Look­ing at China’s rail a must when re­build­ing ours Huge eco­nomic boon De­fence anal­y­sis

Townsville Bulletin - - The Form -

T HOUGH

i t b a r e l y rated a men­tion in Aus­tralia, China moved ear­lier this month to sack the pow­er­ful head of its Min­istry of Rail.

Since 2003, 58-year-old Liu Zhi­jun had con­trolled the state mo­nop­oly which has been de­scribed as be­ing run like a ‘‘ mil­i­tary regime’’, with over two mil­lion em­ploy­ees, its own ju­di­cial sys­tem, a 72,000 strong po­lice force and a ded­i­cated telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions sys­tem.

China’s rail net­work is also a key el­e­ment of its de­fence strat­egy.

The daily op­er­a­tions of the Min­istry of Rail have long been of in­ter­est to for­eign mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence an­a­lysts, who tracked the de­ploy­ment of Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army units through rail move­ments.

Unti l hi s r e moval Li u mas­ter­minded the Min­istry of Rail’s multi-na­tional busi­ness op­er­a­tions and China’s board has to be seen to be be­lieved, but some lines will need to be re­built rather than re­paired, and at im­mense cost.

What this dam­age has high­lighted is that Aus­tralia’s rail sys­tem is not a net­work in the Chinese or Euro­pean sense, but rather a set of un­con­nected, lin­ear rail sys­tems, fur­ther ham­pered by the colo­nial legacy of dif­fer­ent rail gauges.

In­land towns are used to hav­ing rail op­er­a­tions in­ter­rupted by dam­age to tracks, but this time Queens­land faced the uned­i­fy­ing spec­ta­cle of cities like Townsville hav­ing to be re­plen­ished by sea and air, and then be­ing un­able to move es­sen­tial sup­plies to out­ly­ing com­mu­ni­ties be­cause road, rail and even air ac­cess were cut.

There was a time when the Aus­tralian Army en­joyed con­sid­er­able rail ex­per­tise, even op­er­at­ing its own lim­ited lines and main­tain­ing its own rolling stock, but af­ter pres­sure f rom rail unions among oth­ers, this ex­per­tise has largely been lost.

Per­haps it is now time to re­visit Aus­tralia’s fu­ture rail needs from both civil­ian and de­fence per­spec­tives.

Even at the height of the Al­lied air cam­paign in World War II, Ger­many was able to move trains through its com­plex rail net­work, de­spite suf­fer­ing ex­ten­sive bomb dam­age.

China could no doubt do the same.

A se­ries of se­vere weather events so crip­pled Queens­land’s rail net­work, it may be years be­fore it is fully re­stored.

Mas­sive in­vest­ment in rail i n f r a s t r u c t u r e n o t o n l y makes good strate­gic sense it could also, just as in China’s case, be a ma­jor eco­nomic gen­er­a­tor, par­tic­u­larly in com­mu­ni­ties like Townsville.

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