By Benjamin Haslem
This month marks the 10th anniversary of the inaugural journey on the Adelaide to Darwin railway.
In my past role at Jackson Wells, I worked with a team that provided public relations support to the project, from financial close up to the first journey and beyond.
I provided on-the-ground PR support during the inaugural trip, which left Adelaide on 15 January 2004 and arrived in the Northern Territory (NT) capital of Darwin two days later.
Wells Haslem Chairman, John Wells also worked on the project.
Former Deputy Prime Minister (and railway enthusiast), Tim Fischer, was appointed ambassador on that first journey, riding aboard two passenger carriages coupled behind the locomotives (pictured above).
Tim provided regular media updates throughout the journey via satellite phone.
He was an instant hit. When the train passed through an NT one-horse town at 2am, a family was standing trackside holding a large 'Welcome Tim' banner.
A small group of journalists joined the train in Alice Springs. I flew to Alice Springs for the train's arrival and departure and then again by plane to Darwin, where the train was greeted by then Prime Minister John Howard and a large crowd at the Port of Darwin (below right).
A railway line linking Australia's 'northern capital' Darwin with Adelaide had long been mooted.
A line from Adelaide to Alice Springs in the nation's heart was completed in 1929 but no track had extended further south from Darwin than to the tiny hamlet of Larrimah (pop. 11), 182km drive south-east of Katherine.
The Darwin to Larrimah line was completed in 1929 and closed in 1976.
The Adelaide to Darwin railway line was not without its controversies.
In 2000 the AustralAsia Rail Corporation (owned by the South Australia and Northern Territory governments) awarded the contract to build the line to the Asia Pacific Transport Consortium, which included Kellogg Brown & Root, John Holland Group and Macmahon Holdings.
The Federal Government also invested heavily in the project.
The FreightLink consortium was contracted to build and operate the line under a Build, Own, Operate and Transfer (BOOT) scheme, with ownership eventually transferring back to public hands after 50 years.
The line runs from Tarcoola (at the junction with the Adelaide to Perth railway line) to Darwin.
Critics of the project said it was destined to be a white elephant, with insufficient demand for domestic and export rail freight to cover operating expenses. It was more cost effective to send freight into South-East Asia by ship from southern ports than by rail through the Port of Darwin, which was upgraded as part of the project.
FreightLink argued the railway line would generate strong economic growth, particularly by making previously uneconomic mining projects feasible because it was less expensive to send minerals by rail than road.
The challenge for FreightLink was explaining to a sceptical media that it would take several years for freight volumes to grow sufficiently for the project to return a profit.
FreightLink agreed to sell its ownership of the rail link in May 2008, after failing to make a profit, later being placed in voluntary administration.
The line is now owned by the US railroad company Genesee & Wyoming Inc, which purchased it for A$334 million.
The critics will argue they had the last laugh but the bottom line is a railway line exists, carrying both freight and the famous Ghan passenger train through Australia's heart from south to north.
By Julie Sibraa
It never ceases to amaze me how old problems, ideas and stories get dusted off, polished up and sold as new around this time of the year. Today we've discovered that superannuation funds, as the custodian of Australian workers’ retirement funds, would be the ideal owners of former public assets like ports, electricity and water utilities.
The reasoning is that if governments can divest themselves of assets they do not need to own or operate they can use the sale proceeds to fund new investment to plug the gaping infrastructure shortfall and meet the needs of our growing population. And if those same assets are owned by Australian superannuation funds then effectively they would be still be owned by the Australian public.
For superannuation funds, ports and other utilities including airports, which exhibit monopoly-like characteristics, represent good investments on the basis they provide earnings stability and long term maturity, that is, a reliable steady revenue stream likely to increase over time.
So it’s a great idea! It’s a wonder no one has thought of it before.
Well they have. And some people have been advocating it for a long time.
I seem to recall back in 2010 when I worked for the peak infrastructure group, Infrastructure Partnerships Australia (IPA) it was also discovered that there was this massive, lazy pool of superannuation savings lying around that could be used to buy well established infrastructure assets and fund new infrastructure. There was the Cooper superannuation enquiry which amongst many other issues looked at this and reported favourably. IPA, amongst many others at the time, produced a thoughtful research policy paper on the issue, exploring not just the upside of such investment but the barriers as well, with some suggestions for government intended to assist overcome these obstacles.
But aside from the NSW Government’s successful 99-year lease of Ports Botany and Kembla to superannuation company Industry Funds Management last year, it still doesn’t seem to happen.
According to a Deloitte report released last September (Dynamics of the Australian Superannuation System: The next 20 years: 2011-2033) there are approximately $1.6 trillion in total assets currently in the Australian superannuation system, with the pool projected to grow to $4 trillion in the next decade and to $7.6 trillion by 2033.
So why doesn’t it happen?
It all comes down to the ability and courage of our political leaders to properly explain to Australians why this is a good and necessary thing to do. With the costs of health, education and social security – surely the very bedrocks of government responsibility – rising steeply and inexorably year by year, eating up more and more of every government’s revenue stream, there is a need for governments to divest themselves of things they don’t need to own or operate.
When political leaders find it within themselves to honestly and factually explain the need for measures like the sale of public assets, they may find Australian people willing to listen and provide permission.
And that is definitely not a new idea.
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