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Off the rails

February 27, 2004

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The Ghan leaves Alice Springs on its way to Darwin.
Picture: AAP

The Ghan may well be up and rolling round the bend, but whatever happened to the Very Fast Train between Melbourne and Sydney? And why is our national rail network in such a mess? Sushi Das reports.

At last, a dream has come true. Up and down the country there is breathless excitement over Australia's latest transcontinental train, The Ghan, which made its maiden journey from Adelaide to Darwin earlier his month.

After 74 years of countless discussions, political procrastinantion, wishful thinking and immeasurable dreaming, on February 1 the longawaited train chugged out of Adelaide's Keswick Rail Terminal on its 47-hour journey to Darwin.

Beaming dignitaries on board included South Australia's premier Mike Rann, who announced: "This is the conquering of the never-never � this was the train that was never going to happen. Well, the never-never train has become a reality."

Amid the celebrations and hoopla, few would have thought about another train � a train that is unlikely to ever become a reality and will probably remain the never-never train: the much vaunted VFT.

The Very Fast Train to link Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney, and The Ghan stand as symbols of Australia's extraordinary rail network that is world-class in a few places and pitiful in most others.

"We've got the good, the bad and the ugly in Australia," says Dr Philip Laird, an expert in land transport at Wollongong University.

While Victoria is rolling out fast rail links to regional centres and Queensland can boast excellent passenger services, NSW has "20-year old XPTs running on steam-age tracks", he says.

Paul Mees, lecturer in transport planning at Melbourne University, says Australia's railway system, whether it carries passengers or freight, is embarrassingly substandard by international standards and is not living up to its full potential.

"Patches of good are really very thin. We have very very substandard freight and passenger lines," he says.

And while there has been funding to help establish a rail link from Adelaide to Darwin, he says the service is slow, inadequate for freight and unlikely to be used by non-tourist passengers.

The Ghan, he says, is nothing more than a "theme park on rails for elderly American tourists". What Australia really needs is fast, efficient rail links between big cities and a national body to sort out Australia's railways.

The idea to connect Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney with a high-speed link was first proposed in 1984 by Dr Paul Wild, the then chairman of the CSIRO.

For 20 years the idea has been promised, debated, re-debated and scrapped. Wild is now retired and has given up all hope.

Paul Mees, lecturer in transport planning at Melbourne University.
Picture: Jamie Davies

"I'm 80 years old. It's a thing of the past. It was a dream, but it didn't come true."

The project needed tax breaks from the government to make it work, but they were not forthcoming and the whole thing was just too expensive, he says.

On 1990 predictions, the project would have cost $7.5 billion and the train would have travelled at 350 kilometres an hour � Melbourne to Sydney non-stop in three hours.

Like a dream that wouldn't fade, the VFT was back on the agenda by 1993 when a consortium called Speed Rail proposed linking Sydney and Canberra for $2.4 billion. It was understood a future link to Melbourne would one day be built.

But that idea never made it either. It was put to rest by the Howard Government, which saw it as too expensive.

It is now widely accepted in Australia that the idea of a high-speed rail link between Melbourne and Sydney is dead.

Philip Sellars, director of Transrapid, a company involved in the world's super-fast Maglev train says that even a VFT between Sydney and Melbourne on conventional technology was nothing more than a dream.

"I always held the view that Sydney- Melbourne was too far-fetched. The amount of investment required for a project of that sort of distance is beyond Australia's means economically," he says. "Whichever technology you're talking about, it would be over $20 billion. When you've got a very competitive domestic airline regime, who would be brave enough to put up that kind of money and spend five years developing a project and then try and compete with airlines? I just don't ever see it happening."

The train that currently runs between the two cities takes 10 hours and 45 minutes. Once it took even longer. Travellers on the first express that left Sydney for Melbourne in August 1883 faced a journey of 20 hours and 26 minutes. The night train whistled out of those oil-lit platforms to do the 920-kilometre journey with a half-hour stop at Albury where, inconveniently, broad gauge met standard gauge.

While railways experienced a boom in the 19th century in Europe, Australia lacked a national government to coordinate uniform rail projects. By the time the country became a nation in 1901, early settlers had already built a fragmented network of railways around major cities using different technology.

And when railways met at state borders the gauges didn't match.

Mark Twain, the American writer, visited Australia in the late 1890s and took the express from Sydney to Melbourne. The gauge change at Albury mystified him. In Changing Trains by Phil Belbin and David Burke, Twain recalls: "Now comes a singular thing: the oddest thing, the strangest thing, the most baffling and unaccountable marvel that Australasia can show.

"At the frontier between New South Wales and Victoria our multitude of passengers were routed out of their snug beds by lantern-light in the morning in the biting cold of a high altitude to change cars on a road that has no break in it from Sydney to Melbourne! Think of the paralysis of intellect that gave that idea birth; imagine the bowlder it emerged from on some petrified legislator's shoulders."

It wasn't until 1962 that the gauges between Victoria and NSW were standardised.

Despite its haphazard railway start, Australia's vast terrain has allowed for remarkable, slow and romantic train journeys. The Ghan is the longest passenger train in Australia's history and travels 2979 kilometres from coast to coast.

The dream was brought to life because the cost of the $1.3 billion project was shared, with the private sector paying two-thirds and the South Australian, Northern Territory and Federal governments paying the remainder.

The Indian-Pacific from Perth to Sydney, which travels 4352 kilometres in 18-and-a-half hours, is the country's other tourist train attraction.

Among the faster trains, only Queensland can boast the most efficient train in Australia. The Brisbane to Rockhampton Tilt train can speed around bends because of its unique tilting technlogy and does the journey in seven hours.

Travel times around the country could be further cut with investment in the most technologically advanced train in the world � the Maglev. But costs are prohibitive.

The Maglev floats above the rails and travels at more than 515 kmh. Melbourne to Sydney could be done in just two hours and 45 minutes. The only city in the world that has taken on the high cost and runs a commercially operating Maglev train is Shanghai, where passengers pay about $22 to travel the 32-kilometre journey from Shanghai Airport to the city centre in seven minutes.

But in Australia, long, slow plodders run the show. Those in the railway industry say such trains are all very well, especially for tourists, but when it comes to improving freight connections vital for Australia's growth and development, federal governments have shown little foresight despite repeated warnings from experts.

Fast, efficient freight links transporting goods for the domestic and overseas market from port to port have been neglected and a crisis in freight delivery looms.

Australia has the world's most efficient railways moving iron ore in the Pilbura, Western Australia, and coal in central Queensland. But industry experts say freight railways on the east coast linking Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney are appalling.

They say the eastern seaboard epitomises the worst of government neglect and there are many "horror stories".

"The national freight network on the eastern coast is hopeless. Between Sydney and Brisbane the guards are still getting out to change signals," says Dr Laird. "They've actually got to stop the train to get out and do things."

The Australasian Railway Association warns that freight activity is set to double in the next 10-15 years and unless freight links, especially along the eastern seaboard are improved, the country will suffer lost trade and environmental damage from increasing road freight.

A few weeks ago Peter Coates, chief executive of Xstrata plc's Australian coal unit told the Bloomberg press that government neglect of the country's century-old railways was costing his industry $100 million a year.

The report said at Newcastle, the world's biggest coal port, as many as 40 ships at a time wait to be loaded because tracks from mines 200 kilometres away can't carry enough coal.

"The situation has reached boiling point," Coates warned. "The Government has been aware of the industry�s needs for a long time and has failed to take action to prevent this crisis."

Interstate rail freight varies from around 75 per cent of east coast to Perth traffic to about 17 per cent of Melbourne-Sydney traffic.

Bryan Nye, the CEO of Australiasian Railway Association, says: "We're going to be faced with a real crisis if they don't improve the rail links. Otherwise more (freight) will go on roads and the community just won't accept more big trucks on the roads."

Coal and iron ore dominate rail freight in Australia, but trains move a variety of other commodities too, including grains, livestock, wool, fruit and vegetables, sugar, lumber and steel.

Australia is the world's biggest seller of alumina, coal, iron ore and zinc. Exports to 14 Asian countries grew an average of 7.5 per cent from 1996 to 2002 and further growth is predicted.

But much freight is still being shifted by trucks. Development of highways and bigger trucks have forced rail's share of the Sydney-Melbourne freight market to decline from 30 per cent 10 years ago to just over 20 per cent today, according to the ARA.

The association warns diesel fuel consumption by trucks will increase 70 per cent over the next 15 years.

Greenhouse emissions from these trucks are expected to increase a staggering 75 per cent in the same period. Inner city road congestion in major cities alone cost $13 billion in 1995 in terms of fuel and lost time. The ARA warns that will rise to $30 billion by 2015.

A few weeks ago, Transport Minister John Anderson announced a funding package that would include money for roads and rail. There would be $1.2 billion for regional roads, and central and state governments would spend $822 million starting from April to improve railways between Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.

But Nye says it's a poor deal. "Most of that money (for rail) is borrowed money which the rail industry has got to pay back. I mean, there's only $160 million of federal money in there, so it's not a big investment."

Nye says the message has not yet got through to the Federal Government that rail in Australia needs a lot more funding.

Industry sources say the time has come for a new era in rail, but the Federal Government lacks the vision to see beyond its own time in office.

One industry insider put it this way: "My view is that the political cycles in this country are too short for any government to have the vision and commitment to invest in something that is probably going to yield benefits in someone else's term in office. I believe that responsibility for these types of projects should lie with the federal Department of Transport. It astounds me that there is no such thing as an integrated transport plan. That's what's needed and that's a federal responsibility."

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