Each year, the Henry Parkes Foundation arranges for an oration to commemorate a definitive speech made by Sir Henry Parkes in October 1889 at Tenterfield, NSW. This speech gave real direction to Federation of the Australian colonies. The 2011 Henry Parkes oration was on the topic of railways and a brief summary (from the Summer 2012 edition of Track and Signal magazine) follows. The 2011 and earlier orations may be viewed at http://www.parkesfoundation.org.au
By Philip Laird – University of Wollongong
In his 1889 speech, Parkes had a clear vision of an Australian Federation that included an efficient rail system to increase both the nation’s defence capability and its prosperity.
If Sir Henry were to return today to Australia, he would be impressed with advances in railway engineering along with some world class operations. However, he would be greatly disappointed and quite angry at the substandard nature of rail in New South Wales. He would also demand to know why, 110 years after Federation, the nation’s railway gauges had not been standardised; and, why successive federal governments have failed to give Australia a fit for purpose rail system.
As a result of decisions taken at the 1897 Australasian Federal Convention in Adelaide, it was agreed that the powers of the Federal Parliament would include post and telegraphs offices along with defence and customs. However, the control of the railways, except for defence purposes, was to remain with the States.
Over time, this decision not to transfer railways to the Commonwealth has proven to impose additional costs to Australia. Had railways been a Federal responsibility, as they are in Canada and the United States, the following 12 benefits could well have been realised.
1. The railway gauge question would have been resolved within a few decades of Federation.
As then seen by Mr Whitlam (Hansard, 30 October 1956) “If one authority were in charge of the railways, the break-of-gauge would be intolerable and the responsibility would swiftly be sheeted home to the appropriate Minister.
2. Cost shifting between the States and federal governments, and putting off much needed investment, in rail, would have been avoided.
3. There would have been more balance between federal rail and road investment. In the 30 years from 1974 to 2004, in 2004 dollars, some $24.6 billion of Federal funds was used to upgrade the interstate highways with a net federal interstate rail allocation of about $2.2 billion; a ratio of some eleven to one in favour of interstate highways. The ratio has since improved, but still favours roads.
4. Commonwealth control of railways would have likely resulted in better quality interstate links meeting Canadian and US Class I railroad standards in terms of alignment, speed weight characteristics, clearances and signalling.
Here, as noted by Len Harper, then CEO of the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport ‘The major task of increasing rail traffic on the East Coast’ Track and Signal Oct-Nov-Dec 2008 (p9-13), the tracks linking Australia’s three largest cities “… are inadequate for current and future needs.”
5. An inland route between Melbourne, Parkes and Brisbane, as proposed in 1915 by former Prime Minister Andrew Fisher would have been built in early during the 20th century. Construction work on an inland route is yet to commence.
6. Early Commonwealth control of railways would have prevented the excessive diversity of locomotives and rolling stock. For all of the twentieth century, these were made, at much extra cost, to different specifications.
7. The different management of interstate rail freight operations would have been addressed well before the early 1990s.
8. Privatisation of rail assets would have been better handled, in some cases, such as Tasmania, they were costly and failed experiments.
9. Rail deficits, which occurred during the second half of the twentieth century, would have been much smaller.
10. Road deficits would have been reduced. These have been estimated by Prof. John Stanley (Aust. Fin. Review, 24 January 2011 Roads lobby has it all wrong) , at about $24 billion a year. This is after taking into account fuel excise and annual registration charges, and all costs including road congestion.
11. Less oil would need to have been imported.
12. The burden of operating trains under different State based safety regulators would have been lifted. Only this year, in 2011, was approval given by the Coalition of Australia Governments, or COAG, for a national rail safety regulator.
As noted on 13 February 2011 in the Canberra Times by Federal Infrastructure Minister Albanese COAG Today to be Asked to Complete Federation Dream “It is 110 years since Federation … yet …on some issues it’s as if federation is as elusive as it was for Henry Parkes.”
Although Australia cannot go back in time to place railways under federal jurisdiction, it should address rail infrastructure deficiencies and road pricing that leads to excessive dependence on road transport.
A major input into road vehicle use is that of liquid fuel. During 2010, cars, buses and trucks used about 31 billion litres of petrol, diesel, and LPG. By way of contrast, rail used less than one billion litres of diesel a year for a smaller passenger task but a larger freight task than road. Rail also uses electricity, produced mostly from domestic coal, with an oil equivalent of about 1.2 billion litres per year.
In 1998, the Chartered Institute of Transport issued a sternly worded warning that cheap oil would not last forever and that ‘More of the same in our current transport plans is no longer tenable. In 1999 Engineers Australia also called for a more sustainable approach to transport.
A further concern to oil vulnerability is climate change. The diversion of passengers and freight from road to rail would not only reduce the use of imported oil and also reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
In 2002, the Secretary of the Australian Treasury, Dr Ken Henry noted projected increases in urban traffic and interstate road freight raised “important issues”; also that Not dealing with these issues now amounts to passing a very challenging set of problems to future generations.”
In 2008, the Garnaut climate change review observed that ”Governments have a major role in lowering the economic costs of adjustment to higher oil prices, an emissions price and population growth… Mode shift may account for a quarter of emissions reductions in urban public transport…”
This could mean a reduction of fuel use by at least two billion litres per year.
Mode shifting 20 per cent of Australia’s road freight to rail would reduce diesel fuel use by over half a billion litres per year.
High Speed Rail, with intercity passenger trains capable of speeds of 250km/h. High Speed Rail now works well in 12 countries around the world. If operating between Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne, it would likely reduce aviation fuel use by over a half billion litres a year.
Where to now ?
In conclusion, although Federation has conferred many benefits to Australia, the failure during the 1890s to include railways along with defence and communications as a Federal responsibility has been costly to the nation. The railway gauge question, resolved in the late ninetenth century in Britain, Canada, the United States and New Zealand, still awaits resolution in Australia.
If Parkes were living today, he would be concerned for Australia’s ability to respond to any threat from overseas and this would include a need to lessen dependence on imported oil. In turn, this will require:
* expansion and upgrading of urban rail in Sydney and other large cities,
* bringing mainline interstate track towards Canadian and US Class I railroad standards by straightening and strengthening the track with better clearances,
* residual gauge standardisation, particularly of broad to standard gauge
* rehabilitation of branch lines and completion of better rail links to ports,
* construction of an inland route, and,
* road pricing reform.
Some of these measures would be assisted by giving the Australian Rail Track Corporation a firm legislative basis for getting more freight and passengers onto rail.
In this regard, there has been a legislative basis for a National Highway System since 1974 with a federal National Roads Act.
Full Speech at: http://www.parkesfoundation.org.au/Projects_oration2011.htm