AusRAIL, Market Sectors

Viewpoint: Will it all be good news at AusRAIL?

<span class="" id="parent-fieldname-description"> Well everyone should be aware by now that AusRAIL Plus has kicked off today in Sydney, and when combined with the World Congress on Railway Research, it will bring about the largest ever rail industry gathering in Australia, one which is unlikely to be repeated for many years. So what will be on the agenda, Mark Carter writes. </span> <p>Unfortunately I am unable to attend this year as I would have been interested to gather the impressions of the international guests on Australia’s rail networks and our rail future.</p><p>Doubtless they will get to listen to a parade of speakers who will spruik the successes of the Australian rail industry and how our politicians are focused on bringing about solutions for Australia’s transport challenges in the coming years.</p><p>And to be fair there are a number of projects underway that can be held up a good examples of ‘Aussie’ progress around the country, including Sydney’s North West Rail Link, Melbourne’s Regional Rail Link and the development of the Gold Coast light rail line. Even my home state of South Australia, where things are always a little quiet, will see its first suburban electric trains operating in the New Year.</p><p>Of course we can offer up our East West interstate rail corridor and the Darwin rail link where rail’s freight market share of over 80% on both routes is possibly the highest in the world.</p><p>And our Pilbara iron ore heavy haul rail lines are some of the global rail industry’s most efficient operations.</p><p>But on a couple of levels, all is not as well as it seems.</p><p>I contribute occasional news items to an international rail news web site, and over the last six months or so it has been hard to come up with a regular supply of headline grabbing items – the Australian rail industry appears to be in the doldrums when compared to what is going on in the rest of the world.</p><p>Initially it could be written off as a pre-election lull, but unfortunately it seems to be to turning into a post-election lull.</p><p>We wait with baited breath to see what federal transport minister Warren Truss brings to the AusRAIL podium, but I am guessing it won’t be very much.</p><p>The Federal Government’s attitude to urban rail has been well documented – ‘thanks, but no thanks’, while at the same time Australia is driven back to a retro-70s road building policy with nary a whimper from the rail industry.</p><p>The pre-election switch by the Victorian state government to abandon its proposed CBD rail tunnel in favour of a road scheme that no-one seems to want is symptomatic of the ideological approach to transport planning that plagues Australia.</p><p>No doubt the delegates to the World Congress on Railway Research will also be dazzled with a comprehensive vision for high-speed rail.</p><p>Maybe we could interest them in the Inland Rail Route, but unfortunately I think we’ve been sold a pup on that one with the Coalition’s pre-election announcement fooling a lot of people into thinking that things were about to start happening on this project when it was little more than a rehash of the previous government’s policy – with the project still several years away.</p><p>I’m sure much will be made of the Queensland Government’s recent announcements in regard to its $5bn combined rail/bus tunnel and its order for a substantial number of new railcars, but with the former this a much scaled down project from that originally proposed now that federal funding will not be available, and both projects will require private sector finance to succeed.</p><p>Not for the first time in this column I have to point out that the success rate for private sector financing of rail projects in Australia is not the greatest, however, we can hope that the Productivity Commission Inquiry announced just recently into private sector funding for infrastructure projects will shed some light on better ways to do business.</p><p>It will be important that the industry’s voice will be heard at the Inquiry as rail comes a long way behind roads, water and electricity and probably just marginally ahead of ports when it comes to infrastructure spending.</p><p>Though I am led believe that as a result of some peripheral activities surrounding AusRAIL there may be a more there may be a more united response from the industry as whole when it comes to finance and investment issues.</p><p>The Commission has been given a very broad brief, and not much time in which to work, but in view of the limited timeframe for this inquiry, the Commission will manage the inquiry using two research teams – one dealing with funding and financing issues, and the other focusing on the high construction cost issues that hamper project development.</p><p>Funnily within the terms of reference it says, “While alternative financing and funding models offer opportunities to reduce the immediate call on governments, it should be noted that the application of new models is not a panacea.”</p><p>Now I’m sure I’ve read something vaguely similar before, not a million miles from this column, and a statement that will need to be a fundamental tenant of any government policy arising from the Inquiry.</p>