When Victorian Premier Denis Napthine and his ministers extol the benefits of a $6.8 billion toll road across Melbourne’s inner north, they generally talk about the traffic congestion it will help to relieve.

Freight transport is a harder subject for a soundbite, and politicians are disinclined to talk about East West Link’s relationship to another major transport project: the proposed new container port at Hastings. But a new port on Melbourne’s eastern fringe is dependent on a big increase in road capacity. Planning for a freight railway to the Western Port terminal, which would require removing at least nine level crossing, is at an early stage. When it is built, the South East Rail Link (SERL) will open up “huge potential for export businesses in eastern Victoria”, according to Transport Minister Terry Mulder, who will be speaking at the 2014 Rail Freight Conference in Melbourne on October 10.

The problem is that most of Victoria’s exports come from west of Melbourne. While SERL would handle much of the load, inevitably a large proportion would travel by road. This is where East West Link comes in, because it would allow faster truck movements across the city.

If the Hastings port generates thousands of extra truck movements daily, the plan is at odds with the government’s stated commitment to make better use of the rail freight network and raises the question of whether the eastern fringe of Melbourne is the right place for a new port. While bulk commodities, such as grains and mineral sands, are exported from Portland — a natural deep-water port — the western Victorian harbour is too small to handle the vast numbers of containers carrying Victoria’s imports.

So Portland is not an option, but no one is disputing that Victoria needs a new container port, given the booming population. The source of exports, available land, and proximity to a standard gauge railway serving Melbourne all point to a site on the western side of Port Phillip Bay: the “Bay West” option.

But the Coalition argues that any new port should accommodate so-called mega ships — of 18,000 tonne capacity — which require a depth of more than 16 metres and that any Port Phillip Bay site cannot do this without extensive dredging. Hence its choice of Hastings, a natural deep-water port with reserved land.

Logistics experts argue that mega ships won’t be coming to Australia anyway. Victoria University’s Institute for Supply Chain and Logistics has issued a report critical of the Hastings choice, explaining that mega ships are generally “one-port callers”. Ships visiting Australia do a “milk run” of several ports, and even with a population of 50 million, the route would not justify mega ships, the institute says.

At a more mundane level, the condition of Victoria’s regional railways has deteriorated over the past 30 years and calls for better maintenance are growing. The Alliance of Councils for Rail Freight Development, an association of 24 rural municipalities, wants to get more freight off trucks and on to trains for a host of reasons: public safety, road damage from trucks, urban amenity, fuel consumption and carbon emissions.

Poor track quality has caused derailments and slowed trains in a bid to prevent them — in some places to bicycle speeds of 25km/h. Such inadequate rail service drives many farmers to store their grain on-farm, wait for the right price and then send for a truck.

If poor track quality weren’t bad enough, neither side of politics has committed to the really big rail project: conversion of the entire regional network by a set time frame to “standard gauge” (4 feet, 8.5 inches in the old scale). Instead, a committee headed by former deputy prime minister and train buff Tim Fischer has accorded every line in Victoria a priority for standardisation — a gradual approach. Meanwhile, train operators are forced to run two sets of trains, and broad gauge (5 feet, 3 inches) branch lines are isolated, and sometimes closed, when a main line is standardised.

This raises a big question: if railways are not worth maintaining and forming into a single network, are they worth keeping open at all? The break-of-gauge problem (where a line of one gauge intersects with one of a different gauge) is not simply a colonial era bungle studied in Australian history courses, it’s an ongoing brake on national productivity that only governments can fix. After all, mixed gauges also hindered railways in North America — where hundreds of companies ran trains across 35-odd American states in the mid-19th century — and in Europe — whose neighbouring countries fought wars — yet railways in both continents were largely unified by the start of the 20th century.

It’s increasingly clear from the inaction to date and the scope and national significance of the task that federal funding and direction is needed.

Peter Fray

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