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Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Behind the train tangle

The Mercury: Behind the train tangle [14dec05]

TASMANIANS could be forgiven for wondering what on earth is happening behind the scenes in the continuing wrangle between the Lennon Government and the Federal Government over funding to fix the State's rail network.

On the face of it, Monday's $78million capital funding pledge by the Federal Howard Government to fix, upgrade and modernise the rickety railway track linking Hobart, Launceston, the Bell Bay and Burnie ports and the West Coast mines would appear both pragmatic and generous.

Here on offer is $78 million -- much of it available immediately -- the exact amount estimated by the railways' sole commercial operator, Pacific National, to bring the 780 kilometres of rickety track up to scratch.

All else that is required, under the tripartite Save-the-Rail deal, is for the Tasmanian Government to come up with a mere $4 million a year over the next 10 years to maintain the new track, and for Pacific National to fund $38 million in new rail trucks, rolling stock and locomotives.

Most importantly, the deal would save all of Tasmania's threatened railway services -- which are limited to vital freight trains these days -- from being axed early in 2006, as Pacific National had already deemed necessary.

And once railway lines are closed, they never re-open, as the Tasmanian Chamber of Commerce and Industry has warned all along.

So why isn't the Federal Government's rescue bid being greeted with delight by the State Government? Why hasn't the saving of the rail network been acclaimed as a fantastic offer from Canberra?

And just what is Infrastructure Minister, Bryan Green, so angry about, declaring it all a "dud" deal for Tasmania, which he thinks is "very, very unfair"?

The answer to all these three questions lies embedded deep in both the intricacies of State-federal relations. And politics is being played out too. A Liberal federal government and a Labor state counterpart are rarely going to agree on much -- especially when the issue involved may have implications in an approaching election.

There is no doubt the Lennon Government wants the rail network saved. It was hopeful that the Commonwealth would come up with the bulk of the capital improvement funding necessary to modernise the track, while it was always prepared to make a contribution.

All fine so far. The stumbling block came with the news that the $78 million rail rescue package would be funded using $100 million of national road funding already promised to build a new bridge at Bridgewater over the Derwent River.

This money was allocated from the $12.7 billion set aside for funding of road and rail infrastructure projects of national importance around Australia under the Auslink program.

The problem for Mr Green and the Tasmanian Government was that six months ago it changed its mind about what it wanted to use this $100 million for.

Discovering that there were height problems associated with the new bridge, heritage issues if the old one was demolished, and an extra requirement for $50 million to be funded by the State, the Lennon government decided it could make do with the old bridge for a bit longer.

Instead it lobbied the Federal Government to transfer the $100 million Auslink bridge commitment to its new and preferred road priority.

This was the so-called Hobart Northern Approaches project which planned to turn the substandard single-lane Midland Highway from Bagdad to Bridgewater into a four-lane freeway, bypassing the historic towns of Pontville and Brighton, at a cost of about $87 million.

Perhaps too conveniently, the State Government was keen to start its high-profile Northern Approaches highway plan, incorporating a new rail-to-truck transport hub outside Brighton Midland next year, in time for the lead-up to the 2006 State election.

But the Federal Government would not play ball. Mr Green was told many times that it was not so simple to switch Auslink funding from project to project at whim.

For Mr Green the last six months have turned into high-stakes play. His agenda is multiple -- to save the railways at not too much cost to the state, build the Northern Approaches highway as quickly as possible, get funding for a $20 million upgrade to the old Bridgewater Bridge, and streamline the Granton roundabout bottleneck where the Lyell and Midlands Highways join on the west side of the Derwent.

Even more integral, secure federal funding for the Brighton rail-truck intermodal hub, the key Hobart container and freight depot now that no freight arrives in Hobart by scheduled ship services.

This then allows the State Government to close the railway from Brighton to the port and sell off more than 12 hectares of prime dockland to developers -- perhaps keeping some for public projects -- right in the heart of Sullivan's Cove on Hobart's waterfront.

"Don't forget the waterfront land in all this equation," wily federal Liberal senator Eric Abetz said yesterday. "Once the railway into the port has gone and the freight terminal moved to Brighton, it's going to deliver pots of gold to the State Government because it owns all that land."

On all of these grounds, Bryan Green and the State Government should have been pretty happy with the rail rescue deal announced by the federal Government on Monday.

It saves the trains with a $78 million grant at a cost of just $4 million a year to the State. It includes $22 million to upgrade the historic Bridgewater Bridge. And there is a promise of $5 million matching funding for the Brighton intermodal freight terminal, thereby freeing up the valuable Hobart port land for sale.

So when Mr Green says he feels dudded, he means it as much as a local Labor politician as a proud Tasmanian.

For a start, he hates the appearance that the federal Liberal Government has saved the railways with a plan almost identical to that first proposed by State Liberal leader Rene Hidding two months ago.

He also hates the way the federal Liberals have "stolen" the State Government's promised $100 million, which it was hoping to use in an electorally-useful way on the Hobart Northern Approaches road project.

And he despises the feeling that he has been tricked on a deal he thought he had won over federal Transport Minister Truss, which saw Mr Green sign the protracted Auslink agreement on behalf of Tasmania on October 30, only after insisting that his signing was linked to the Commonwealth switching its $100 million Bridge promise to the Brighton by-pass option.

"This isn't what we agreed at all," Mr Green insists. "Rail was never mentioned as part of all this."

Now Mr Green fears Tasmania must wait two years before the Howard Government will consider finding another $90 million for Hobart's northern approaches upgrade. That's not politically palatable to either him or the Government.

Particularly when the pragmatic way the federal Government went about saving the rail system seems to have met with the approval of the Tasmanian public, including the unions, who couldn't care less about Auslink promises, broken or otherwise, when the future of their railway was at stake.

Worst of all, the beautiful harbour-front land that can now be sold may not prove such a pot of gold after all.

"There's huge environmental liability issues associated with that site," Mr Green muttered yesterday. "Then look at how much we might get back."


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