06.08.2020The critical need for standard gauge rail

Committee for Melbourne has identified supply chain resilience and connectivity as two critical factors supporting the need for a creation of an Australian East Coast Megaregion. On those criteria Victoria’s mixed gauge 19th Century regional rail network is a hindrance to this vision and a dysfunctional failure.

For Victoria to be a fully connected and integrated component of the mega-region it is time to bring the regional rail network into the 21st Century with the completion of gauge standardisation and to remove 125 years of what Mark Twain famously described as our “paralysis of intellect”.

The case for standard gauge 
Standard gauge (1435 mm) is the dominant gauge in the railways of the world comprising approximately 60% of the 1.4 million kilometres of railways globally. This percentage is steadily increasing as China extends its networks, while Africa and other continents are embracing standard gauge to link more easily and at lower cost with Europe and into international supply chains.

In Australia, the standard gauge lines provide nationwide rail transport connectivity without  trans-shipment. The simple fact of having active standard gauge rail lines also gives an important psychological boost to communities which are no longer isolated by their rail “network” from the rest of Australia.

The cost of gauge standardisation projects such as the Murray Basin Rail Project and the rest of the regional gauge standardisation is minimal – of the order of $1 billion – compared to the city-centric projects worth approx. $100 billion under way in Melbourne. It is worth noting that the Federal Government usually pays at least half of the cost of gauge standardisation projects.

A standard gauge regional network would have reduced costs for operation and maintenance, higher speeds for both passenger and freight, and accelerated mode shift from road to rail. The contribution to emission reductions would be immediate and ever-increasing as freight transport shifted to rail. There would no longer be the costly duplication of rolling stock and maintenance systems and purchasing power would be increased since standard gauge equipment and rolling stock is literally “off the shelf” around the world. Manufacturing hubs such as Ballarat and Dandenong would be opened up to the NSW and interstate markets, creating jobs and new industrial opportunities.

The story in Victoria so far

The timeline is a 100-year litany of missed opportunities:

  • 1921: Australian Government adopts 4 ft 8.5 in (1435 mm) as the standard gauge for Australia. It was also stated that the adoption of a uniform gauge is essential to the development and safety of the Commonwealth.” Nothing happened.
  • 1946: Victorian Government accepted the recommendations of Sir Harold Clapp to convert the entire Victorian network to standard gauge. Sir Harold died suddenly and nothing proceeded.
  • 2001: Victorian State Premier Steve Bracks announced “…a historic decision to standardise Victoria’s country rail network…the decision is about giving Victoria a rail system for the 21st Century instead of one for the 19th Century.” The regional network lessee, Rail America (trading as Freight Australia), refused access to the network. The network was bought back in 2007.
  • 2010: Completion of north east line gauge standardisation including Benalla to Oaklands
  • 2015: Murray Basin Rail Project (north west gauge standardisation) announced
  • 2020: Murray Basin Rail Project only half completed and management of the project subject to extreme criticism by the Victorian Auditor General.
    Airport Rail Link

The pending decision concerning Melbourne Airport Rail Link is another example of a project requiring a long-term view for the development of rail connectivity in Victoria. A standard gauge link in a tunnel via Sunshine will link to all five regional passenger rail routes from Melbourne; Bendigo and Seymour from the Airport, Geelong and Ballarat from Sunshine and Gippsland from Southern Cross. An additional benefit is that a future east coast High Speed Rail line could enter Melbourne along this corridor.

Next steps

As Gough Whitlam famously pointed out when noting the problem of Australian States with different gauge networks – “In Australia, far from uniting our country, the railway systems have been organised so as to disrupt the unification of the nation.” It is time to end this disruption.

For a mega-region to work effectively the Victorian and NSW regional rail networks need to be fully integrated and operating effectively as a single unit. The integration could also include the South Australian regional rail network – already standard gauge – and southern Queensland. Victoria could lead the way and start by:

  • Making sure that all maintenance re-sleepering on broad gauge lines is done with gauge convertible sleepers (as was done in South Australia);
  • Converting all regional lines and associated branch lines to complete a standard gauge network with interstate connectivity;
  • Complete the gauge standardisation in stages with the west, north-west and north-east being completed first and then the more complex south-eastern part of the State (i.e. Gippsland), and
  • Set aside the Melbourne suburban network as a stand-alone broad-gauge network and separate it completely from the regional lines.

Bernard Shepherd | Principal Consultant – Transportation, GHD 

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