THE Hunter’s rail manufacturing industry has “disappeared without a whimper”, and needs a government to develop the political will to “bring it back from the dead”.
Once a key pillar of Newcastle’s manufacturing workforce, for generations the passenger trains that served NSW churned out of UGL’s Goninian plant in Broadmeadow, or the Downer EDI factory in Cardiff.
But Simon Crane, the managing director of Lovells Springs in Carrington, says the state government’s decision to award massive rolling stock contracts like the $2.3 billion intercity fleet and $1.7 Waratah replacement trains to overseas companies has forced the major players abandon the rolling stock industry.
Lovells is the only remaining manufacturer of suspension systems for the rail industry in Australia, but says that the local sector has gone from about 60 per cent of its business five years ago down to 30 per cent in past 12 months.
“This massive fall in rail business is due to the almost complete cessation of new-build rolling stock manufacture in Australia over that time,” Mr Crane said in his submission to the inquiry.
“Not only has Lovells lost the new-build business, but even large scale refurbishment projects of locomotive or freight fleets may now have their spare parts sourced from overseas.”
Headlines about rail manufacturing in Newcastle have been dominated by hundreds of job losses in the past few years, but on Monday Mr Crane told a federal Senate inquiry into the state of Australia’s rail industry that it was not too late to revive the failing trade if state and federal governments decide they want to salvage it.
“The good news is the buildings haven’t been turned into housing yet – but that won’t be far off – the equipment is still there, and the people with the skills are still working,” Mr Crane told the Newcastle Herald.
“The rail manufacturing industry only collapsed about three years ago so we’re all still out there and we all know how to do it. We just need a government to force it to restart.”
That was the message from one of the Newcastle’s oldest manufacturing firms at a hearing for a federal Senate inquiry into the state of Australia’s rail industry on Monday.
Mr Crane lays the blame squarely at the feet of the NSW government – which he described as “almost anti-manufacturing” – for abandoning local producers in a number of major projects including the new intercity train fleet, which will be built in South Korea.
In his submission to the inquiry, he said the state government had “no desire to support local manufacturing” and he told the Newcastle Herald that it was “up to the federal government” to save the industry.
“I suggested to the inquiry that the grants that federal government gives to state governments should be tied to Australian content of rolling stock,” he said.
“Rolling stock that the state government buys is most often travelling on tracks that the federal government pays for.
“I believe the Commonwealth should say to the states if you want us to build rail way lines - and it’s not going to happen without federal money - we’re going to tie that money to what travels on those tracks.”
It came as dozens of Hunter rail manufacturing workers gathered outside Monday’s Senate hearing at Honeysuckle to call for a long-term plan to secure their industry’s future.
The Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union assistant national secretary Glenn Thompson said the rally distilled frustrations after billions in rail tenders were awarded offshore.
“Those are jobs that could have been delivered to the Hunter,” Mr Thompson said.
Mr Thompson said states had individually taken responsibility for train manufacture since federation, but a national plan could help find efficiencies while sustaining an ongoing Australian workforce.
Swansea MP Yasmin Catley drew parallels with the loss of shipbuilding, arguing offshoring contracts would only erode Australia’s existing manufacturers.
“It’s absolutely disgraceful what is happening in this city,” she said.
The state government has previously defended its decision not to build the intercity trains in Australia, Transport Minister Andrew Constance pointing out that as part of the contract UGL would maintain the fleet at its Kangy Angy plant for at least 15 years, creating 200 jobs.
“This is the best outcome for taxpayers,” he said at the time of the announcement last year.
“Very pleasingly there is an Australian partner delivering Australian jobs as part of this consortium [and] in this case the procurement stacks up – it’s a 25 per cent saving by going with this consortium.”