IN A BLATANT electioneering move, Federal Prime Minister John Howard gave a ringing endorsement on June 23 to the A$9bn proposal by Australian Transport & Energy Corridor Pty Ltd and Abigroup Ltd to build a new railway from Melbourne to Darwin via Toowoomba, 150 km inland from Brisbane (RG 5.97 p282). There is to be a year long feasibility study.

The scheme was originally floated as a straight commercial venture that strained credibility well beyond breaking point, and ATEC Chairman Everald Compton now concedes that ’if the project is going to take some years to make profits, then you need assistance from the government - we’ll cross those bridges when we come to them.’

Howard’s statement - made without consulting his Transport Minister Mark Vaile, according to Labour’s shadow minister Lindsay Tanner - aroused concern in Darwin and fury in Adelaide. Bids to build and operate the 1400 km link from Alice Springs to Darwin, backed by A$300m in government grants, are due in October; it seems that this time there is more prospect of work starting, perhaps early in 1999 for completion in 2002. However absurd ATEC’s scheme may appear to transport professionals, bankers funding the line from Alice can only be unsettled by the prime minister’s open support for a rival project.

Australia’s disgraceful rail policy vacuum has again been exposed. There is a desperate need to upgrade the Adelaide - Melbourne - Sydney - Brisbane interstate lines so that rail can compete effectively with modern highways. Maybe ATEC’s inland route from Melbourne to Toowoomba (and Brisbane) could be part of the solution. But nobody really knows, because there is no national framework within which upgrading options on existing lines can be related to privately promoted schemes such as ATEC’s, and the Sydney - Canberra high speed passenger line - let alone last month’s astonishing proposal by Australian Trunk Rail Corp for an Adelaide - Darwin route via Bendigo, Parkes and Toowoomba.

HNew South Wales Premier Bob Carr has announced that Speedrail and Transrapid are preferred bidders for the proposed Sydney - Canberra high speed project. He said that in both cases substantial government funding would be required and that ’the federal government will have to fund these costs.’ o