Tuesday, May 6, 2008


In testimony to how important this is to me, it is my first procrastination tool of choice. Tonight's topic is freight, and I refer throughout to an article, "Track and Ruin" in The Weekend Australian, pg. 25.
The gist of the argument is, Australia is making the same mistake twice. Just as we failed to capitalise on the coal boom (fuelled partly, we must not forget, but the constrained supply of Australian coal), so we are likely to miss out on a wheat boom because grain cannot be moved from the farms to the ships fast enough.
There are many issues here. Firstly, grain supply in Australia is irregular. There are boom years and bad years. This means much capacity is lying idle some or even most of the time. Apparently a lot of the infrastructure is old- like, 1890's old. Moreover, there are two guages in Victorian grain fields alone, and 22 Australia-wide. The traditional operator (the one with all the know-how I want to have) is Pacific National, which recently pulled out because the business was no longer profitable. There has been systematic underinvestment in infrastructure for years, apparently 12 decades' worth.

It's easy to see these problems from an armchair (or snuggled up in bed with a hot water bottle) and pass judgement, but I have (as ever) a few opinions to add:
Pacific National was short-sighted to pull out just before a projected boom in wheat prices. The cost of transport becomes relatively less, even as absolute costs grow. It could have been profitable.
The government should be investing more (or subsidising private investment) in rail infrastructure. I appreciate that different guages are better for different terrains, but this is ridiculous. I travelled the same train from Budapest to Karlsruhe without once changing. I assume there is some variation in terrain, yet somehow they managed to agree on a guage.
Once it gets to the ports, there are problems with overcrowding there, too. Even at the current rate, the ports are overstocked and choked up- imagine if the rail were operating efficiently! I have no designs on Australia's ports, but I hope whoever does own them manages them better when I'm in charge of Australia's rail freight.
Unlike the coal boom, which is at least partly caused by Australia's inability to supply demand, the wheat boom is completely separate and has nothing to do with us. So a lack of export facility is a really dumb thing. This means we should be doing everything in our power- re-laying century-old line, building new tracks, building new hoppers, exploring more efficient locomotives- everything- to capitalise.

Let me reiterate. I aim for nothing less than to be the owner-operator (personally or through a company) of all of Australia's rail infrastructure. I am willing to take all the risks and make all the sacrifices necessary.
All you have to do is walk to the train station and hop on the band wagon.

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