AusRAIL, Market Sectors

Is this the end of the line?

<span class="" id="parent-fieldname-description"> Despite predictable howls of protest at budget time, over the last decade or so rail has not done so badly when it comes to federal funding, but with the Abbott Government’s latest budget it looks like within a few years the river will have run well and truly dry, Mark Carter writes. </span> <p>I would have to put my hand up and admit to being one of those who appears to be never satisfied with what the Federal Government is offering to the rail industry at budget time, but then have you ever known the trucking industry to take a federal budget lying down?<br />It might never be enough, but successive budgets for many years now have nearly always had something new or innovative in them for rail. <br />&nbsp<br />It is not that long ago that the Howard Government, when it needed to get its pre-budget house in order, would drop a lazy half billion dollars the way of the Australian Rail Track Corporation.&nbsp <br />&nbsp<br />But those heady days appear to be gone. <br />&nbsp<br />While I have banged on ad nauseam about Tony Abbott’s love affair with the motor car and his stated reluctance to invest in urban rail projects, I don’t think even I was prepared for what was&nbsp included, or not as it turns out, in the recent budget papers.<br />&nbsp<br />As previously reported by Rail Express, but with surprisingly little coverage elsewhere, according to the budget papers total expenses for rail transport are estimated to decrease by 42.2% in real terms over the next financial year.<br />&nbsp<br />But it gets worse, with the prediction that funding will decrease sharply each year thereafter with an additional reduction of 68.7% between 2014/15 and 2017/18, reflecting completion of most of the projects previously announced going back to 2009/10 and basically leaving the cupboard bare.<br />&nbsp<br />As reported elsewhere in this newswire, deputy PM and infrastructure minister Warren Truss has vainly tried to defend the government’s total lack of commitment to rail largely by claiming that what rail funding there is in the budget is something new, rather than just the same old list of projects recycled from the forward estimates from previously announced budgets.<br />&nbsp<br />Once again, the $300m for Inland Rail is trotted out as it has been for the last four years, but again with no indication as to how the bulk of the estimated $4bn-$5bn cost of the project is going to be funded, especially given that federally directed rail funding is predicted to fall to close to zero in the coming years <br />&nbsp<br />The government is obviously pinning its hopes on the private sector riding in on a shiny white horse to pick up the tab for Inland Rail, but the obvious complexities of this particular project would suggest this will be unlikely, at least in its present form.<br />&nbsp<br />The rail industry also has to look at how we have come to this impasse. The Australasian Railway Association (ARA) was moved to Canberra from Melbourne about a decade ago, in theory to be closer to the action and centre of political influence in much the same way as the trucking industry openly goes about its business.<br />&nbsp<br />The ARA has had a number of successes since then, but obviously the industry’s lobbying efforts need to be stepped up considerably over the next few years if it is to regain its rightful place at the fiscal bargaining table and secure funding in the future.<br />&nbsp<br />The industry as a whole perhaps also needs to look at having sufficient shovel ready plans in the drawer – outside of the urban passenger sphere that is. This lack of forward planning has always been a criticism, and as we see the rundown and completion of ARTC’s investment program in the interstate network, it would appear some impetus has been lost in preparing for the future. <br />&nbsp<br />Conversely neither can the rail industry be seen to continually have its hand out for funding from the public purse all the time and the current government has every right to try and balance the budget, even if things may not be quite as bad as they seem.<br />&nbsp<br />However a quick scan around the globe as to what other countries, many in much direr financial circumstance than Australia, are doing in regard to planning and investment in rail transport would show that Australian is very rapidly falling behind.<br />&nbsp<br />Whether he personally likes it or not Tony Abbot needs to recognise that rail transport plays a crucial role in modern and efficient transport networks and if he truly wants to be remembered as “The Infrastructure Prime Minister”, then he needs to have a serious rethink.&nbsp <br />&nbsp</p>