NEW SOUTH WALES Transport Minister Michael Costa told around 650 delegates to the AusRail Plus 2003 event in Sydney on November 17 that the state’s rail unions were ’95% of the way’ to agreeing to the lease of interstate track in New South Wales to Australia Rail Track Corp. And it was so. On December 5 a formal agreement between the Commonwealth and New South Wales governments was announced, the intention being to sign the deal in the next few weeks so that it comes into force on April 5. Legislation giving effect to the lease will be introduced into the NSW parliament next month.

The long-awaited agreement puts in place the last element of the Australian Transport Council’s 1997 recommendation to establish a single track access manager for the interstate network. It sees ARTC leasing for 60 years the NSW interstate and Hunter Valley routes and the dedicated metropolitan freight lines to the Sydney port areas, around 3400 route-km in all. ARTC will also be granted a licence to build a freight-only line through the southwest suburbs of Sydney from Macarthur to Chullora, avoiding the need for freight to share tracks with passenger services and so eliminating one of the major causes of delay to traffic moving in the Melbourne - Brisbane corridor.

ARTC will manage the remaining non-interstate track and country branches on behalf of NSW, which will retain funding responsibility. This will leave NSW in direct control of some branches and the Sydney urban network, where reintegration of the State Rail Authority and Rail Infrastructure Corp is now likely. Indeed, Costa had surprised AusRail delegates by admitting in his keynote speech that separation of infrastructure delivery from its ownership in the reforms of the 1990s had been a mistake, ’and the last five years has been the history of putting it right’.

The lease deal triggers a welcome five-year investment programme worth A$872m, of which A$180m will pay for the southern freight access in Sydney and A$145m will be spent on upgrading the Hunter Valley lines to raise capacity from 85 to 100 million tonnes a year. A further A$175m will see the Main South Line from Macarthur to Albany upgraded, cutting 3h off the 131/2h intermodal schedules between Sydney and Melbourne, where rail’s market share is expected to grow from 11% to 20% by 2010.

About A$123m is allocated to the 684 km North Coast line from Maitland to the Queensland border, including replacement of the 1920s electric staff working between Casino and Greenbank; intermodal freight timings should come down from 21h to 17 1/2h when the work is completed. The line from Cootamundra to Werris Creek will be upgraded for A$54m, and nearly A$22m will permit clearances to be raised between Parkes and Broken Hill to accommodate double-stack container trains.

The deal and investment package were welcomed by the Australasian Railway Association. Chief Executive Officer Bryan Nye said it ’will position rail as the preferred means of freight transport nationally’. Note, however, that this is not a generous handout of government grant. Around A$125m is the unspent residue of A$250m announced five years ago, plus A$50m from the owners of Pacific National, while the rest consist of loans to be secured by ARTC from the market and guaranteed by the government.

AusRail delegates also heard suggestions that rail may be viewed more favourably at national level than in the past. De-Anne Kelly, Parliamentary Secretary standing in for Commonwealth Transport Minister John Anderson, said that the forthcoming AusLink white paper would deliver a more integrated approach for rail and road, with the rail industry being given ’a level playing field’ when funding for major schemes was being considered. That would certainly be a change of heart.