Now that we are traversing the country’s highways, cruise-controlling along at 95 towing a small pop top caravan, we become very aware of semi-trailers. I can see a couple right now in my extending wing mirror, closer than they ought to be and itching to go faster than the 100 kms they pressed me to attain on the Great Western highway between Melbourne and Adelaide. A passing lane appeared and I gratefully ducked into it, still doing 100. They soared past like I was nailed to the ground.
We have been using our GPS planner to pick out routes which will get us to where we want to go and avoid major roads wherever possible. It takes a little longer but the pressure eased as we skirted through Maryborough and Avoca via the Pyrenees Highway. A pleasant country road and not a truck in sight, although there are many signs saying to beware of kangaroos for the next 25-45 kms. On the first leg of our trip from Brisbane to Warwick, every second vehicle on the Warrego Highway was a truck, a semi-trailer or a B-double (a prime mover and two trailers) and much of this traffic cluttered up the Newell Highway heading south. As all Grey Nomads know, as you move into the interior, B-doubles become triples and, in some places a prime mover and four trailers. http://www.melbournecyclist.com/ produced a scale drawing which shows 13 cyclists alongside a B-triple, so you’ll get the picture.
To be absolutely fair, the number of truck drivers who drive responsibly and pass when it is safe to pass far outnumber the tail-gaiters and those who cut back in too quickly, their rear trailer swaying and almost taking the front bumper bar with them. The wide and over-size loads (pictured) are well telegraphed by escorts so no real problem there unless you are not paying attention. I sometimes watch a show called “Outback Trucker” and sympathised with the truckie who found himself stuck behind Mavis and Bill doing a steady 80 kmh in their Prado 4×4 towing a 20-foot van. In their defence, a lot of outback roads are sealed, but the bitumen is a narrow strip with soft dirt shoulders sloping away into the scrub. Many a Nomad has found themselves upside down in a paddock, their dream of spending a year doing the big circuit cut short.
Over the years spent writing for newspapers I have taken something of an interest in the various schemes to build new railways to carry freight across this vast land. The road transport and distribution businesses that send fleets of trucks out on our highways day and night might not like the idea, but there would still be business for them in distributing goods from rail ports to local destinations. But it would end the realm of the long-haul truckie, freeing the nation’s highways for domestic traffic. There would be fewer pile-ups and roll-overs, much less wear and tear on the roads and truckies, re-deployed to deliver local freight within a city’s boundaries, could spend their nights at home with family.
Company director, railway pioneer, seniors’ advocate and fundraiser Everald Compton, 83, published his memoirs earlier this year. City Beat columnist James McCullough reported that Compton, a long-time advocate of inland rail, felt he should simply put his life into some sort of record before he forgets it all.
He printed 400 copies off his 350-page book Tracks to Somewhere to give away to family and friends. Compton is a friendly, intelligent old character I have met on numerous occasions. In 2008 he proposed an inland railway from Melbourne to Darwin, linking with other inland rail links (Toowoomba to Moree, Toowoomba to Gladstone). Compton has to be credited with putting the concept of long-haul inland rail freight on the agenda and he has kept hammering away at it for years.
In 2008, the Federal Government asked the Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC) to assess the feasibility of a proposed Melbourne to Brisbane inland railway and to identify the optimum route. Preliminary analysis by ARTC showed that the cheapest version of the inland railway would allow freight to be moved from Melbourne to Brisbane in just over 27 hours. Running from Melbourne via Albury to Cootamundra, Parkes, Narromine, Dubbo, Werris Creek and Moree to North Star near Goondiwindi in Queensland, new track would then have to be laid from North Star to Toowoomba and on to Brisbane.
The Australian Logistics Council now says the $4.7 billion inland route could achieve transit times between Brisbane and Melbourne of 20 hours over 1,700 kilometres, seven hours faster than the existing coastal railway. The route would be more competitive on transit time, reliability, availability and door-to-door freight prices, compared to road transport using the Newell Highway. Mayors of inland New South Wales and Queensland towns have started serious lobbying to make sure the rail passes through their town. One option is for the route to pass through Warwick via the Cunningham Rail Link on its way to Bromelton/Beaudesert and the Port of Brisbane. The alternative is Toowoomba//Brisbane via the new, privately owned airport at Wellcamp and Toowoomba’s industrial suburbs.
We were mulling the rail versus road traffic debate as we spent a couple of chilly days in Echuca, on the border of New South Wales and Victoria. Echuca was a wealthy town in the late 1800s and early 1900s, built on the monopoly of steam-powered river traffic. Fortunes were made carrying wool from distant pastoral properties down the Murray River to Echuca and then on to Melbourne and foreign ports.
The great depression of the 1890s, combined with rail being extended into NSW killed off the river boat freight trade by the 1920s. A handful of paddle steamers from that era survive to take curious tourists on a brisk one-hour trip down the Murray, recalling the days when paddle steamers, powered by a seemingly endless supply of red river gum, dominated freight and distribution.
Fast forward to 2014 and the continually rising cost of fuel, together with the immense cost of expanding and maintaining the country’s main road freight corridors, is putting immense pressure on the Federal Government to commit to an inland rail freight system. Given that road freight is expected to double by 2030 and triple by 2050, they’d best get on with the job of building the alternative rail infrastructure. The Abbot Government found $300 million to spend on the rail study, so what’s another $4.4 billion? (Sounds like a huge sum, but it’s only $176 each, folks). Clearly Mr Abbot has a thing about transport infrastructure. Taking responsibility for building this railway network could be his lasting legacy