Here’s what a real infrastructure plan looks like

June 4, 2015

by Everald Compton

4 June 2015

To find Australia’s last nation building venture we must go back two thirds of a century to the Snowy River.

We have to take our minds back the same number of years to discover a nation builder, Flynn of the Inland, the man on our twenty dollar notes, who founded the Flying Doctor Service, Pedal Radio, School of the Air and two dozen bush hospitals in very remote places.

One does not have to be a genius to come to the considered view that it is time to revive the fine traditions of the grand pioneers after 65 dormant years of fostering the good life in preference to investing in the future of a great nation.

To emphasise our passive attitude to nation building, let me tell you about an experience I had two decades ago.

I planned to build an inland railway linking Melbourne with Darwin and the Kimberley. In preparing a business case, I contacted bureaucrats in the federal government and all state governments to ask for a copy of their infrastructure plans for the next 25 years. Not one of them had such a plan. Indeed, they were stunned that I asked for one. They merely followed the whims of politicians who invested in marginal seats from election to election.

Now, I am pondering what my initial thoughts would be in the highly unlikely event of the Prime Minister inviting me to draw up a long-term infrastructure plan for the nation.

Let me declare my bias and say that I would begin with railways and water, wherein Australia’s greatest needs will be found.

We must give priority to developing a world class standard gauge, heavy duty, freight railway from Cairns all the way around the coast to Perth, via Gippsland, plus another from Sydney to Broken Hill and on to Adelaide. The existing tracks are either the wrong gauge or are in appalling condition. Only a short distance of new track is needed.

A long overdue challenge is a standard gauge track from Melbourne direct to Brisbane via Dubbo, with an extension from Toowoomba to Gladstone via the Surat Basin.

The jewel in the crown would be a standard gauge track from Townsville to Mount Isa and Tennant Creek, then on across the Tanami Desert to the Kimberley. In a visionary future, this railway would swing south to go all the way down the coast to Perth.

The nation will really be in business then. Long distance freight will be carried at a far lower cost and more environmentally friendly manner than by road transport, thereby reducing the number of trucks that cause huge highway maintenance. This will open up countless new business opportunities and show us what a disgrace it has been that this did not happen years ago.

This brings me to water.

We have an easily realisable capacity to bring tropical water south from the rivers of the Gulf of Carpentaria and the Kimberley.

The former can be done by using existing rivers and new connecting channels from the Gilbert River to Tambo in Central Queensland where it will flow down the Darling through the Riverina to Adelaide all year round. From Tambo, a steady flow can also go via Cooper Creek to Lake Eyre.

It will be a lot harder to move water to Perth from the Kimberley, but it can and must be done.

Both projects will go a long way towards drought proofing our continent, which is the driest in the world, and enable us to become the food bowl of Asia.

Now we come to roads, where most of our infrastructure funds are being wasted.

I would build very few new roads, particularly in capital cities where, every time there are road improvements, more people bring out their cars and clog roads even more than beforehand. It is a self-defeating process.

The worthwhile alternative is to build major underground rail systems in our cities, similar to London and New York, with comfortable trains every five minutes from all stations, plus a web of overground lanes exclusively for buses.

We must decide to make cars obsolete. They have had their day. The era of quality public transport begins now.

New airports must be built with private capital. But, we need only a few more. Newcastle and Wollongong are essential, but Badgerys Creek is a waste of money. It would be better to expand Canberra.

Above all, many flights can be replaced with high speed trains from Melbourne to Sydney and Brisbane, taking lots of passengers out of airports and providing them with far more comfortable travel.

Seaports require some serious work. We must upgrade four of our ports so each becomes a Rotterdam of Australia. Most international freight can be directed through them, thereby building huge cost saving efficiencies into our trading operations.

Those hub ports are Fremantle, Port Kembla, Gladstone and Wyndham.

I have not talked about power cables and gas pipelines. They all should go underground, but their development is beyond my personal level of knowledge.

All of the above would cost more than a trillion dollars. Not much if it is repaid over 50 years.

Its time has come. Another Flynn of the Inland must step forward.