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Thursday, 26 February 1987
Page: 778

Mr BLANCHARD(12.08) —I rise to support the Australian National Railways Commission Amendment Bill. It is a Bill which deserves the unanimous support of this House, and it appears to be getting that-rather surprisingly in view of the present political climate. It is a further step in bringing the Australian National to a role of being a commercially viable business undertaking. I would like to join colleagues on my side of the House who have indicated praise for the Minister for Transport (Mr Peter Morris), who is at the table. He has won accolades from both sides of the House for his determination to make sure that the transport system-I refer to the whole transport system of the country-is brought up to the present day. There is no doubt that he has an enormous task to carry out his portfolio commitments, but he is doing it in an extremely capable way which has brought respect from both sides of the House.

I believe, obviously, that the Federal Government has a major role to play in improving the efficiency of railways in Australia's national transport system. We all know that parochialism in Australia years ago led to five separate railway systems, using three different gauges-5 feet 3 inches, 4 feet 8 1/2 inches and 3 feet 6 inches, using the old measurements. Over the years governments comprised of parties from both sides of the House have made attempts to overcome those problems by unifying and standardising the national rail network. We still have a long way to go. But over the years an attempt has been made to overcome the parochialism of the past.

The primary object of this amendment is to allow Australian National, consistent with its charter, to act commercially to improve the financial performance of its passenger operations. This can be done through improving the quality of service provided and being innovative in the selection of activities offered to passengers. In this way passenger traffic will be maintained and, the Government hopes, will eventually increase. On this point I note that, according to the 1985-86 annual report of the Australian National Railways Commission, patronage in 1985-86 increased over the figure for the previous year. The figure in 1984-85 for passenger journeys was 310,100, whilst in the last financial year it rose to 322,300-a healthy sign which arrests the decline in passenger journeys which has occurred in previous years. As a Western Australian, I note that the Indian Pacific and Trans Australian had increased patronage during that past year. Certainly, I would encourage those who are travelling west to take advantage of the facilities available on the east-west line.

I would like to reinforce the point made by the honourable member for Throsby (Mr Hollis) that a comparison of our national railway with overseas railways systems would be to our advantage. I, like the honourable member for Throsby, have travelled all over Europe with the aid of a Eurail pass. I have also travelled in Finland without a Eurail pass because it does not cover travel in that country. I can say, having travelled east-west on several occasions in this country, that our train services on main lines compare very well with those in Europe. I think that those who, like the honourable member for Throsby and I, have crossed the Nullarbor by train are well aware that it is one of the great train rides of the world.

The fact remains that passenger service operations are still a major contributor to Australian National's losses. They account for over one half of the mainland losses. It is in that context that I welcome the news that Australian National proposes to introduce an entertainment car on the Ghan to counter the expected increased competition from coaches, following the completion of the new national highway link to Alice Springs, the Stuart Highway. I trust-I am sure that it is the Minister's wish-that this will prove successful, as it could lead to this facility being extended to other services. I understand that an entertainment car is currently being fitted out at the Port Augusta workshops. I pay tribute to the staff at those workshops. I lived in Port Augusta 25 years ago. I got to know many of the men and women who worked in the workshops at that time. I have a sincere appreciation of the work that they do. I will refer later to the question of apprentice training.

The facilities on this entertainment car, as the honourable member for Ballarat (Mr Mildren) mentioned in his contribution, will include video and sound booths, with a library of tapes. There will also be video games for children. I think this is most important because many family groups, rather than individuals, travel by train. There will be tables for cards and board games, a hairdressing salon, a souvenir shop and a limited number of poker machines. I am not quite sure whether I am completely in favour of the latter, but it is a phenomenon that appears to be increasing its hold on our world. Australian National, though, has been assured that the South Australian and Northern Territory governments and their casino operators have no difficulties with the proposal.

As the honourable member for Ballarat stated in his speech in support of this Bill, when this Government came to office Australian National was in a poor financial state. In fact, its operating losses at that time were $106m. That deficit has now been reduced to $64.5m. This represents a fall of over 50 per cent in real terms since 1982-83. The introduction of the separation gratuity incentive scheme has allowed for a reduction of staff in Australian National. In 1985-86, 532 employees were retired under the scheme, which makes a total of 757 employees who have retired since the scheme began on 29 March 1985. In fact, during the last financial year direct Australian National employment fell by 672 to 8,127. This has allowed management to streamline operations. I note that over 300 employees have passed through the successful management development program which began in 1981. This program allows for specialised courses in industrial relations, financial management, problem solving and decision making.

I turn to the question of apprentice training. I am very pleased to note that the apprentice training syllabus has been upgraded. I remember that, 25 years ago, when I was living in Port Augusta, I was very disappointed with the syllabi offered to apprentices at that time. Notwithstanding what I have just said, many good tradesmen did emerge subsequently from the workshops. But it is interesting to note that last year Australian National apprentices won 11 medals at the South Australian Work Skills Australia contest, and two were chosen to enter the national competition. So I think the change in syllabi has been successful in regard to the performance and expertise of those apprentices.

All of these programs have been designed to make Australian National a more commercial and competitive organisation. Mr Deputy Speaker, up to now I have spoken mainly about the passenger scheme in relation to this Bill. I am sure you will be very pleased to know that I will now return to the Bill. I refer to the other provision of the Bill which will amend section 70 of the Act. This will allow boards of inquiry to have expanded powers to investigate the causes of accidents involving Australian National. Up to now these boards of inquiry have been able to look only into the circumstances of accidents. Now, as a result of this Bill, they will be able to look at the causes of accidents. The powers which are being introduced are consistent with provisions for accident inquiries under the air navigation regulations. I understand that two boards of inquiry which have been established under the Act have proven to be valuable in having an independent body examining the major accidents. It is considered that future inquiries would benefit by having wider powers to consider the broader causes of accidents.

This Government and, in fairness, previous governments have recognised the parochialism of the past, to which I have referred, in having different railway systems with different gauges and have attempted to bring the railway systems of this country into the modern age. Transport is a very competitive world and if the railways are to survive they must do so by increasing their freight carrying capacity and their passenger transport. I feel that this Bill, in common with the legislation introduced in 1983 by the Minister for Transport, will go some way to meeting the demands of the 1990s.