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The debate around Australia's nation-building Inland Rail project

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After some time, the prospect of an expanded rail across Australia is getting some attention in Canberra (image via YouTube)

An Inland Rail Project (IR) was first proposed over 100 years ago.

It is a grand, nation-building vision of a dedicated freight rail link to service the increasing demands along the Eastern seaboard and the vast hinterland regions that provide so much of the nation’s agricultural and mineral resources.

Nothing ever came of these proposals until 1995, when Queensland Rail put forward a detailed proposal, costed at $1.289 billion. In 2005, the Federal Department of Transport and Regional Services did a feasibility study which was favourable and in 2008 the Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC) was commissioned to develop a route alignment based on one of the proposed corridors in the DTRS study.

That report was issued in 2010 and forms the basis for the current project, managed by ARTC. Construction commenced in 2018, with a $310 million contract awarded for the first stage of the project, from Parkes to Narromine in NSW.

That project was completed last year.

It is fair to say the project has been beset with problems, which have been the subject of a Senate Committee Inquiry, chaired by Senator for WA Glenn Sterle, since 2019. The Committee’s report, 'Inland rail: Derailed from the start' was released last week.

That report, while supportive of the vision, is scathing of the management of the project, in particular the enormous expansion of costs and the fact that the final route has still not been settled.

The report says:

Whilst it is apparent that Inland Rail will be advantageous to Australia’s future prosperity, it is hindered by ongoing concerns about the cost of the project. Over the course of this inquiry, the cost has ballooned from $4.7 to $14.3 billion, with predictions that it will exceed $20 billion.

The project is genuinely visionary in nature and much needed to drive the development of our regional areas. It will take thousands of trucks off the major road transport routes, including the Pacific, Hume, New England and Newell Highways, which together see dozens of deaths each year.

Over 50 truck drivers were killed at work last year, along with well over 100 people in other motor vehicles, in accidents involving trucks. It should be noted that an extensive investigation by NTI that was released in 2020 found that some 80 per cent of fatal accidents involving a truck and a light vehicle were not caused by the truck driver, but mixing heavy and light vehicle traffic at high speed on poorly maintained highways is a hazardous situation.

The project’s stated aim is to link the Ports of Melbourne and Brisbane with a dedicated freight rail link capable of handling long trains up to 3.6km long, carrying containers stacked two high. The Port at Sydney will be linked through the intermodal terminal at Parkes, which already takes trains from Sydney and transfers the freight to trucks for on-forwarding.

The ARTC business case, which the Senate Committee criticised severely, projects a load of up to 55 of these trains a day on some sections within 20 years. This represents nearly 500 containers per train, or in excess of 25,000 containers per day, if the business case projections are accurate.

At present, the route has been largely finalised as far as the Queensland border, with the final link to Port of Brisbane still to be decided. There is considerable opposition from residents in the areas through which the line will pass through, both north and south of the Queensland border.

As a Queenslander, I’m most concerned about the issues in this State, but it should be acknowledged that locals in other parts of the alignment have been very active in pointing out the issues in their local areas and they are well noted in the Senate report.

The current proposal is to take the line to Toowoomba, West of the Great Dividing Range, via a border crossing near Toomelah, although the final route across the floodplain of the McIntyre River is still under consideration.

From Toowoomba, it gets more complicated, with the problem of bringing the line down the escarpment to Bromelton’s intermodal freight facility (near Beaudesert) and the Acacia Ridge intermodal terminal, while there is no obvious route from either of those locations to the Port of Brisbane. It has been suggested that the link from Toowoomba (Gowrie) to Bromelton (Kagaru) will cost about as much as the rest of the project's stages further South combined, requiring a tunnel of 6.5km and crossing the Lockyer Valley floodplain.

This has been vigorously opposed by locals on the grounds that it will lead to increased flood levels and loss of amenity due to the frequent trains. ARTC is advocating for this section to be designed, built and operated by the private sector, but at this stage, no contracts have been awarded and as the Senate report points out, it may not be feasible.

Once at Kagaru, the line is intended to connect with the existing Sydney-Brisbane freight line for the leg to Acacia Ridge. Upgrading the Acacia Ridge facility for IR has also been the subject of extensive community opposition, on the grounds of the vast increase in heavy vehicle traffic it will entail and the noise and dust pollution it will cause as it passes through built-up areas.

Graham Perrett, the local Federal MP, has been very active in advocating against this proposal and in facilitating community engagement, along with Senator Anthony Chisholm. In 2019, I put forward a concept proposal to the Queensland Transport Minister, Mark Bailey, for a road tunnel from Acacia Ridge to the Gateway Motorway which I believe would address Minister Perrett’s concerns. 

The route from either Bromelton or Acacia Ridge to the Port of Brisbane is not clear at this stage. The Committee has recommended that further study be done to investigate the feasibility of an alternative proposal to continue the rail to Gladstone Port. Under this proposal, the link to the Brisbane region would terminate at Bromelton, with the existing line to Acacia Ridge remaining as it is.

If the line was to be continued to the Port of Brisbane, there is a need for a new alignment. The existing line from Acacia Ridge shares an alignment with the Brisbane suburban rail network and would require very extensive work to upgrade in order to deal with the large trains carrying double-stacked containers, which would be enormously disruptive.

On the other hand, breaking out a new line from Bromelton would require the construction of an enormous tunnel, some 16km plus long, along with a new surface rail alignment, at enormous cost and disruption to residents. Federal politician Ross Vasta, whose electorate of Bonner such a tunnel would pass under, has been a proponent of the proposal, while MPs further south in Logan have been expressing their opposition.

There has been talk of using the Gateway Motorway alignment for part of the route, although it's not clear that any serious work has been done on this proposal.

That’s where this enormous nation-building project stands, after some 26 years since it was first detailed by Queensland Rail (QR) in 1995. Just one stage has been completed, with one more started last year and all the while, the final shape of the finished product has not been determined.

To put the scale of this failure into some perspective: since 1993, just two years before that QR report, China has constructed over 35,000 km of high-speed rail domestically, as well as high-speed rail links down to Singapore, tracks designed to carry trains at 200-350km/h.

That includes electrification, which this project does not.

In the next article in this series, I’ll discuss some of the major problems in more detail along with the arguments in favour of extending the project to Gladstone. 

Craig Minns is an accidental truckie, frequently bored, a unionist and an armchair philosopher.

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