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Blue Mountains Battleground
Rail Versus Road

Railway Digest, October 1998


The rail industry and communities are coming together to oppose government policies which are putting more and heavier, longer trucks on roads while rail assets remain under utilised. Recent developments in the Blue Mountains illustrate a changing mood in the community towards the lack of competitive neutrality in land transport policies. John Hoyle reports.

Competitive neutrality, level playing fields - these elusive goals are constantly being pursued by an increasingly vocal rail industry and the wider community which is tiring of the virtual open slather being given by Governments to the heavy road vehicle industry. Peak rail industry body, the Australasian Railway Association (ARA), is spearheading the call for a more even-handed approach by Governments towards land transport policy in Australia. The "big picture" rail industry campaign focuses on the impact of huge road expenditure and heavier and larger road vehicles on the national rail network - and motorists. But the national focus of these campaigns needs a local battleground to illustrate the problems caused by a rampant road freight industry to a local community and its railway. That battleground is the Blue Mountains.

Bigger, Heavier Trucks

Increasing concern over heavier and larger trucks travelling on the Great Western Highway over the Blue Mountains coupled with calls by the NSW Opposition for the construction of a new "super" road crossing of the mountains prompted Jim Angel of the Blue Mountains City Council and the Highway Safety Action Group, assisted by the Australasian Railway Association, to organise a public meeting during August to reinforce opposition to "big trucks and big roads". Speaking at the meeting were Marj Bollinger (Secretary of the Highway Safety Action Group), Peter Andren, (Independent Member for the NSW Central Western seat of Calare), Ross Kirby (Business Manager West, FreightCorp), Bob Debus (Labor State Member for the Blue Mountains), John Rickard (Australian Democrats candidate for the Federal seat of Macquarie), Marzi DeSanti (NRMA Traffic Engineering Manager), David Hill (Research Officer, Australasian Railway Association) and Maggie Deahm (former Federal Member for Macquarie). Peter Andren summed up the mood of the meeting when he called for a balanced transport system with far more freight moving by rail.

B-Double Campaign

Community action against larger trucks crossing the Blue Mountains has been boosted by a recent NSW Government decision to permit 19-metre B-doubles to operate over the Blue Mountains. This is regarded by residents as the thin end of the wedge as road freight industry group, the Road Transport Forum, is lobbying Local Government in the Blue Mountains area to obtain access for bigger trucks. The RTF is campaigning on the basis that a 25-metre B-double is no different to a 19 metre B-double. As a first step in operating bigger B-doubles across the Mountains, the trucking industry is seeking to run 25-metre B-double vehicles as far a Lapstone, at the eastern foot of the Mountains. From there they would be operated in two sections over the mountains. The view of Blue Mountains residents and the Australasian Railway Association is that after a year or two of this type of operation, the trucking industry would argue that it would be much cheaper to operate the entire B-double over the Blue Mountains as a single unit.

Super Highway through Blue Mountains

The push for bigger trucks along the Great Western Highway coincides with a campaign by councils west of the Blue Mountains for a "super highway" over the mountains. Proposals range from a primarily surface road costing $1 billion to $3 billion for a largely underground road. NSW Premier Bob Carr, himself an avid road builder in the Sydney metropolitan area, described the underground road proposal, which was floated by the NSW National Party, as rivalling some of the great construction works in ancient Egypt. Local Member for the Blue Mountains, Bob Debus, said that for a gain of 30 kilometres an hour, the National Party was prepared to knock down more houses in his electorate than were knocked down in London during the Battle of Britain. However, Opposition Leader, Peter Collins, backed away from full support for the National party's plans saying it was "far too early" to guarantee that the road would be built.

Less Taxes, More Tar

The Blue Mountains City Council opposes the "super" road plan while the Mayor of Lithgow, Gerard Martin, has called for an expressway using the alignment of the Bell's Line of Road. Some tunnelling would be involved and this proposal has been costed at $985 million. According to Blue Mountains residents and rail industry campaigners, the push for a "mega" road across (or under) the Blue Mountains is part of the "less taxes, more tar" campaign being mounted by the Road Transport Federation. The ARA contends that if the supposed "excessive levels of taxation" are removed from the trucking industry, that industry would not be the one paying for the extra roads that they want.

Upgrade the Railway

The meeting vigorously opposed these proposals and considered them to be an assault on the very reason people sought to live in the Blue Mountains. All speakers referred to the importance of the rail line over the Mountains and the need for it to be upgraded to increase track capacity and the loading gauge. Residents want more use of the railway, not more trucks on the Great Western Highway. The lack of a level playing field between rail and road was sheeted home by the realisation that larger trucks on the Great Western Highway would threaten the viability of freight forwarder FCL's two daily Monday to Friday container trains which operate between Sydney and the company's freight terminal at Blayney. (See item at the end of this article.)

Road Safety

Opposition to larger trucks in the Blue Mountains is also based on road safety issues. Residents took the view that the road safety record of the heavy road transport industry was not impressive. Although road crashes and road fatalities involving articulated trucks have declined in the past 10 years, so have the total number of road fatalities. Articulated trucks are involved in nine per cent of road crashes and 10 per cent of road fatalities. These proportions have remained constant for over a decade indicating that articulated trucks continue to be a road menace. The community view is that trucks are getting bigger but they are not getting safer.

More by Rail, Less by Road

The rail industry has pointed out that the trucking lobby always refers to Federal Office of Road Safety statistics which show that nearly 80 per cent of crashes involving articulated trucks and cars are not the fault of the truck driver. This figure disguises the fact that trucks are an avoidable hazard - they don't have to be there. Increased use of rail freight services will reduce the number of trucks on roads so that motorists do have to overtake trucks on wet, slippery roads or up hills or overtake convoys of trucks. Motorists are also fearful of harassment by supposed "speed limited" trucks travelling at well over 100 km/h or being blinded by the headlights of oncoming trucks. The rail industry suggests that there are all types of accidents involving trucks where the motorist is supposedly at fault, but where trucks were a major contributing factor.

Rail – Safer & "Greener"

The Blue Mountains meeting was regarded as being extremely successful and resolved to campaign for much heavy freight presently being trucked over the Blue Mountains to be transferred to rail. The meeting sent a clear message to the NSW Government that rail has a far superior safety and environmental record to road and should be the primary means of freight transport over the Blue Mountains and elsewhere. The community wants to send a message to government that it is far cheaper, simpler and safer to make better use of existing rail freight services than build bigger roads to cater for bigger trucks.

Privatised Trains Boost Freight Traffic

In the past, the road lobby has often pointed out that freight has been lost from rail to road because of the inefficiencies of Government-owned rail freight services. One of the ironies in the Blue Mountains case study is that the gains made in rail freight activity across the Mountains in recent times have been largely associated with the private sector. The previously mentioned FCL container trains have boosted rail activity on the Western line and the Manildra Group's flour traffic to and from Manildra presents a good example of private sector partnerships with FreightCorp. There is a view that the road lobby is feeling uncomfortable about the new private sector forces at work in the rail industry. Perhaps this is one reason the road industry wants bigger trucks. Blue Mountain's residents want bigger trains, not bigger trucks and bigger roads.

John Hoyle
Railway Digest, October 1998
Australian Railway Historical Society, NSW Division.



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