Mike Steketee | July 26, 2008
AS a model for how not to tackle climate change, it seems hard to go past the Rudd Government's approach to transport. Rail is three to four times more energy-efficient than road, according to rail industry calculations here and overseas.
A British study found that carbon dioxide emissions from train travel were a little more than half those of cars, when measured by kilometres per passenger. The industry says the comparison is substantially more favourable still for rail freight.
According to Australasian Railway Association chief executive Bryan Nye, a freight train travelling between Sydney and Melbourne replaces 150 trucks and saves 45,000 litres of fuel and 44 tonnes of greenhouse gases.
So it would seem to make sense for the Government's much vaunted carbon pollution reduction scheme to encourage more people and more freight to shift from road to rail. Climate change has the potential to lead to a renaissance in rail, including the revival of glamour projects such as fast trains between Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Canberra that fell victim to high costs and lack of government support in the 1980s and '90s but are commonplace in Europe and are spreading throughout Asia and South America. A three-hour train trip between Sydney and Melbourne would be an alternative to air travel, the fastest growing source of emissions in the transport sector.
Despite all that, last week's government green paper discussing climate change heads in the opposite direction, tipping the benefits of an emissions trading scheme towards road and away from rail. For petrol users, the effect of putting a price on carbon will be neutralised by cutting the excise by an equivalent amount for at least the first three years of the scheme's operation from 2010. For heavy vehicles, cuts in the fuel tax will offset the impact of the higher carbon price for at least a year. And the offset for rail? Zero.
"I thought we were trying to get more people to use public transport, not get them back on the roads," Nye says. Nothing better illustrates how climate change policy can be held hostage to politics. Motorists and truck drivers see the result of rising fuel prices directly, are vocal about it and have votes. For rail users, the effect is hidden in fares or freight charges.
Transport overall contributes 14 per cent to Australia's greenhouse emissions, making it the third largest sector after energy and agriculture. The transport sector is growing faster than the economy as a whole: a function of a globalised economy in which trade is exapanding and production is increasingly specialised. According to the National Transport Commission, freight transport emissions will grow as a proportion of total emissions and there is little information on the best way to reduce them. In a discussion paper released this month it describes this as "a current policy blind spot in Australia and internationally".
Road accounts for 89 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions from the freight transport sector, with rail contributing 6 per cent and sea the remaining 5 per cent. The NTC forecasts that road freight will increase by 118 per cent between 2000 and 2020, in line with annual growth of 5 per cent in the previous 20 years and double the projected growth for rail and sea.
The commission describes this as "a cause for major concern", because it is unlikely innovations like B-doubles, which double vehicle payloads, will be repeated. Instead, it expects an extra 50,000 trucks on the road. In Sydney alone, the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics estimates a 50 per cent increase in road freight vehicle kilometres travelled in the next 20 years, largely because of increased container traffic through Port Botany.
If the prospect of thousands more trucks belching out carbon, not to mention clogging roads, is filling the Government with dread, it is not showing it.
A spokeswoman for Climate Change Minister Penny Wong says the green paper puts the Government's preferred position but it will be consulting further before making final decisions.
Meanwhile, Transport Minister Anthony Albanese has promised to convene a roundtable of industry representatives from road, rail, aviation and shipping.
Rail has long been the Cinderella of Australian transport. As Nye puts it, "we fell in love with the car in the 1950s".
As a result, the development of rail was neglected for most of the past half a century while money was poured into roads.
Parts of the rail system still operate under a signals system that was introduced in 1890. It requires the train driver to stop every 20km and insert a token into a machine, allowing him to proceed on to the next section of track. It may have been competitive with Cobb&Co 120 years ago but it hardly makes for prompt delivery times these days.
States operate different signal systems, including on interstate lines. There are still tracks in parts of the country that are not standard gauge.
While rail carries most bulk freight, such as coal and iron ore, better highways have pulled more non-bulk freight on to the roads. The proportion of non-bulk freight carried by rail between Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane has fallen from 39 per cent in 1972 to below 10per cent.
On present projections it will drop further to 6.5 per cent by 2020. Rail for non-bulk freight is competitive at present only to and from Western Australia, where it carries 82 per cent of the total.
Leaving aside climate change considerations, this might not matter if road and rail competed on an equal footing. This is an issue on which there has been vigorous debate, but the lack of investment in rail compared with road over the decades has seen rail lose out to trucks on travel times. Last year the Australian Rail Track Corporation, a federal government company that owns or leases most of the interstate lines, increased the fees it charges operators by 10 per cent. "I can understand that they have to get a return on their investment," Nye says. "But the federal Government knows it is increasing access fees for rail at the same time it is giving a leg-up to road. The federal Government could say, 'Let's for the next 12 months have a reduction in access fees.' It treats road and rail totally differently."
Transport is a prime example of the problem the Government has created by offering concessions under political pressure in its emissions trading scheme. Everyone else in the sector is now lining up for their cut, including the airlines. Ross Garnaut, who recommended in his climate change review restricting to trade-exposed industries the direct assistance offered, sounded exactly this warning about rent seekers. If everyone is compensated through direct offsets, we will be back to square one, with no incentives to move to lower emissions.
Before Canberra's climate change decisions, there were some signs that governments were taking rail more seriously. The NSW Government has set a target of 40 per cent of freight going by rail to and from Port Botany by 2010 and Victoria is aiming for 30 per cent to ports by next year. Last month, the staff and token system requiring trains to stop every 20 minutes was replaced by digital technology on the line between Casino in northern NSW and Brisbane, saving 45minutes in travel time.
Australian Rail Track Corporation chief executive David Marchant says the $2.1 billion it is spending on lines between Melbourne and Brisbane will reduce travel time by 3 1/2 hours to 10 1/2 hours between Sydney and Melbourne, by four hours to 15 hours between Sydney and Brisbane and by 10 hours to 27 hours between Melbourne and Brisbane.
That is if things go well.
"Seventy to 80 per cent of our trains arrive in Newcastle from Brisbane on time," says Helen Newell, corporate development and government relations director for Asciano, Australia's largest rail freight carrier. "But only 30 per cent of the same trains arrive in Sydney on time. A trip that is meant to take an hour and 40 minutes can take up to four hours quite regularly." The problem is that freight trains have to be juggled into the Sydney network outside the curfew hours of 5am-9am and 3pm-7pm, which can prove to be a challenge even when the notorious Sydney passenger services are running smoothly.
Then there are the regulations, with rail still governed as though the Australian colonies had never federated. The ARTC manages 10,000km of interstate track but has been unable to reach agreement with Queensland Rail and the Queensland Government on 136km of the network between the Queensland border and Acacia Ridge in Brisbane.
That means rail operators using the track have to negotiate separate access agreements. Interstate operators have to deal with seven safety regulators, three transport accident investigators, six access regulators, 15 occupational health and safety acts and 75 pieces of environmental regulation.
All this is before the Council of Australian Governments, Kevin Rudd's vehicle for fixing the federation. But then, it has been on the COAG agenda for years. Yesterday a meeting of federal and state transport ministers looked again at establishing a single safety regulator: something that the US, with 50 states, and Europe, with multiple languages as well as governments, managed to achieve years ago. But it is still eluding Australian governments: NSW and Queensland are insisting on keeping parts of their existing systems.