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August 26, 2011

Australians clash over the true value of rail

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In the midst of criticism of rail’s environmental credentials from the road freight industry, the Australasian Railway Association is fighting back, as Kevin Smith discovers.

"DIRTY" and "polluting" were the words chosen by the chief executive of the Australian Trucking Association (ATA) Mr Stuart St Clair in mid-August to describe Australia's ageing locomotive fleet and to discount rail's perceived environmental superiority.

Referring to the emissions levels of the 40-year-old locomotives highlighted in The true value of rail report conducted for the Australasian Railway Association (ARA) by Deloitte Access Economics, St Clair was keen to point out that the trucking industry has made great strides in reducing its emissions in the last 15 years, while rail has stood still.

"Since 1995 the trucking industry has been subject to increasingly tight pollution controls. All new trucks must meet the stringent Euro V standard," St Clair says. "In contrast there are no emissions controls on locomotives. A conservative estimate is that a typical locomotive emits more pollution than 140 new trucks. The oldest locomotives are even dirtier.

"The rail industry will talk about the environmental benefits of increasing the use of rail. Its first step should be to agree to emissions controls and update its ageing equipment."

Debate has raged in Australia about how to avoid a transport crisis that threatens to harm economic growth and cause Australians to spend more time in their cars than with their families. With the country's population projected to hit 30.5 million by 2030 as urban areas swell, road groups have pushed for investments that will improve capacity and the flow of traffic.
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Rail advocates on the other hand argue that only by replacing road vehicles with trains will the problems be solved. Deloitte's study supports this view, despite St Clair's claims, which ARA CEO Mr Bryan Nye (pictured) says is evidence of ATA "trying to discredit sound research." Nye says that while the average age of freight locomotives is 36 years, the older units are only used to "move a small amount of freight," and that "the majority of Australian freight locomotives meet most European and North American standards on air quality and emissions."

"If we're going to weigh the environmental and social benefits of road and rail we need the full picture," he says.

Deloitte's report says that Australia is the most intensive user of road freight in the world, with its share increasing from 22% in 1970 to 70% today, while railfreight's share has declined from 45% to under 30% during the same period. This has resulted in greater congestion in and around urban areas and inevitably more pollution; the research finds that on average road transport accounts for 40% more pollution than rail. For bulk freight transport such as coal, rail is up to 10 times more emissions friendly.

The study says one extra passenger train can replace up to 525 cars, saving 3.2 million vehicle-km per year. Adding an average-length freight train to the network would remove 110 lorries, reducing lorry movements by around 49.7 million-km.

While Nye admits that St Clair and ATA are right to emphasise the need to address older locomotives' emissions, he says that this reflects a problem with services that are essential but do not necessarily operate at a profit.

"There is no commercial incentive for operators to replace these locomotives," Nye says. "This is why the rail industry has developed its government-industry proposal to replace and repower older locomotives." The major challenge therefore facing Australia's rail industry is to lobby for the required investments to be made in several major projects which could provide substantial improvements to freight and passenger services. For example a $A 4.4bn ($US 4.8bn) investment in the North Sydney freight corridor would provide more efficient freight movement between Melbourne and Brisbane, while expanding capacity in and around Sydney through the Western Express Project, which is estimated to cost $A 4.5bn, would add capacity to the city's network.

High-speed rail is considered a medium-term solution to both congestion issues and reducing carbon emissions. On August 4 minister for infrastructure and transport, Mr Anthony Albanese, released stage one of the High Speed Rail report which identifies a corridor for a 350km/h high-speed line from Brisbane to Melbourne.

With an estimated price tag of $A 61bn - $A 108bn it is comparable with building new roads such as Sydney's M4 east expansion which is expected to cost a staggering $A 312.5m per km. Nye says that it is time that rail received similar substantial outlays for what will be an extremely beneficial project. "When you consider that $A 293bn has been invested in our roads since 1985, $A 100bn to link the East Coast through a high-speed network seems insignificant," he says.

The Deloitte study calls for all future funding to be raised through an appropriate mix of public, private and PPP financing. Congestion charges and carbon taxes are possible alternative revenue streams, while state governments should also play a prominent role because of their experience and desire to improve networks.

As the study shows, the potential exists for rail to be the long-term solution to Australia's growing transport problems, despite rival claims. But as ARA continues to stress, it is now up to the government to have the courage to turn off the road.

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