License article

Ideological fight over rail terminal could jam roads

TO DRIVE the Hume Highway between Melbourne and Sydney next to a B-double truck is invariably to question your place in the world and the security of your future in it. It is unpleasant.

The trip might become more unpleasant next year. The Victorian and New South Wales governments are talking about allowing B-triples on the highway - road trains.

They need to upgrade a few patches first but the momentum is with the B-triples. Based on its new draft freight strategy, NSW is gunning for road trains on the Hume some time next year.

Is there no alternative? Is there no other way to get goods from Melbourne to Sydney without freaking out motorists by making them drive next to massive trucks?

Maybe not any time soon. But there is work under way on a new project that would make it a lot easier to carry some of the freight load with genuine trains - 1.8-kilometre things that run on steel tracks, and which can each do the job of 110 Hume Highway trucks.

The trouble is this project risks getting cruelled in a debate that confuses self-interest with efficiency. The project could get stalled or vetoed in decisions that mistake expedience for common sense.


The project is in the west of Sydney but it has national implications. It relates to two large parcels of land at Moorebank, just by the used car yard that is Sydney's M5 motorway.

One 220-hectare parcel of land at Moorebank is owned by the federal government. Since World War II, this land has been home to the Australian Defence Force School of Military Engineering.

There's a nine-hole golf course there, and fields of barbed wire. There are pits for trainee engineers to bridge. There are sniffer dogs on their way to Afghanistan, learning the scent of explosives.

But the engineers and the sniffer dogs have agreed to move. The army says it will be out of Moorebank and at new facilities by the end of 2014.

Across the road from the 220-hectare site is another parcel of land, also occupied by Defence. This site is smaller, at 80 hectares, and is used for storage. Defence has agreed to move from here, too, but with a looser time frame.

This site is not owned by the federal government, but by a consortium led by Qube Logistics, a rapidly growing industrial company chaired by Chris Corrigan.

The federal government and Qube have similar plans for their two, adjacent, sites.

Both want to establish ''intermodal'' terminals on them. These are places where freight trains can enter, be unpacked, and their cargo of 20-metre boxes either stored or driven elsewhere in Sydney by truck.

But it looks difficult for both to happen at the same time.

To connect to the nearby train line, Qube has been pushing to lay tracks across a portion of the Commonwealth's larger site. But Canberra has refused, on the grounds the larger facility may need to use the area that Qube wants access to.

The result has been an escalation of hostilities, with Qube accusing the government of wilfully blocking an independent proposal that could be delivered at no cost to the taxpayer.

''This is a government that doesn't want to compete,'' Corrigan declared last month.

''We are happy to run our own operation, we are happy for them to operate next door, but they are scared we will do a far better job than they will,'' he said.

The managing director of Qube, Maurice James, said the company could lose a year of planning while waiting for a change of government. The Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, has already signalled he would not support development of the government site, deriding its proposal as ''another victory for Labor's born-again socialists''.

So what's going on? Why would Labor, desperate to save cash for a surplus, want to spend around $1 billion on something Corrigan and Co are happy to pay for themselves on a site just across the road?

There are a couple of reasons.

One is about competition. Canberra is not proposing to run a freight terminal. That would be strange and not with the times.

But it wants to run a tender so that any company that wants to build, operate, finance or use the terminal can bid for the right to. Far from advancing some sort of socialist agenda, the government is, in effect, privatising a very large plot of strategically-placed land. But it is doing so in a way the Department of Finance thinks defensible.

Qube, which has been buying up much of rail freight operations around Sydney, would probably end up running the terminal on the larger site. It would just need to bid for it.

The second reason is about size. Qube, and its junior partner QR National, propose to use the smaller site to load and unload shuttle trains running to and from Sydney's Port Botany.

The government envisages a similar operation across the road.

But the larger site, two kilometres long, will also be capable of loading and unloading 1.8-kilometre interstate freight trains. This would not be possible at the Qube site.

And although there is not expected to be much demand for these larger interstate freight trains on Australia's eastern seaboard for another decade or so, Canberra wants to ensure that any terminal at Moorebank is built to be able to handle them.

I think this makes sense. There are few large plots of land with major industrial potential in Australia's big cities. Why not make sure they are capable of fulfilling the needs of another decade? Business is forever chiding governments for not thinking long term - here one is.

If the only major freight terminal being planned for Sydney's west is going to be incapable of handling interstate freight trains, it will be a sellout with long-term consequences and a concession that didn't have to be made.

Ross Gittins is on leave.