Western Australia’s Transport Minister Murray Criddle announced on July 30 that Westrail is to be sold as a vertically integrated freight operation in the second quarter of 1999. The state will retain ownership of the land, and of suburban and country passenger services. Federal Transport Minister Mark Vaile responded by demanding firm undertakings that an equitable open access regime would operate on the line from Kalgoorlie to Perth. This forms an integral part of the standard gauge interstate network, which Vaile said would be ’severely disabled’ if the infrastructure was controlled by a privatised Westrail.

The view in Canberra is that access arrangements in WA should mirror those in New South Wales, where the state’s Rail Access Corp makes paths available on the interstate trunk lines to the Australian Rail Track Corp which came into existence on July 1. ARTC sells them on to National Rail and private interstate train operators. Vaile put pressure on WA by threatening to withhold its share of the A$250m which the federal government is making available for interstate upgrading. This is supposed to be supplemented by private investment on terms yet to be revealed, but expressions of interest were invited by ARTC last month.

The overwhelming impression that the federal government’s policy on railways is a complete shambles was reinforced on August 13 by the report of a parliamentary committee chaired by Paul Neville MP. Commissioned by the previous transport minister, the report confirmed that the national network had ’chronic infrastructure deficiencies’ that would be irretrievable without investment of A$2·75bn over 12 years. The committee called for A$750m in immediate federal funding, followed by A$2bn to be spent in the decade from 2001.

The committee also called on the federal government to take a ’leadership role’ in ensuring that uniform technical standards and operating procedures were introduced. It said ’the list of inconsistencies which impede efficient rail transport is long and often seemed beyond belief’. There should be a national approach to employee training, a national rail safety and accident investigation body, and a grant to help standardise signalling and communications.

More fundamentally, the committee called for a national land transport commission to make recommendations for funding road and rail projects that addressed such issues as accidents, congestion, pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and noise.

Reponding to the Neville Report, Vaile said ’we recognise the enormity of the task ahead. Rail Australia has been allowed to deteriorate to third world standards. Now, from the bottom up, we are rebuilding the entire system to make it competitive, efficient and safe.’ Despite the rhetoric, there was no commitment to additional state funding above the $A250m already earmarked for upgrading through ARTC. The best on offer was a ’high-powered taskforce to advise Australian governments on ways to facilitate an expanded network of high speed passenger and freight trains’. It looks as though the third world standards could be around for a long time. o