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The Tasmanian and federal governments have been accused of misleading the public about their knowledge of a looming crisis in the island state's rail network.
Documents obtained by The Weekend Australian show the two governments discussed the need for a $210 million upgrade of the network 18 months ago.
This is despite key ministers expressing shock and anger when Pacific National last month warned it would end most rail freight unless taxpayers contributed $115 million to upgrade tracks.
The state and federal rail ministers responded to PN's decision by accusing the company of seeking public "handouts" for their business.
Federal Transport Minister Warren Truss called it an "ambit claim" and questioned why PN had "suddenly" discovered the rail network was not viable.
State Infrastructure Minister Bryan Green accused PN of holding a gun to his head with inflated demands.
Instead of agreeing to PN's plan, which would have seen the company invest $38 million in rolling stock, the ministers ordered a two-month inquiry to test the company's assertions.
But documents show the governments have been discussing a massive track upgrade since March last year.
A letter from Tasmania's senior infrastructure bureaucrat, Scott Dobie, to senior federal transport bureaucrat Robert Hogan on April 8 last year outlines $215 million in recommended upgrades to Tasmanian rail lines. The suggested upgrades are improving the Bell Bay line, rebuilding the Derwent Valley line beyond Boyer, passing loops and double tracks on the North West line and realigning the southern rail corridor.
PN said yesterday the documents vindicated its stance that it had only issued its ultimatum after "endless" government discussions came to nothing.
"PN and its predecessors have been in discussion with government for a number of years about the difficulties facing Tasmanian rail," a company spokesman said. "The network's problems have been well known for a long time."
John Livermore, a transport consultant who headed a public inquiry into Tasmanian road and rail transport in the 1990s, said there was a conflict between the ministers' public comments and the correspondence.
"I can't see how the state and federal ministers could be surprised at what they called the ambit claim by PN, when the federal minister would have known about the submission from the Tasmanian Government and obviously the state minister would have known what his own department was doing," he said. But Mr Green defended his public comments. "The thing that shocked us was that in the consultation we had previously with PN in February, they were talking about a time frame of five to seven years and not as great a funding ask," he said.
The ministers were also surprised PN had decided the business was not viable less than two years after buying it. And he said the $215 million plan was not necessarily for the same track work as that sought by PN.
Mr Truss's spokeswoman said the April 2004 document was "just a big wish list".
"There was nothing in that letter from our point of view which suggested that the Hobart to Launceston line was in danger of not being able to sustain inter-modal traffic," she said.
State Liberal Opposition Leader Rene Hidding called for a joint federal-state $118 million rescue package for PN, on condition PN keep to its pledge to spend $40 million on rolling stock and transfer track ownership to the Tasmanian ports authority.
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