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Transport - land

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Transport options for an ecologically sustainable society

Philip Laird *

The 'road deficit'
Other costs of road transport
Car dependence
The urban rail system in Australia
Inter-city rail in Australia today
Regional rail in Australia today
Transport policies in New Zealand
Transport policies in Australia to 2007
Transport policies in Australia since 2007

Much 'spin' continues to be written about sustainable transport by government at various levels in Australia. The reality is that most Australian transport relies on road vehicles that are heavily dependent on both oil and large hidden subsidies. Moreover, rail and urban public transport systems have only limited role in moving people in Australian major cities whilst rail has a constricted role in moving freight in Eastern Australia. Cycling, which could be encouraged with better facilities, also has a limited role.

The road deficit - To compound the situation of the likely end of cheap oil, road vehicle use in Australia is encouraged with numerous hidden subsidies whilst ever more road building induces even more vehicle use. One recent estimate of a “road deficit” by this writer is $13 billion per annum. This amount includes road accident costs not met by insurance payments, tax concessions and rebates, health costs (mortality and morbidity) from motor vehicle emissions, noise, the Queensland Fuel Subsidy Scheme and the Sydney Toll Rebates as well as subsidies to car making in Australia. This estimate excludes the cost of road congestion, recently estimated at $9 billion per year. It also excludes the cost of land used for roads and parking.

Other costs of road transport - The cost of road maintenance and new construction met by Australia’s three levels of government now exceeds $10 billion per year. Added to this cost is that of toll ways.

A result of past road investment, ongoing subsidies to road vehicle usage, a relatively low level of fuel taxation by OECD standards along with under-investment in rail and public transport, Australia now has more than 14 million vehicles in its roads using 29 billion litres of fuel per annum.

Car dependence - Australia's major cities demonstrate excessive automobile dependence and Australia now has the highest amount of road freight per capita in the world.

Given the high external costs imposed by road users on society, encouraging excessive road vehicle use is dubious public policy. At a time oil prices are trending upwards and there is now government support for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, perverse policies and subsidies encouraging road transport make little sense.

The urban rail system in Australia today - On the other side of the coin, with the exception of Perth (with its Northern Suburbs railway and the more recent Perth-Mandurah line), Australia's mainland state capital cities, have years of 'catch up' rail development needed. Melbourne (now meeting unprecedented demand) and Brisbane rail systems need additional capacity, while the Adelaide urban rail system is due to be electrified.

Sydney’s rail system has seen little in the way of extension in the last 50 years and indeed patronage in 2005-06 was similar to the 1955-56 level of about 280 million journeys. Over these 50 years Sydney’s population has grown three-fold while car use increased ten-fold. Areas such as the fast growing North-West region which were due to get conventional heavy rail installed by 2007, now only have the promise of a “metro”. Metro systems make good sense in a city core (on two sides and through a CBD), but not between a CBD and a low-density area, some 35 km away.

Inter-city rail in Australia today - Australia's three largest cities of Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane are linked by a rail track with “steam age” alignment. The resulting track with extra distance and excessive curvature imposes severe speed-weight constraints on freight train performance. As a result, the 22 million tonnes per annum (mtpa) of freight moving between Australia’s three largest cities (including 11 mtpa Sydney-Melbourne) only about 3 mtpa of line haul freight goes by rail. Most of this goes by road with over 3000 trucks on the Hume Highway each night, and about 2000 trucks per day on the Pacific Highway.

The remedy, as demonstrated in Queensland, is to rebuild the worst curved sections of track to modern engineering standards. Here, over the last 20 years some 200 km of rail deviations have been constructed on their North Coast line. As a result, faster and heavier freight trains have won over 30 per cent of Brisbane-Cairns corridor freight. This is much higher than the mere 7 per cent share of Sydney-Melbourne intercity freight now held by rail.

Work is now underway to improve the Melbourne-Sydney-Brisbane track but only on the present substandard alignment. Until the worst sections are straightened, and with low road-pricing applying to trucks (with B-Double operations openly acknowledged by government as receiving subsidies), rail will have a sub-optimal role in moving interstate freight in Eastern Australia.

Regional rail in Australia today - Regional lines, which have been allowed to decline, are in need of rehabilitation. Again, the alternative is more loads on the roads. Given the fact that road uses diesel at three times the rate than rail does to move non-bulk freight, some track investment is long overdue in rural Australia.

Transport policies in New Zealand - Other countries have made adjustments to transport policies and taxation to encourage less fuel use and transport. New Zealand is a notable example, where fuel taxation has gone up 10 cents per litre since 2002 to provide not only more funds for roads, but also alternatives to roads. The New Zealand government is now vigorously promoting coastal shipping, bought back its rail system in June 2008 (that was sold too cheaply in 1993) with a view to getting more freight onto rail. It is also electrifying the Auckland urban rail system by 2013.

Transport policies in Australia to 2007 - With the exception of the formation of the Australian Rail Track Corporation in 1998, assisting completion of a railway to Darwin, and the AusLink programme introduced in 2004, the Howard government's transport policies strongly favoured road transport. Examples include cheaper cars with the introduction of the GST in 2000 with diesel rebates for trucks, freezing of fuel excise indexation in 2001, and the failure to respond to a 2005 House of Representatives report on sustainable cities.

Transport policies in Australia since 2007 - Apart from ratifying the Kyoto protocol and foreshadowing interest in urban public transport, the Rudd government is yet to demonstrate real policy in the areas road pricing and rail investment. Australia needs more than "Fuel Watch" to meet the double challenge of getting the transport sector to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and reducing its dependence on imported oil.


Fuel Watch is a 2008 Australian government program to lock retailers in to retaining their notified petrol price for 24 hours.

* Philip Laird is at the University of Wollongong