Fast rail go-slow

RATIONAL people do not spend money unless they expect to be better off, in some way, than they would have been had they not spent that money.

We would like to think that governments which spend the money they collect from taxpayers try to act in the same way.

Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Expenditures of millions or billions of dollars are sold to the public with Utopian promises, but the end result is quite disappointing more often than not. In some cases, the results are actually negative.

It is distressing to see that despite huge expenditures into different sections of the Australian railway industry, the outcomes have generally been negative:

Long-distance passenger trains are running slower than they were in the steam engine era on some lines in New South Wales and on one line in Victoria, and interstate rail freight is steadily losing market share in spite of huge investments in rail track, signalling, motive power, and rolling stock.

Australia's railways are not so much under-capitalised as under-managed, particularly at the top, where governments make investment decisions.

Several years ago, the Federal and Victorian governments announced a $613 million plan to convert the broad gauge line between Seymour and Albury to standard gauge.

The proposal was to build a double-track railway for 200km so trains would not have to wait in sidings to pass trains travelling in the opposite direction. Both tracks were also to be extensively upgraded.

To allow the work to proceed quickly and cheaply, all Victorian passenger trains between Melbourne and Albury were cancelled for about two years.

The result? The project is years behind schedule and still not completely finished; the two passenger services that have been re-introduced are slower than before the upgrading program commenced; and the freight traffic market share has gone down.

More recently, the Federal and NSW governments have announced plans to spend $1.1 billion to improve the speed and reliability of Brisbane-Sydney freight trains between Newcastle and Sydney.

Part of the plan is to build an underpass at North Strathfield to eliminate a conflict between freight and passenger trains; this would be a good plan if it is properly planned and executed. But the rest of the plan is basically for more sidings for freight trains at Epping, Pennant Hills, Gosford, and Hexham.

These sidings have only one purpose to park freight trains. Parking freight trains in sidings along the way cannot, by definition, result in faster journey times. Moreover, the line is controlled by the passenger operator, Cityrail, rather than by freight operators.

The plan betrays a lack of understanding of the dynamics of train operation. Interstate freight trains are able to maintain or exceed the average speeds of passenger services.

Once a freight train is slotted into the cohort of trains on a line, it can proceed with little disruption to other trains.

In fact, parking in a siding (and getting out) not only disrupts the freight train's journey but also that of other passenger trains. The vision of a lumbering freight train, suggested in the press release announcing this plan, could only have been made in ignorance of contemporary railway operations, and demonstrates the ignorance of those making huge investment decisions.

These two examples are small fry compared to the $5.3 billion being invested to separate suburban and inter-urban/regional passenger trains in the greater Melbourne area.

These two types of trains operate at significantly different average speeds, so faster inter-urban trains are slowed by suburban services. The answer is dedicated tracks for the faster inter-urban services at least in parts of the suburban area.

Extra tracks often result in more expense and social disruption of land resumption. So Victoria should first look at other possible solutions, such as longer, double-deck diesel-hauled peak trains, to move more passengers with the same track infrastructure.

But the biggest part of the project is a new 25km double-track railway from Deer Park in a circular arc to Werribee, supposedly to speed train services from Geelong through the Melbourne suburban area. Being 12km longer than the existing route raises doubts as to how it will speed up Geelong services.

That is not all. The proposed line already has two suburban stations – and there is little doubt local residents will demand more – so its stated aim of separating suburban and inter-urban train services is nonsense.

It will be of no use in speeding up inter-urban services, and with its circular trajectory it will be of little use as a suburban railway.

Instead of focusing on mega railway projects that deliver nothing except profits to construction companies, government should turn its attention to modest projects that are capable of delivering significant improvements.

John Nestor worked with the former NSW Public Transport Commission's Rail Division. This article first appeared in The Centre for Independent Studies journal Policy.