By Tracy Sorensen
SYDNEY — Unless the government funds a major refurbishment program, the Indian-Pacific passenger train will be forced to shut down. If it does, say environmentalists, it will be the culmination of decades of government policies which have favoured environmentally damaging road transport over rail.
Six hundred workers would lose their jobs, and many more would lose out indirectly.
Australian National Railways has told the federal government that unless it agrees to a $17.5 million three-year rescue package, the service will probably close. The train journey, the second longest in the world, is said to be running at a loss of $10 million per year.
"If [land transport minister] Bob Brown withdraws support for the Indian Pacific, it will undo the good work in the One Nation statement", anti-freeway campaigner Peter Warrington told Green Left. "One Nation promised the first big investment in rail in over 20 years. It purported to show that the federal government was interested in supporting rail.
"But you can't just pick the winners in rail and just go for the high traffic freight. You have to support an integrated freight and passenger service. If you look around the world at the great train journeys, they are making money. You should be able to have a system that's a people mover and a tourist attraction."
The environmental benefits of rail transport over road transport, in terms of pollution and land use, were well known, said Warrington. But road was still being favoured over rail by the politicians and bureaucrats, he said. An excise tax on rail fuel, for example, helped subside road construction. The subsidies should be going the other way.
The funding submission from Australian National Railways, supported by the Australian Railways Union, asks for $17.5 million to overhaul the old rolling stock and start up a new operating system that would cut the number of operators from three to one.
An international marketing strategy, similar to that which revived the Ghan journey between Adelaide and Alice Springs, could make money from tourists looking for a leisured "travel experience". The rail unions are supporting this strategy, as long as the economy class traveller is also accommodated.
Anthony Dennis, author of the travel book Ribbons of Steel: Riding the Indian Pacific (Allen and Unwin, 1991) told Green Left that closing the service would be a terrible legacy for any government.
"I found the two weeks catching the Indian Pacific from Sydney to e of the great experiences of my life. It's the only really adequate way of getting a sense of the country between those two seaboards. You don't get much of a sense of the Nullarbor from the highway. On the train, you go right through the guts of it." n