Rail and Water Agenda for an Infrastructure Prime Minister

Article written for On Line Opinion “Under New Management” feature.

I greeted with enthusiasm Tony Abbott’s election comment that he wanted to be remembered in history as Australia’s Infrastructure Prime Minister. I formed the view that his words were welcomed by many who have genuine concern that our nation has an appalling record of neglected infrastructure stretching back for far more the half a century that has elapsed since the Snowy Mountains Project became a reality.

During this time, there has been a steady, but not spectacular, investment in roads and some expansion of ports, but very little spent on railways or water. If the PM can make a difference in these two areas, it will make an enormous contribution to the progress of the nation.

There are two huge challenges ahead with railways.

The most important is the upgrading and expansion of our freight railways as the logistics of moving goods around the nation is primitive and far too costly, with considerable over-emphasis on trucks and too much having to be spent on maintenance of the highways that they crush. The completion of the Melbourne to Brisbane Inland Railway is fundamental to progress as governments have irresponsibly procrastinated about it for 20 years despite constant advocacy of it by an innovative company that I chair, ATEC Rail Group Ltd. It will take freight traffic out of Sydney and thousands of trucks off the Newell Highway.

Many other similar freight railways are needed, but one that must be a priority is the upgrading of the Sydney Adelaide Railway which is in poor shape. Another is the building of a new track from the Kimberley to Tennant Creek, finally ending the isolation of the most potentially prosperous region of the Australian Continent.

The obvious economic benefit of an efficient low cost rail freight system is that it will mean that Australian producers will be able to compete with imports. Right now, it is cheaper to bring tropical fruit from Thailand to Australia than it is to get it from Cairns to Melbourne.

The problem that freight railways face is that they are unglamorous, whereas millions of city voters get switched on if anyone talks about better trains to get them to work. The problem is to get them to believe that anything visionary is likely to happen to improve suburban tracks given the soul destroying inactivity of governments over so many years.

Right now, city trains are too slow, very unreliable and too infrequent. It is not unreasonable to suggest that, in all of our capital cities, no one should have to wait longer than five minutes for a train anytime between dawn and midnight and there should be many more express trains. We are light years behind the rest of the world with underground railways because we say that we cannot afford them. The fact is that we can afford them and we can spread debt repayments over a century so that future generations pay their share. We simply need the will to do it.

The time to start our underground railway systems is now and I am cheering Campbell Newman for his plan for an underground rail and bus tunnel from Hill End to Bowen Hills in Brisbane with new CBD stations along the way. May there be many more, particularly to suburbs without railways, as there are hundreds of them in every capital city.

Now we come to water, the most crucial example of neglect in the nation.

So far our major attempts to meet the water crisis has been to build desalination plants which are a colossal waste of money, not only in capital costs, but for daily operation as they use too much power, while we waste 90% of the water that falls on the continent. There is no need to convert sea water.

Numerous plans have been put forward to bring tropical water from the north since the days of Dr Bradfield, but have always been tossed out on basis of costs, just like underground railways. The cost relative to benefits is small, but there are too few voters in the bush to influence governments. Nevertheless, with a bit of imagination we can turn the centre of Australia into the largest food and timber bowl in the world as well as divert water to every capital city.

I really would like to add the building of high speed trains to the thoughts I want to present to the PM, but I will leave them off the list temporarily as the issue of freight railways, underground rail systems and water are our most urgent priorities, but I hope to live to see the day when our first high speed train runs between Sydney and Melbourne in a time span that makes them more attractive than the drudgery of plane travel.

The issue is whether or not Tony Abbott is the leader of stature who will get it all started. I have yet to be convinced that he is, but I will cheer loudly if I am proven wrong.