The foundation of Australia’s growth as a nation was based on railways. They spread out like tentacles over the habitable areas of the continent from every capital city, and they were the basis on which commerce and industry were built.
Unfortunately, they had defects that downgraded their ability to serve the needs of a growing nation as they were focused on directing passengers and freight to capital cities, thereby causing unbalanced development — too much population concentrated in too few places.
However, their worst feature was that each State constructed their railways with different gauges — broad, standard, narrow and a few other sizes — all because of extreme parochialism that survives to this day. The States were determined to stop interstate competition at the borders and the best way to do this was to make sure the trains stopped there. This extraordinary stupidity by people with small minds stunted the development of Australia, especially in rural regions, as those who lived in Inland Australia could not trade with one another across state borders.
Added to this is the fact that railways were badly run government monopolies. They offered poor service at high cost and maximum inefficiency, featherbedded with unmotivated staff whose jobs were forever secure, no matter how inadequately they performed or what operating losses were incurred. They failed to even notice or counter the growing appeal of road transport, while the maintenance of rail tracks was largely neglected, as was the rapidly changing technology of running trains that other nations had pioneered.
So, Australians had no option but to embrace a new era of roads as railways were an ever-increasing liability that were a blight on productivity and progress.
But, we stumbled again, failing to anticipate the growth of road traffic or the maintenance required to sustain the damage caused by heavy and plentiful vehicles. Now, we have too many sub-standard roads that are grossly overcrowded and, every time we build a new road, we encourage more people to bring out their cars and more businesses to buy extra trucks. Inevitably, we return very quickly to the same curse of congestion.
Added to all of this is some very poor politics. For reasons that no politician can ever explain, trains are required to meet the full costs of building, maintaining and using their rail tracks, while road transport is asked to pay far less than the costs of their infrastructure, creating a situation where road users are pampered and railways have to compete on a playing field that is neither level nor competitive.
The unavoidable fact is that, in our cities, roads have reached their capacity, while in the country, truck drivers no longer want to drive long distances and be away from home. At the same time, the sheer length of the highways serving a thinly populated nation makes the costs of maintenance exorbitant.
So, it is now time for a dramatic change in national infrastructure investment away from roads and back to railways, so long as our railways are brought into the modern era rapidly.
Long distance freight must no longer be carried by road. This must now be done by train as this will lower transport costs despite governments fostering unfair competition. A truck, no matter whether it is a triple or a quad, cannot compete with a train that can travel at the same speed and is double stacked and a kilometre long. Nor is that truck as environmentally friendly as a train.
However, trains cannot compete on short distance freight. That will remain the realm of trucks, especially as a train can’t get to our front doors.
People movement is something that will always cost governments money, but we have no alternative but to invest in efficiently-run suburban railways and very fast long distance trains, as this cost can be retrieved with savings on construction and maintenance of roads, fuel costs and productive time that is lost by our workforce waiting with increasing frustration on clogged roads.
This will mean that, in capital cities, we need trains or buses running every five minutes from every station at low fares so there is no reason for anyone ever to get their car out.
Equally important is the need for fast intercity rail services that are competitive with airlines in time and cost. This must include improved train services connecting regional cities, which will be paid for in the long-term by movement of population to those growing cities for reason of ease of access to them both in cost and speed.
While the world has moved over to rail with alacrity, Australia has lagged behind. We have not accepted that a nation that perpetuates parochialism and is based on cars and trucks is a cost heavy, uncompetitive country that cannot be described as quality civilisation.
It’s time for a courageous leader to step forward and bite the bullet with vision and skill.
When he or she does emerge, we must hope that the investment in rail will be accompanied by a similar emphasis on the science and innovation of logistics. The way that we currently handle freight is a huge cost and time burden on the nation as is shown by the absence of freight hubs and corridors. We have managers and workers with logistical skills but they are not backed by adequate investment.
There has to be a better way to move people and freight around our continent.
Invest in it now!