Mark Carter takes a nostalgic look at the 20-year anniversaries of a pair of key events in the development and expansion of the interstate rail freight network, away from the government owned freight operators and track owners of old.
Twenty years ago on June 4, 1995, Prime Minister Paul Keating officially opened the new standard gauge route between Melbourne and Adelaide, which had been converted from 1600mm broad gauge, heralding in a new era for rail transport In Australia.
There was much fanfare made over the fact that for the first time all mainland capitals were now connected by standard gauge, and that trains could run from Sydney through to Adelaide and Perth direct.
What the spin doctors of the day had conveniently ignored, however, was the existing east west route via Broken Hill had allowed a Sydney to Perth transit since 1970, and had even been used for diversions during the gauge conversion process.
It must be remembered that while the conversion of the corridor was the most visible aspect of rail reform, at the time it was just part of a much wider range of reforms transforming the rail industry.
In parallel were the final manoeuvres in the establishment of National Rail Corporation and National Competition Policy, moving the industry towards separation of above and below rail, and opening up the network to competition.
The launch of the standard gauge project was used as an opportunity to announce the first steps to forming a national track authority, which eventually became ARTC.
The $160m Adelaide to Melbourne standardisation project was part of the Keating Government’s wider $430m One Nation contribution for rail infrastructure upgrades across the interstate network. The biggest investment in rail for decades, it laid the framework for significant federal financial contributions over the next 20 years.
It was not all plain sailing and for several years afterwards there were piles of concrete sleepers lying alongside the track around Cressy and other locations in Victoria, where the money had run out before they could be inserted. The story even made Channel 9’s erstwhile ‘Sunday’ programme.
Standardisation also left a legacy in both Victoria and South Australia where a number of broad gauge branch lines were isolated by the project. In Victoria the lines affected were all converted to standard gauge within a reasonable time frame along with the Maryborough to Ararat line.
But in South Australia, three Mallee branch lines were isolated along with the Wolseley to Mt Gambier line, and in the end the latter was sacrificed in order to see the branch lines converted to standard gauge.
Ironically as we celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the standardisation project, those SA branch lines have all seen their last trains – as highlighted in my previous column.
Related story: No more train to the Mallee
There were also other anomalies created by the standardisation project that saw rail traffic lost to road, such as the Contrans traffic when no-one would pay for conversion of the small yard at Islington, essential for that traffic.
While it is easy to focus on the negatives, what the project did do was allow private operators such as SCT and Toll to commence running their own trains between Melbourne and Perth, without the need for costly bogie exchanging in Adelaide, of course providing National Rail with the same advantage and allowing NR over time to operate with one universal loco fleet.
Where it failed was that the gauge conversion project largely revolved around what National Rail wanted at the time, and anything outside of NR’s interest was left for the states and the Commonwealth to scrap over, which usually ends in tears.
One of the biggest success stories resulting from the Melbourne-Adelaide gauge conversion project has been the East West rail service established by Specialised Container Transport (now SCT Logistics), which commenced operating just a few weeks after the official re-opening of the corridor
SCT was the first company to take advantage of open access across interstate borders and the ability to get from Melbourne to Perth without the need for bogie exchanges.
Initial services used leased locomotives, crews and rolling stock hired in from government operators Australian National and V/Line Freight. Rolling stock was largely former Commonwealth Railways and Australian National boxcars that had been made redundant by National Rail as it took over the interstate freight operations.
SCT’s first through service departed Melbourne on 7 July 1995, with just 19 boxcars in tow, which after a quick loco change in Adelaide headed west for Perth. Today’s trains regularly load to 80 vehicles west of Adelaide.
The SCT business has since grown rapidly with some the longest and certainly the heaviest services on the interstate network. There are now five return services to Perth each week; four from Melbourne and one from Parkes (NSW). There are also a number of intermodal shuttle services in Victoria and South Australia.
From its humble beginnings and being dependent on government owned operators the company’s rail operations are now largely self-sufficient with its own locomotives, own wagons and own crews.
It has led the way in purchasing its own locomotive fleet, firstly with 15 GT46C-ACe locomotives from Downer Rail delivered in 2007/8 and augmented recently with 10 Chinese built SDA1 locomotives.
The wagon fleet has grown in size with new build wagons including refrigerated vans, well wagons for double stack containers and also SCTs unique eye-catching high cube boxcars.
Of course there has also been the establishment of its major rail integrated distribution centres in Melbourne, Perth and Adelaide.
So we have had two big twentieth anniversaries in 2015. I wonder what we will have to celebrate in another 20 years?