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Thursday, 25 September 1958

Mr TOWNLEY (Denison) (Minister for Supply) . - by leave - I move -

That the bill be now read a second time.

This bill seeks the approval by Parliament of an agreement which has been negotiated between the governments of the Commonwealth and the States of New South Wales and Victoria for the construction of a standard 4-ft. 8i-in. gauge rail line between Albury and Melbourne and for the other works associated with this important undertaking. This agreement is the most significant and practical step yet taken by any government to put into effect any of the many proposals which have been made from time to time for the unification of the Australian railway system.

Standardization proposals in themselves are not new. As long ago as 1921, a royal commission strongly recommended the standardization of the Australian railway system at a cost which was then estimated at £57,000,000. Tn March, 1945, Sir Harold Clapp presented a most comprehensive report on the same subject, and, more recently, the Government Members Committee on Rail Standardization also made a full report on the matter. In addition, a committee of Opposition members examined the question in some detail. I do not propose to traverse the various reports or the recommendations which were made in them, except to say that they have all in varying degrees emphasized the fundamental weakness of our railway system arising from the numerous breaks of gauge, and have recommended that action be taken to correct the position.

The early negotiations for the agreement now before the House were commenced last year with the States of New South Wales and Victoria and culminated in the agreement which is now before this House. Practically all of the standardization work will be undertaken in Victoria. However, as the New South Wales railways will also derive great benefits from the line, the Government of that State will contribute the same amount towards the cost of the project as the Victorian Government.

This undertaking is of major importance, and its total cost is currently estimated at £10,726,000. The Commonwealth will provide the initial finance for the whole of the work, but the agreement provides for each of the States subsequently to pay threetwentieths of the cost. The States' portion will be amortized over a period of 50 years with interest payable on the amount outstanding at the end of each financial year. The rate of interest will correspond with that of the last Commonwealth long-term loan raised in Australia in the relevant year of expenditure. The estimated costs of the various sections of the work are set out in the second schedule to the agreement, and provision is made in clause 14 for the estimates to be varied should costs rise ot fall over the period during which the work takes place. The States are required to submit an annual budget of proposed expenditure for each financial year, and provision is made for audit by the State Auditors-General, who aTe required to report each year to the Commonwealth Auditor-General.

The route which will be followed by the new line is set out in the first schedule to (he agreement. It follows as far as practicable the existing 5 ft. 3 in. system. The second schedule outlines in some detail the work to be done and the standards to be adopted. These standards are in accordance with the most up-to-date railway practice and will be such as to provide a line capable of handling heavy traffiic at high speeds. Honorable members will be interested to note that provision is made, among other things, for automatic power signalling with centralized traffic control. This not only will contribute to safe working but also will further facilitate the provision of fast services between Sydney and Melbourne. The agreement also provides for additions and alterations to freighthandling facilities, the construction and conversion of locomotives and rolling-stock, and other work necessary for the efficient operation of the system. Each of the States will prepare detailed plans, specifications and estimates of cost for all work carried out and these will be made available to the Commonwealth and to the other State.

On the basis of a preliminary survey undertaken in. 1956, it was estimated that the standardization work could be completed within four years from the date of which it was commenced. The Commonwealth and the State Governments aim to have the work completed as soon as possible, and it will be noted that clause 10 provides that the work should be executed expeditiously and in the most economical manner. This clause provides, also, that in suitable cases public tenders shall be called for the carrying out of the work.

Because the Government was convinced that there was an urgent need for the standardization of the line between Melbourne and Albury, the Commonwealth made funds available to Victoria on a £1- for-£l basis in 1956 for a preliminary survey. To the same end, the Government has also assisted Victoria to commence the work prior to the final acceptance of the agreement. In 1957-58, £470,000 was provided by the Commonwealth for preliminary work, and, in the current year, an amount of £1,700,000 will be provided. As a result, work has been proceeding on the new line and it is hoped that it may be possible for it to be in operation in a somewhat shorter time than the four years originally estimated.

The parties to the agreement are confident that the new line will provide a substantial reduction in railway operating costs between Sydney and Melbourne. The elmination of trans-shipment and the heavy costs associated with it, the more effective use of locomotives and rolling-stock, and the improved track facilities permitting higher speeds and modern techniques of construction, all should combine to confer operating economies on the line. The increased volume of traffic which it is expected to handle should increase the revenue of the Victorian and New South Wales railways, and the introduction of centralized traffic control, to which I referred earlier, will give maximum safety and speed in the handling of trains. One of the most compelling reasons for the building of the new line was the need to overcome the difficulties so long asociated with the trans-shipment point at Albury. The completion of the work envisaged by the agreement will remove the congestion and delay which have for so long impeded the free flow of railway traffic between the two largest cities in Australia. lt is difficult at this stage to estimate the total savings to the railways as a result of the improvement in efficiency and reductions in operating costs but it is conservatively considered that it will be not less than £1,700,000 annually. Furthermore, it is a reasonable expectation that the improved efficiency of the railways, the quicker delivery of freight and the elimination of the Albury trans-shipment point will result in substantial additional traffic for the railways. This, again, is difficult to estimate, but the volume may be as high as an additional 500,000 tons per annum.

During its period of office, the Government has paid particular heed to the importance of transport to our national economy. It has actively encouraged the efficient development of our civil aviation industry; it has established the Australian National Shipping Line as the largest operator on the Australian coast; and it has developed and expanded the profitable operation of the Commonwealth Railways system. In addition it has made increasingly large sums available to the States for road construction and maintenance under the Commonwealth Aid Roads Act. The magnitude of the Commonwealth's financial commitment for the Standardization of the railway line between Melbourne and Albury is a further demonstration of the willingness of this Government to give practical support to the development of an efficient transport system within this country. The measure, I am sure, is one which will receive unanimous support from both sides of this chamber, and I commend it to honorable members.

Debate (on motion by Mr. Pollard) adjourned.

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