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Rural rail freight networks have been critically under-funded during more than a decade of drought, with many neglected rail lines now the equivalent of ''dirt tracks'', a Senate inquiry has heard.
Australia is also failing to train - and design tertiary courses needed to produce - the next generation of digitally savvy engineers to operate the sophisticated smart-rail networks of the future, the nation's peak rail industry body says.
The Australasian Railway Association, which represents more than 150 member organisations and businesses in Australian and New Zealand, has urged governments and industry to ''reduce national reliance on skilled migration'' to meet a worsening shortage of skilled labour for infrastructure projects.
''The rail industry will reach a point where this solution is not viable,'' the association told a Senate education inquiry into Australia's engineering crisis.
''The shortage of engineers is complicated by the fact that rail transport is experiencing a technological revolution. The use of automotive and digital communications is changing the rail industry … already there are driverless trains and networks controlled remotely through modern control systems. A signal engineer of today may not have a role in rail in 15 years.''
The association also estimates Australia's ''antiquated'' grain handling facilities and ''substandard'' freight lines are costing farmers an extra $97 a tonne to store and ship wheat to export markets. Almost 50 per cent of the final market price of grain goes toward shipping and handling, compared to Canada, where costs are substantially less.
In a submission to a Senate rural affairs committee inquiry into operational issues affecting wheat exports, the association said the quality of many rural freight lines used to transport grain from storage silos to major ports ''is extremely low''.
It said some NSW grain lines were in such poor condition they could not handle train axle loads of more than 18 tonnes, while main line track can handle up to 22-30 tonnes. Poor quality track meant ''use of old and substandard rolling stock'', because the lines could not accommodate modern engines and freight cars. As a result, the trains on these lines were often 50- to 60-years-old.
''These factors all culminate in creating a substandard grain export supply chain.'' the association said.
''Due to severe under-investment and under-use [during the recent drought] of grain lines, the capacity of grain lines has been significantly reduced. Many lines have been closed, or have been maintained to carry minimal freight loads.
''Since the privatisation of regional rail infrastructure, the maintenance and upgrading of many lines have been deemed financially unviable. As a result, regional rail infrastructure has severely deteriorated.''
In NSW, more than 1200 kilometres on 20 rural freight lines needs to be upgraded, but closure of half of these lines would ''force 750,000 tonnes of grain on to road, which is equivalent to 30,000 truck movements'' a year. The current fix-when-fail maintenance strategy could not sustain these lines in a fit-for-purpose condition.
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