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Wednesday, 26 October 1949


Mr DRAKEFORD (MaribyrnongMinister for Air and Minister for Civil Aviation) (Minister for Air) . - The standardization of railway gauges is a matter in which I have taken a great personal interest for over a quarter of a century. When the idea was first mooted it was ridiculed as being impossible of achievement. It is greatly to the credit of the Minister for Transport (Mr. Ward) that, during his tenure of office, a start has been made to bring the project to fruition. Having been associated with railway problems for such a long period as I have mentioned, I know that, from time to time, serious problems arise, particularly when there are differences of opinion between the States. The presence of a 5-ft. 3-in. gauge in Victoria and a part of South Australia, a 4-ft. 8£-in. gauge in New South Wales, and a 3-f.t. 6-in. gauge in Queensland and Western Australia makes the problem much more complex than many of us originally realized. However, I have always advocated the standardization of railway gauges, because I believe that that project is essential for the proper protection and development of Australia.

The honorable member for Boothby (Mr. Sheehy) has reminded us that during World War II., Australia was in great danger. As I was a member of the War Cabinet at that time, I am able to endorse that statement. The people of Australia have not yet realized the gravity of the danger during that period. Ships that were transporting iron ore from Whyalla to Port Kembla and Newcastle, which were the foundation of our munitions production, were being sunk all too rapidly for my liking. I know more about that matter than the man in the street does, because, as Minister for Air, .1 had to ensure that effective air patrols operated off the coast in order to detect, if possible, the enemy submarines that were sinking our ships. The description of that phase of the war will make a most interesting chapter in the history of Australia's participation in World War II., and will show how near we were to what may reasonably be described as disaster. That position, arising from the necessity to carry coal and iron ore by sea when enemy submarines were operating, may be attributed to the lack of vision of those who neglected to standardize railway gauges when labour and materials were available.

That task could have been undertaken when hundreds of thousands of Australians were unemployed during the financial and economic depression. The Commonwealth and State governments, which at that time failed to grasp that great opportunity, will always have to answer for their neglect in that respect. The expenditure on doles and other forms of unemployment relief during that period amounted to £200,000,000. That sum would have been more than sufficient, at the then prevailing rates of wages and costs of materials, to enable the standardization of railway gauges to be completed. I hope that the plans for the standardization of railway gauges will be given effect, but I realize that the present-day cost will greatly exceed £200,000,000. The commencement of the work in South Australia is only the fore runner to the beginning of standardization in other States. I pay a tribute to the splendid efforts of the Minister for Transport in this matter. He has shown patience, tolerance and ability. Some honorable members on this side of the House are not given much .credit for possessing those qualities, but the Minister, has displayed them throughout the whole of the negotiations relative to the standardization of railway gauges. I am glad that one of my colleagues has had that responsibility, and has borne it so ably.

In my opinion, the bill is a measure of the recognition bv the Government of the importance of transport in our national economy. Competent authorities estimate the internal freight movements of the nation in the year 1947-48 at 17,078,000,000 ton-miles, whilst the passenger mileage exceeded 25,000,000,000. The total cost of all forms of transport in Australia in 1947-48 was £550,000,000, of which the railways were responsible for 15.5 per cent. Much of the freight is conveyed by coastal shipping. That was why it was so vital to protect ships in World War II., when our economy was in a large measure dependent on the carriage of coal from Newcastle to South Australia, and of iron ore from Whyalla to Port Kembla and Newcastle. In 1947-48, the railways carried 30.3 per cent, of the total freight and 27.5 per cent, of the passenger traffic of the Commonwealth. I mention those figures to indicate that railways must always be an important part of the complete transport system. Obviously, some districts will remain sparsely populated for many years, and it would be completely uneconomical to serve them with railways.

I emphasize that point .because, as a former railway man and as ah advocate for railway men in the Commonwealth Arbitration Court, I was told that the wages of railway employees could not be increased to what we considered a reasonable level because the railways were showing deficits each year. The reason for those losses was that some people, who may be described as political log-rollers, induced State parliaments to authorize the building of railway stations, yards and signalling systems at places where they were not warranted. I could cite examples, but I shall not enter into the details. Station masters and staff were assigned to some of the stations in the sparsely populated districts that I have in mind, but the folly of that was later realized and to-day no officials are in attendance at those stopping places. The erection of four or five stations within a distance of 20 miles in a sparsely populated area, from which for many years only a small quantity of timber was taken, was completely unjustified. It would be uneconomic to construct railways to some sparsely populated districts which could be better served by other forms of transport. The recognition of that fact warrants, in my view, a complete survey on a nation-wide basis of the transport requirements of the Commonwealth. I do not think that the Minister for Transport will disagree with my opinion. That survey should embrace the present and potential needs of the Commonwealth and of the respective States and if the report based upon the survey were adopted, a sound basis would be provided for future planning and development. Attention should be devoted' to that matter in future. I realize that the proposal for the standardization of railway gauges in South Australia, which we are now considering, does not cover the aspect to which I am referring, but we should adjust our transport needs on the basis of the requirements of the nation, and we should consider the present needs and the potential needs of various districts that will be served. Such a survey need not restrict the rights of the States to develop their own resources, but it could well provide the basis of a developmental scheme within which the legitimate and natural claims and aspirations of the States could be concentrated and which could be combined with strategic needs, and the main requirements of defence, should the occasion to do so arise. There would have to be co-operation, in spirit and in practice, between the Commonwealth and the States. Despite the regrettably long time that it has taken to reach a comparatively minor measure of agreement, I do not despair of a complete understanding being reached within a decade, even though it has taken a good deal longer than ten years to reach the present stage.

I do not propose to allot the blame for the delay to any particular person or State. We can afford to forget who is responsible, in view of the splendid achievement that has been reached with the Snowy Mountains hydro-electric scheme, which has been made possible by the wider outlook of the present day on affairs of national importance. I should not like the mistakes that we have undoubtedly made in developing our railways to occur in the expansion of other forms of transport. Those mistakes have been most expensive, and have retarded the development of Australia as a whole. Shipping facilities, road and rail transport and air services should be considered on the basis of what is essential for the needs of the people. The desire to meet purely local demands and to serve particular interests, merely because they are vociferously advocated, should be resisted. The undue and unreasonable pressure that is exercised through political sources must be subjugated to the future requirements of a rapidly developing nation. If those conditions can be fulfilled, there is no reason why the effects of the setbacks of the pa3t cannot be reduced, thereby making . possible a brighter future.

Progress in transport in recent years has been so rapid that speculation on the future may reach extremes without being absurd, but a sober examination of the problem of transport shows that the railways will be the backbone of any nationwide transport system for a long time. I emphasize that statement, although I am Minister for Air and Minister for Civil Aviation. I support this bill whole-heartedly, because I consider that the standardization of railway gauges will be a definite step in the direction of making them effective for the encouragement and development of Australia's defence and advancing economy. I desire, at this stage, to pay my tribute to Sir Harold Clapp, under whom I served in the Victorian railways years ago. Sir Harold has played a prominent part in assisting the Minister for Transport with the formulation of plans to standardize railway gauges. Sir

Harold is a great railway man and organizer. He has ideals. He has looked to the future, and desires that Australia's railways shall be developed in such a way that they will give the service that we really need. In my opinion, Sir Harold Clapp's contribution to this work has not been fully appreciated, and I feel that it would be wrong if I, who have been associated with him as an employee of the Victorian railways, did not offer him my sincere thank3 for the work that he has performed.

Like other honorable members who have spoken on this bill, I regret that, through the reluctance of one of three States to ratify the agreement, the beginning of the work to standardize railway gauges has been so long delayed. For many years, the railways of this country have been sadly neglected, and that neglect has contributed largely to their present parlous financial position. The iniquitous system of using the railways as a method of subsidizing other industries has made serious inroads upon railway revenue. I recall times when the railways of New South Wales, Victoria and other States carried starving stock from drought-stricken areas at one-quarter of the usual freight rate. It took a long time to convince the Commonwealth Arbitration Court that railway employees should not be paid low wages because the systems were operating at a loss. I do not suggest that it was wrong to grant that form of subsidy to country interests.


Mr Beale - Why, then, did the Minister describe it as iniquitous?


Mr DRAKEFORD - The honorable member for Parramatta (Mr. Beale), who has interjected, goes to sleep during a debate, wakes up for a second, hears one word and wants to base a case on it. I repeat that it was an iniquitous system under which the railways were used as a method of subsidizing various industries, because that system made serious inroads upon railway revenue. These losses in revenue were for years successfully used to prevent railwaymen getting reasonable pay and conditions. Later, it was realized that credit for those subsidies should be given to railway revenue.

A similar situation arose with developmental railways, which, it was known, could not be operated at a profit. At one period the railways were showing a return of approximately 3 per cent, on the total amount invested in them, but as the money had been borrowed at approximately 5 per cent., there was a loss of 2 per cent, on vast blocks of capital. Unfortunately, that loss was used as an argument against the claims of railway employees when they sought better wages and conditions. I am glad to say that their wages and conditions have been greatly improved in recent years. The practices to which I have referred, combined with the failure to provide essential capital expenditure, have resulted in a series of successive and accumulating deficits. If the railways are to play to the full their important part in the transport structure of the Commonwealth, they must be modernized and standardized. This bill makes a real advance in that direction in respect of South Australia, but similar action is required in other States. The report that has been furnished to the Victorian Government by an eminent overseas expert, Mr. John Elliott, on the deficiencies of the railway system in that State, confirms the views of most persons with an experience of it. A similar report on the Western Australian railways was completed this year by a combined committee of Commonwealth technical officers and Western Australian railway and treasury officers. Both reports show most clearly the urgent need for immediate action to prevent further deterioration of the railways in those States. It is pleasing to know that Victoria is negotiating with the Commonwealth for a separate agreement about railway standardization, and it is hoped that the Western Australian Government will reply to a proposal made to it by the Commonwealth. There can be no doubt that our present railway system, with its varying gauges, and consequential transfer points, is quite unsuitable for a country of the. size and population of Australia. The irritating restrictions on the carriage of passengers and freight, as a result of this archaic system, must be removed, and replaced by a system adapted to meet the demands of the present time. In the absence of standardization, railway working costs are excessive.

I support the bill, which, I understand, is not being opposed. When railwaygauges have been standardized, national development can be accelerated, and the strategic value of the railways will be improved. As has been stated, the standardization of railway gauges is the second largest public work that has been undertaken in Australia. An agreement has been reached with the Government of South Australia, and I hope that it will not be long before Victoria, and later New South Wales, will become parties to similar agreements. Although the railway gauge in New South Wales is already standard, that State, by supplying rails and other materials, would benefit largely from the work of standardization in other States. I do not suggest that all the railways in Queensland should be standardized at this time, hut the main lines should be, and those in the coastal area. The Minister for Transport is well qualified to bring this work to a successful conclusion.







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