As the federal government seeks to rein in the multi-billion dollar cost blowouts from the Melbourne to Brisbane Inland Rail project, some are asking: will it ever be completed?
The man who is sometimes described as the ‘father’ of the Inland Rail, Everald Compton, believes the government should cut its losses and finish the line at Toowoomba, 100km short of its original destination.
“It will never get to Brisbane — I reckon hell will freeze over quicker than this railway gets to Brisbane,” the retired corporate fundraiser told ABC’s 7.30.
“The cost of getting down the Toowoomba range is extortionate.”
An independent review of the Inland Rail has already recommended the line finish earlier in Queensland than originally planned.
Review author Dr Kerry Schott said the double-stacked freight line should finish at a locality called Ebenezer, about 50 kilometres west of Brisbane, with connections to the Brisbane port through road and single-stack freight networks.
The freight and logistics industry has accepted this.
“It’s understandable, because of urban encroachment, because of the cost of building new rail through existing urban areas,” says Dr Hermione Parsons from the Australian Logistics Council.
But the council warns against cutting out any more sections, saying it’s important to get rail freight as close to the port as possible.
“The port of Brisbane serves a very large hinterland – Queensland, parts of the Northern Territory, parts of northern New South Wales,” Dr Parsons said.
“And that port is an important part of Queensland’s resilience.”
The proposed Ebenezer terminal was not part of the original plan for the Inland Rail, and it’s still in the very early stage of planning.
“A preliminary evaluation for an intermodal terminal has been completed,” a spokesman for the Queensland Transport Department told 7.30.
“We are working across government and with our federal colleagues towards the completion of the business case.”
National Party MP Garth Hamilton says this will inevitably mean further delays for a project already years behind schedule.
“Every day that we’re delaying, if we go through more reviews, we’re going to see more cost blowouts,” the member for the federal seat of Groom said.
“There is no way that Ebenezer stands up.
“I’m calling for a pause here – I’m calling for a pause at Toowoomba while this is worked out.”
Progress in Queensland ‘behind the eight ball’
The Australian Logistics Council says the Queensland government should become more actively involved in the debate.
“I’d be worried if I was the Queensland government about the staging of the Inland Rail project from Melbourne all the way up to Brisbane as the last leg, because that means the freight only has one way to go, which is south,” Dr Parsons said.
“The Queensland government needs to be working on this and it’s a bit behind the eight ball.”
ABC’s 7.30 sought comment from Queensland Transport Minister Mark Bailey, and his department provided a written statement saying: “The state government is reviewing the Inland Rail’s recommendations.”
Suz and Stan Corbett, who live near a freight rail line in the suburb of Forestdale in outer Brisbane, say they’re still in the dark about how the Inland Rail will affect their lives, and would prefer to see the whole project stopped at Toowoomba.
“If a train came through right now, you can’t hear the television,” Mr Corbett said.
“And we’re 200 metres from the line – there are people with their back fences on the line.”
The project proponent, the Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC), originally proposed to finish construction of all four Queensland sections of the Inland Rail by 2025.
However, it has yet to complete any of its Queensland environmental assessments.
“There has been lengthy delays in his process, particularly in Queensland,” the independent review found.
“[This was] caused in part by immature design and poor environmental impact statements that need numerous changes and resubmissions.”
Darling Downs farmer Wes Judd has been at loggerheads with the ARTC over its planned route through the Millmerran flood plains, and says he feels vindicated by the review.
“They could have nearly had this half-built by now if they picked up a whole lot of issues that were picked up in 2017,” he said.
The Australian Logistics Council says the fundamental problem was that construction started on the whole project before the endpoint was decided, but it’s pleased the Albanese government remains committed to finishing the project.
“This project potentially takes 200,000 trucks a year out of the equation of freight transport – that’s important – [and] 750,000 tonnes of carbon reduction,” Dr Parsons said.
“We need rail; our country lags behind terribly in terms of rail investment, yet it is an incredibly important mode and we don’t have enough of it.”
Everald Compton’s original vision back in the 1990s was for the line to continue north to the central Queensland port of Gladstone – and he’s still a keen advocate for this future extension.
“We’ve simply got to say let’s get rid of the nonsense, let’s do some nation-building,” he said.
But Dr Parsons is more cautious.
“That’s an extra. We need to get back to the fundamentals of the intercity rail link between Melbourne and Brisbane.”
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