue associated with the second airport for Sydney.

Of course, I refer, quite properly in the context of this debate, to the very fast train, or VFT, proposal for the route between Sydney and Melbourne which Dr Paul Wild, formerly of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, and a consortium are developing and to which a number of companies including TNT Ltd have now committed a great deal of money in order that an initial feasibility study may be carried out and completed. Honourable members and those people listening might like to know that what is envisaged is a commercially viable, profitable operation of a very fast train on standard gauge overhead electrified line between Sydney and Melbourne, running through Sydney's Mascot airport-which would have a new underground station-Campbelltown, Goulburn, Canberra, to Cooma, then across the border to Orbost, Maffra, Warrugul and into Melbourne. Interestingly enough, this new route would be some 868 kilometres, some 92 kilometres shorter than the existing main line which runs from Sydney through Goulburn and Albury to Melbourne.

I have made representation to the VFT consortium to look also at a Sydney-Canberra-Albury-Melbourne route but I am advised that the geological features immediately to the west of Canberra make that an impossibility. So we have to revert to this Sydney-Canberra-Cooma-Gippsland-Melbourne route, saving nevertheless some 92 kilometres. What the VFT proposal offers is a three-hour rail service operating, possibly on the hour, from Sydney to Melbourne with one stop at Canberra. For other services there would be additional stops along the way. Its introduction would be patterned to a large extent on the TGV service operating in France, which operates on standard gauge and which is now operating at around 300 kilometres an hour. A newer generation of TGV will operate at around 350 kilometres an hour, and faster still. So it is a very realistic proposal being advanced by Dr Paul Wild and others; yet it is one that, to some extent, has fallen on deaf ears with the current Government, and that is very disappointing indeed. Not only would it provide a new dimension to the transport corridor between Sydney and Melbourne; it would also help to underpin the existing State rail system of New South Wales and, to a lesser extent, Victoria by facilitating connections, for example, at Goulburn and Campbelltown so that trains could cut over to the express system for the dedicated line running through Mascot airport and through the existing empty tunnels to the two vacant platforms which already exist underneath the current eastern suburbs railway platforms at Central station.

This is a realistic and reasonable proposal. I will not dwell at length on the matter other than to highlight once again to the House the need for the Government of the day to consider the VFT proposal, to co-operate in the more detailed feasibility study which is now to take place in respect of the Sydney-Canberra-Melbourne very fast train concept, and to realise the enormous economic benefit it would provide, along with resolution to the problems of Mascot by reducing the number of domestic flights which would be necessary on such short haul and very awkward routes as Sydney-Canberra and Sydney-Melbourne.

The legislation is quite narrow in its actual detailed application. In the provision of this entertainment car it represents a step in the right direction for Australian National. I join with other members in hoping that the railways at State and Federal level will do all they can to become further commercially oriented, to become more viable, to be less of a drain on the taxpayer, and yet, through boosting and modernising their infrastructure, to fulfil the vital role which is available to rail in the transport future of this nation.