AusRAIL, Market Sectors

Don’t throw the rail vision out with the flood waters

The Australian rail industry must ensure that the sector’s long term vision is maintained beyond the urgency of rebuilding infrastructure following the recent natural disasters, writes Peter Winder*

There is no doubt it needs to be a case of “all hands on deck” for these essential works and we applaud all those in the industry who are responding with such diligence and dedication to restoring critical rail links.

The disasters have certainly demonstrated how significant these networks are to the Australian economy.

What the floods and Cyclone Yasi have brought home to the industry is the scale and rapidity of change that can occur in the present circumstances, and the financial cost of remedying these disasters.

However, with funds and resources diverted to these stricken regions, the industry must also be vigilant in its negotiations with the Federal Government and other relevant parties that the country’s other critical infrastructure projects remain in the big picture.

Even before the extra financial pressure created by the emergency rebuilding program, the list of the priority pipeline of works created by national infrastructure body, Infrastructure Australia (IA), was a long way from being realised in the last budget.

The scope of the long term projects which must be funded include the ongoing expansion and revitalisation of Australia’s urban passenger and rail freight networks, new signalling technologies and the continued consideration of high-speed rail (HSR) lines in this country.

As infrastructure minister Anthony Albanese said in the past month, all infrastructure projects committed to will be delivered but with different timing outcomes. Victorian activity will be particularly affected with $500m in federal funds being held back from the Regional Rail Link. This was one of the major projects earmarked for Victoria under the 2010 federal budget under IA advice.

It is encouraging then to hear of the latest reports this month from the Federal Government’s $20mstudy into possible high-speed rail routes between Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne, due for completion in July.

The feasibility study is in its first stage, looking at route options, and is intended to establish terms for an educated public debate on high-speed rail along the east coast. The Melbourne-Sydney link is of special importance, as it offers a viable alternative to short-haul air flights on one of the world’s busiest air corridors.

Albanese said recently the high levels of interest in the study have led to the creation of a formal reference body to ensure all interested parties, government and industry, have recognised input. This is to be commended.

The timing of this announcement also coincided with two powerful reports from the US: President Obama’s advocacy of a six-year $53bn investment in high-speed rail, where he hopes to create high-speed rail access for 80% of the population within 25 years and the news from the Californian High-Speed Rail Authority asking for expressions of interest from the private sector for the state’s proposed $44bn, 1287km high-speed rail network.

Both announcements underline a determination in that country to make high-speed rail a “reality” as an established network, and they are driven by the need to expand transport infrastructure, reduce carbon emissions, and create jobs.

It is difficult, at times of crisis such as provoked by the recent events in Queensland and Victoria, to maintain an industry discipline and focus on the long term picture – especially when government and industry players are stretched to their limits in resources and skills in the short term.

But it is essential, especially with the next budget looming, to build the infrastructure now that is critical to our future economic prosperity.

*Peter Winder is the Executive General Manager – Rail for O’Donnell Griffin.