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The federal government’s $2bn proposed investment in an intermodal rail terminal in Victoria looks to be a good idea, but unless there are dramatic changes in overall government transport policy it is set to be a white elephant.
The federal government’s interstate transport policy is a complete mess because conflicting political forces attack each other and rail normally loses out. Indeed rail freight transport between the east coast and Western Australia is in jeopardy and rail freight between Melbourne and Brisbane has been virtually wiped out by the anti-rail forces.
One of the unexpected outcomes of the pandemic is that a lot more Australians are now travelling around the country by road. Caravans are booming. Suddenly, as a result, Australians are discovering that Canberra’s anti-rail forces have clogged the national highways with trucks. While the Melbourne rail terminal aims to reduce this trend, fundamental Canberra policy changes are required for it to have any lasting impact.
But the theory is good. Australia’s largest infrastructure project is the massive Melbourne to Brisbane inland freight rail, which passes through Parkes and will enable rail freight to go direct into Sydney and bypass the current rail track morass between Melbourne and Sydney. It will also connect with freight to Western Australia.
But the grand inland rail scheme is set to fail because of the anti-rail policies in Canberra which include:
● Trains travelling on commonwealth rail tracks pay a toll and the government pockets large dividends from that toll. It’s a massive “Transurban”-style exercise imposed on rail. But rail’s rival trucks use their tracks (roads) without paying a toll. It’s true there is a diesel freight levy and other charges but basically it’s a free ride and the commonwealth invests vast amounts in road infrastructure.
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● The inland rail would have to rank as one of the worst managed projects in the country. At least the NBN has been finished. The inland rail is constantly bogged in local politics and a morass of other issues. Unless Canberra decides it really wants to build it and puts it high on the agenda it may never be completed, particularly as so much investment is going on rival “road tracks” with no such inhibitions.
● At the moment rail freight between Melbourne and Sydney is at token and uneconomic levels and it’s not much better between Sydney and Brisbane. Without the inland rail, in time all freight will go by road up and down the east coast — a huge win for the anti-rail forces.
[img]https://cdn.newsapi.com.au/image/v1/f3f251a2f35856341d1976750cb40b7e?width=650[/img]Rail freight transport between the east coast and Western Australia is in jeopardy and rail freight between Melbourne and Brisbane has been virtually wiped.
● With victory in sight those forces have been working hard to do the same thing between the east coast and WA and in the process have created great “sport” for the Chinese in their trade attacks on Australia.
Some years ago Canberra decided that it would allow freight to move between the east coast and Western Australia via token cost-crewed foreign ships. The ships would bring freight to Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane and then re-load to take goods to WA. From Fremantle they went back to the northern hemisphere. The sea journey to WA took longer than rail and road but because of the cheap labour it was at a much lower cost. Ships grabbed about a fifth of the market. The rail operators suddenly found themselves with less cargo so began cutting back rail services.
Then came the pandemic and a shortage of containers for the northern hemisphere so the Chinese snapped their fingers and the ships no longer travelled from the east to the west coast of Australia. While not all the ships are owned by Chinese shipping operators, their power in the market means they control what takes place.
The Chinese were sending a warning to Australia that one day they might again snap their fingers and stop all ships coming here.
Understandably, rail operators are very nervous about increasing their east coast to WA capacity to fill the Chinese-created shipping gap because at any time the Chinese might again snap their fingers and say: “We’re back in business.”
If the commonwealth wants an economic rail service to WA then it will have to think very seriously about allowing foreign crews to undercut rail. Meanwhile road is taking some of the slack (ask the tourists trying to drive across the Nullarbor) but there is a big shortage of experienced drivers prepared to do the long hauls. It is very clear to the rail operators that if Canberra is going to continue to allow the foreign ships on the east coast to WA route then investing in rail is very speculative.
The above, bizarre situations have existed for a long time. But in a strange way the decision to build an intermodal rail freight terminal in Melbourne underlines the chaos in transport infrastructure. Someone needs to step back and look at what they want to do and then implement the required policies. If the aim is to lessen the number of trucks on the road — as Josh Frydenberg said in the budget — then that represents a radical new set of priorities.
Accordingly, very different policies are required. You can’t reduce the number of trucks via a intermodal facility without those policy changes.
Australian tourists using the roads need to speak up.
This article first appeared on www.theaustralian.com.au
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