Sunday, January 15, 2012

Long distance rail travel dying

Both the Indian Pacific and the Ghan now to run only once a week

WA'S travel and tourism rail icon the Indian Pacific is under threat and will slash services to stay afloat.

The world-famous train linking WA with the eastern states via the Nullarbor Plain is battling competition from low-cost airlines and the cruise ship market, amid slumping tourism and a high Australian dollar.

But its owner, Great Southern Railway, says China could come to the rescue as visitor numbers from the US, Britain and Europe drop.

GSR has been forced to cut back services on the Indian Pacific, which runs between Perth and Sydney via Adelaide, dropping back to one service a week from March 28 two months earlier than it usually scales back for the low season.

The Ghan, linking Darwin and Adelaide via Alice Springs, will from April 4 also only operate one service a week.

The Indian Pacific, which celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2010, and The Ghan are regularly mentioned in lists of the world's great rail journeys.

GSR interim general manager Russell Westmoreland could not rule out staff cuts in the future. "This is a commercial decision, like we saw Qantas had to do last year," he said. "We know it will have an impact on guests, but it is what we need to do for the survival of the industry.

"We have a lot of fixed costs before we even put a guest on the train. We have to hire the locos, hire the track and put staff on train, before we welcome one paying guest. But we're competing with airlines, cheap holidays in Bali, Fiji and places like that, so have to be smarter about the ways we do things."

The biggest threat is cruise ships. With most ships flying under international flags, operators pay staff wages based on offshore awards in different currencies.

Tourism group Australia's Golden Outback chief executive Jack Eerbeek said GSR could ensure its future by "freshening up" its "fantastic" product and catering for an army of retiring baby boomers.

"While the Indian Pacific has been well maintained, there is nothing new, like an observation deck, or a double-decker train cabin," he said. "Some of these new things could rekindle some interest in the product."

GSR is promoting travel to Perth and a hire car to drive to Albany and Esperance, then up via Wave Rock to Kalgoorlie. But Mr Eerbeek said GSR should promote an alternative.

"We'd like to see them take their car on the train and get off at Kalgoorlie, then drive down to Esperance and Albany and then up to Perth," he said. "Unfortunately, there are no facilities for taking cars off at Kalgoorlie at the moment."


Taxpayers slapped with massive bill for anti-whaling activist rescue

TAXPAYERS face a bill of hundreds of thousands of dollars as a result of the rescue of three anti-whaling activists from a Japanese ship.

But supporters of the West Australian trio have blamed Attorney-General Nicola Roxon for the cost.

The three were yesterday heading home on an Australian Customs vessel, days after being held captive on whaling ship Shonan Maru 2, after boarding it with the help of the Sea Shepherd group.

Sea Shepherd captain Paul Watson said Canberra was accountable for the cost of the transfer of the three men to a Customs vessel. "These expenses could have been avoided if the Attorney-General had first examined the evidence before taking the word of the Japanese that they were not inside the Australian contiguous zone," Capt Watson said yesterday.

"The Government refused our offer for the men to be transferred from the Shonan Maru No 2 to (our) Steve Irwin which would have cost nothing."

The three - Geoffrey Tuxworth, 47, Simon Peterffy, 44, and Glen Pendlebury, 27 - boarded the ship off the coast of Bunbury a week ago and are believed to be in good health.


More male teachers needed to help boys perform better, survey shows

MORE male teachers are needed in Victorian schools to help boys perform better, a new teacher survey shows.

The survey shows teachers believe little is being done to address the performance gap between girls and boys.

The Sunday Herald Sun can reveal the findings of the latest Staff in Australia Schools survey, which asked more than 15,000 teachers and principals about their working conditions.

The report found fewer than one in five primary school teachers is male, with the number of female teachers rising in the 2010 survey to 81 per cent.

But men are far more likely to rise through the ranks to become principals in high schools, holding 61 per cent of leadership positions.

The survey also showed principals want more power to sack underperforming teachers, with a majority saying they feel hamstrung.

While private school principals have revealed much higher levels of authority to review teachers' performance and recruit staff, public school principals warn they are lagging behind.

Concerns over a lack of power to hire and fire teachers was highest among principals at public high schools, where 54 per cent were unhappy with the rules.

Releasing the report today, federal Education Minister Peter Garrett said the findings underlined the Government's push to boost principals' and parents' power to run schools.


Saving Macquarie Island

MACQUARIE Island's pest-fighters have tentatively declared victory over marauding rats, mice and rabbits.

Since aerial baiting was completed in July, no rats and mice have been seen. The Parks and Wildlife Service also says the baiting, along with the release of the calicivirus earlier last year, has reduced the number of rabbits from 100,000 to less than 30.

And the World Heritage-listed island is already looking greener, with long-displaced birds returning to nest.

The sometimes controversial program is shaping up to be a major win for conservation, and is hopefully the final barrage in a war on pests that began with efforts to kill off the island's feral cats in the mid-1980s.

About 35km long and just 5.5km wide at its broadest point, Macquarie Island has 128 sq km of coastline. When total success against pests can be confirmed, it will be the largest land mass on which rabbits and rodents have been eradicated.

After the last round of bait drops in July, a team of 15 people and 12 dogs set out to sweep the island for surviving invaders. The team killed 13 rabbits. No fresh signs of rabbits have been seen since November.

Less that a fortnight ago, Macquarie Island program manager Keith Springer made a trip to the island to visit the hunting team. "There were three areas on the island that they had found signs [of rabbits], and we're still searching and haven't accounted for those rabbits," he said.

Mr Springer said the pest eradication team would maintain a presence on the island for the next five years. The first half of this period would be devoted to eradicating every last rabbit, with the remainder spent monitoring.

Mr Springer said the $25 million poured into the project by the Australian and Tasmanian governments could be wasted if a few rodents were to survive and re-establish. "It will be another two years before we can really say mission accomplished," he said.

The pest eradication program has drawn criticism, particularly over the number of native birds killed by the deadly brodifacoum poison used in aerial baiting.

The program also hit a snag in mid-2010 when bad weather grounded baiting helicopters.

Mr Springer said poisoning had been integral to the program's success, and the risks to native birds had been considered. "We couldn't expect to get the rabbit population down without using a technique like that," he said. "Before you start on a project like this you have to assess what the undesirable impacts are likely to be and weigh that up."

Mr Springer said since last year's baiting, about 1400 dead birds had been found on the island. Half were kelp gulls. "Most of those would have died from secondary or primary poisoning, but we must include an element of natural mortality," he said.

"If we can achieve eradication long term and bird species have time to re-establish, is that long-term benefit worth the price paid by those individuals? "As long as the population is not significantly affected, the long-term benefits usually outweigh the short term impacts."

In the first summer since baiting finished, previously barren areas have started to flourish.

"The improvement is really dramatic already," Mr Springer said. "Visually it is much greener, as vegetation has been able to grow without being grazed. "When you look closer, some of the mega-herb species such as pleurophyllum [a native daisy] are now found around the island up to nearly knee height. That's been heavily grazed in the past."

Birds are also showing signs of recovery. Blue petrels had been clinging to existence on some offshore rock stacks, driven from the island by rats, but are now starting to return.

"We've found large numbers of blue petrels nesting on the main island, which they haven't been known to do for decades," Mr Springer said. "They're small petrels, about the size of a black bird, and they got hammered by rats because they nest in burrows."

Grey petrels are also recovering. These larger petrels were driven to the brink of extinction but began breeding again after the year 2000, when cats were eradicated from the island.

Mr Springer said the demise of the rodents had caused a spike in grey petrel breeding this season. "This year [grey petrel breeding] has shot up," he said.

A sub-Antarctic outpost, Macquarie Island is about 1500km south-east of Hobart.

It is one of very few islands in the region where animals can breed. About 3.5 million seabirds and 80,000 elephant seals arrive on Macquarie Island each year.


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