VIEWPOINT: The Federal Government stunned everyone back in May with an outpouring of largesse for the rail industry in its 2017/18 budget. Mark Carter argues that now would be a good time for industry to capitalise on this and generate some positive headlines for rail.
There can be no arguing that the government’s $20 billion package of funding, investment, equity – call it what you will – directed at the rail industry is historically unprecedented.
The long-term investment program represents the largest ever commitment to rail by an Australian federal government. Over the next year, the true devil in the detail will become clearer, but for now it is something that should be capitalised upon, and indeed celebrated.
Half of the funding will go towards an $10 billion ‘National Rail Program’ for new and planned urban rail projects in Australia’s major cities, as well as providing for better connections between these cities and regional centres.
This investment progresses the government’s ‘Smart Cities’ agenda, recognising that urban rail projects have the capacity to provide opportunities for urban regeneration and create better integration between land use and transport planning. Quite a turnaround from the anti public transport rhetoric of the Abbott administration.
The other major commitment is to the $8.4 billion for construction of the Melbourne to Brisbane Inland Rail project through an equity injection to Australian Rail Track Corporation, who will be responsible for overseeing construction of the bulk of the project. The size of the amount surprised many in the industry who had expected only a fraction of this investment at this stage.
There was also around $1.5 billion in loose change for a variety of projects including $500 million to upgrade regional rail networks in Victoria; $792 million for Perth’s suburban rail Metronet; and $30 million towards development of a business case for Melbourne Airport Rail Link.
Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for the knockers to emerge and turn the headlines surrounding these announcements around to focus on gripes about certain states being been left out of the funding cycle, someone’s pet project missing out, or not enough funding for specific projects.
It is true that these announcements were a little light on specifics, but there was no pressure on the government to make a commitment of this magnitude. They could easily have carried on throwing out the odd crumb for public transport here and there, and left the Inland Rail project dangling once more in mid-air, much as they have been doing for the last five years.
To be frank, anyone who expected the $20 billion to fall out of the sky all at once has unrealistic expectation as to how the system works and rocks in their head to boot.
Shadow infrastructure minister Anthony Albanese has criticised the announcement saying no money has been set aside until the 2019-2020 financial year.
“The third Budget paper shows a A$200 million commitment to the National Rail Program in 2019/20 and A$400 million in 2020/21, with no further projections offered at this stage.”
True Anthony, but I think I can point to examples of every government, federal and state, pulling that stunt on more than one occasion.
Fact is, now is the time to seize on the government’s intent and pressurise them to bring forward more funding by ensuring quality projects are put forward.
The federal government says there are several city-shaping rail projects around the country at various stages of development.
Projects that are eligible for funding include, but are not limited to: Cross-River Rail in Brisbane; AdeLINK extensions to the Adelaide tram network; potential rail links to Melbourne Airport and the proposed Western Sydney Airport; and Perth’s Metronet rail project.
Regardless of the caveats and time frame, the rail industry needs to seize the moment here. We have the single largest funding allocation in the history of the industry and we should be celebrating and dancing in the streets.
Plans should be put in place to ensure that the government sticks to its promises and at the same time use this largesse as a foundation to ensure the continuity and longevity of funding for rail in future budgets.
And while the economic rationalists argue about rates of return and the impact on credit ratings, just maybe the government has realised that the economy has been stagnant for far too long and needs stimulus.
Turnbull’s promised ‘jobs and growth’ shows no signs of materialising and the global economy has been in a slump for over a decade.
Things aren’t gonna get any better anytime soon, so if a $20 billion injection into our rail industry can play a small part in turning things around, then I ain’t complaining.
While the slogan may have been dropped – this is one way to turn ‘jobs and growth’ into a reality
The rail industry has not been upfront enough in promoting its own cause in recent years – the governments obvious faith in rail provides an ideal opportunity for it to get out there and spruik the industry’s benefits.
Rather than squabbling over the spoils and whingeing about what’s not there, the industry and its stakeholders need to band to together to ensure that the government delivers on this commitment now and beyond.
After all, $20 billion is $20 billion – enough said!