Thursday, 25 October 2012

State Rail: Why 1983 spelt disaster

1983 was a turning point in the history of Australia. Australia II became the first yacht from outside the United States of America to win the coveted America's Cup, Bob Hawke became the Prime Minister of Australia and the Australian dollar was floated for the first time on the world market by the then treasurer Paul Keating. However, it was a much less memorable event that would prove to have a longer lasting impact on the people across country New South Wales, and it unfolded in the pages of a railway timetable of all things.

Glenreagh Railway Station on the NSW North Coast Line as it appeared in 2007. Although this Sydney-Brisbane interstate line is still in use today, trains have not stopped here since the station was closed sometime after 1993. The platform has been bulldozed back from the mainline and the station building left to fall into disrepair.

On November 23, 1983, the State Rail Authority of New South Wales released its new country passenger timetable. A quick glance inside revealed that all country branch line passenger trains were gone, replaced instead with connecting road coach services at major railway stations. Although there was an initial uproar at the time from communities effected by the loss of their connection by train to Sydney, Australia was emerging with a new corporate identity, one that was fresh, bold and keen to make its mark on the world stage. Only a year earlier, State Rail had captured the imagination of the travelling public with the unveiling of it's famed XPT, a high speed passenger train based on British Rail's successful Inter City 125. Under the leadership of the then New South Wales Premier Neville Wran, the New South Wales government owned railway network had in March 1980 been re-organised under the banner of the State Rail Authority, with the aim of establishing State Rail as a world-class railway. Just what exactly was envisioned by the tag world-class railway was a mystery at the time. Nobody really cared as long as they could still catch the train to Sydney. But surely the sight of an ageing 60 year-old CPH rail motor set built in 1923 sitting idly at the platform as it waited to form a branch line connection with an arriving XPT, would have been a stark contrast to what they had in mind. Needless to say the new timetable spelt disaster. Quite possibly it was the worst timetable in the history of railway operations in the state. In scrapping the shorter connecting train services and relegating the dutiful little 'Tin Hares' as they were affectionately known to retirement, they also condemned many of the state's branch lines to a string of slow and systematic line closures over the next decade.

To appreciate to vast network of country train services that once operated throughout New South Wales, you need a pre-1983 timetable such as this 1980 State Rail Country & Interstate Train Timetable that was only 50 cents back in July 1980. They are highly valued by collectors today. I paid almost $60 for this one on eBay.

The arguments for and against the changes made in the 1983 timetable are many, and not the subject for debate amongst these pages. State Rail, faced with an operating deficit of 592 million dollars in the 1982-83 financial year (*bureau of transport economics analysis of the 1980's rail deficit), looked to eliminate poorly performing areas of their operations while at the same time investing heavily in the future. In contrast to the 1983 service cutbacks to their country passenger timetable, State Rail splurged big-time over the following years. Ordering new high-powered locomotives, introducing the stylish Tangara electric multiple unit sets to the Sydney suburban network, constructing a new export coal-loading facility at Kooragang Island in the Port of Newcastle and electrification of the main lines to Wollongong and Newcastle were all projects that could be seen in the public eye. In a period of time now referred to as the re-invention of Australia, it was a bold new look. A corporate look, defined by the vibrant livery that became known as the 'candy stripe' era. It was splashed over everything from locomotives to road coaches. The brown with yellow striping that had adorned trains in New South Wales since the days of steam slowly disappeared beneath a rainbow of red, yellow, white and orange.

Despite the huge investment in capital, State Rail posted an operating deficit of more than 500 million dollars in each financial year to 1993-94 including a staggering 1.05 billion in the 1988-89 financial year alone. The service cuts of 1983 that were heralded as necessary to eliminate poor performance had made no impact at all. With less country passenger trains on the rails, once loyal travellers began to turn to other means of transport. Many cut-price private bus lines sprung up overnight in the heady heights of the eighties, meaning that once loyal rail passengers could now travel direct to Sydney by luxury motor coach in less time and for less money than what it cost to utilise State Rail's connecting bus and train service. It was hardly the ideal situation for the newly elected Premier of New South Wales Nick Greiner to inherit in 1988. He subsequently commissioned a report into the SRA by American consultants Booz Allen Hamilton who presented their findings in 1989. Their report recommended further line closures, withdrawing staff from 97 country railway stations, cutting 8000 jobs and axing several country passenger services.

Suddenly it seemed the XPT's had lost their shine and the candy-striped livery now ten years on was beginning to fade and struggle to hide a railway system that was becoming tired and worn. A string of last trains soon trundled across the network and the 1989 country passenger timetable when it was issued was but a shadow of any previous timetable pre-1983. State Rail was divided into business groups, restructured again in 1996 under the Transport Administration Act, and the profitable freight arm sold-off in a wave of privatisation and track lease agreements. Since 1989, the Sydney suburban network has operated under the banner of CityRail, while some country passenger services remain between key cities, under the state subsidized banner of CountryLink utilizing fully refurbished XPT sets.

Much has changed since 1983. Prime Ministers have come and gone, and so too has the America's Cup. The Australian dollar has hit its share of highs and lows since it first floated, and the Kooragang Island coal loader that opened back in 1984 helped make Newcastle the world's largest coal export port. It stands to reason that those who were irate over the loss of a passenger train service or the closure of the railway line through their town should have had plenty of time to get over it. It's too late for politicians to consider reopening a railway line once the rails are ripped up and the land has been redeveloped. And it would prove a costly exercise by today's standards to even suggest building a new one, unless of course one discovers a coal deposit large enough to supply the energy needs of a small country. But what legacy has the railway left behind in a town where trains once ran? Is the community disadvantaged or in a better position as a result of no longer having a railway connection to the outside world? What remains at the end of the line? And just what do you do with a railway station when it is no longer needed? They are all good questions, and I'm sure that no-one was asking them in 1983. We were too caught up with our Prime Minister Bob Hawke excitedly declaring after we'd won sailing's ultimate prize that any boss who sacks someone for not turning up to work today should consider themselves un-Australian. It was a different Australia back in 1983, yet somehow it all changed in the blink of an eye.

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