Rail shake-up: privatisation the secret agenda?

March 27, 1991

By Garry Walters

MELBOURNE — Rail unionists are concerned that plans for reorganisation of Australia's railways could open the door to privatisation of the main inter-city routes while the remnants of the old state networks are left to fall into decay.

The reorganisation will be the "most far reaching" in the history of Australia's rail networks, Australian Railways Union acting national secretary Roger Jowett told a March 13 seminar of Victorian rail unionists.

The shake-up, under which a national railways corporation would take charge of the main routes, was initially projected in 1989 by a working party dominated by state and federal government departments and the largest private transport corporations, including Mayne Nickless and Thomas Nationwide Transport. Union participation consisted of one ACTU industrial officer.

The reorganisation is dubbed the National Rail Freight Initiative, and a special Premiers' Conference last October set up the National Rail Freight Corporation, which is due to begin operating on July 1.

The plan envisages large-scale government investment on the main inter-city tracks, in particular the Melbourne-Sydney and Melbourne-Adelaide routes.

It could include major rerouting to include Canberra on the Melbourne-Sydney route and to move the Melbourne-Adelaide track to terrain more suitable for high-speed, heavyweight, long-haul operations.

Hand in hand with the initiative go plans for management rationalisation, technological updating, union amalgamations and industrial restructuring.

The project would require massive government spending. The ARU estimates some $2.5 billion is needed over the next five years just to begin repairing the legacy of 50 years of declining investment in the rail system.

Rail unionists are concerned that such spending should not become a handout to the giant private freight corporations.

In recent years, while investment dwindled to almost nothing under the Hawke government, private road-based passenger and freight services received subsidies of something like $1.5 billion yearly in the form of government spending on Australia's 16,000 kilometres of main highway. Little of this was recovered in road-user charges.

While rail unions would welcome the government investment necessary to make the railways more competitive, they are concerned that the corporation plans simply to select the most lucrative routes for upgrading with the aim of running them as adjuncts to the giant freight corporations, or even selling them off.

The model for the national corporation would almost certainly be the porations with their methods of contracting out lucrative work, their property sell-offs and leveraged leasing deals, and their sale and lease-back arrangements.

Victorian rail unionists recently had to block a secret government attempt to sell off rural small-freight operations to TNT, and their Tasmanian counterparts are still battling a federally inspired attempt to close down the Launceston railway workshop with the loss of 350 jobs.

Transport unions are saying the corporation should be exclusively a state-federal government venture and are planning a 24-hour stoppage to begin a campaign following a scheduled April 5 meeting of the Australian Transport Advisory Council, which consists of federal and state transport ministers.

The unions' campaign is also designed to influence a special Premiers' Conference discussion of the issue, set for May.

Meanwhile, the ARU has begun discussing amalgamation with other transport unions, including the tram and bus workers' union (ATMOEA).
[Garry Walters is a member of the Victorian branch council of the ARU.]

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