Apr 29, 2019

Opinion – Inland Rail Is A Train Wreck. This Is The Only Way To Get It Back On Track – 10 Daily – Monday, 29 April 2019

When governments spend billions of dollars of public money on major transport projects, it is critical that they get the details right.

To achieve value for taxpayers, big projects must be the subject of careful planning, transparency over financing arrangements and detailed consultation with affected communities.

But when it comes to the fine details of the Inland Rail link between Brisbane and Melbourne, the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison Government has let down Australians.

The project’s financing arrangements are questionable and the planning and public consultation have been botched so badly that farmers and affected communities have become openly hostile to a project which, delivered properly, would be a positive for the nation.

That is why a Federal Labor Government would appoint an eminent Australian to conduct an independent inquiry into Inland Rail. With $8.4 billion of public money already invested in the project, it’s time for some transparency.

Federal Labor supports Inland Rail.

It is a nation-building project that will allow freight to be moved the 1700km between Brisbane and Melbourne. The project will also improve logistics for producers and businesses in some of Australia’s most important agricultural regions.

When Labor was last in Government we invested $900 million in the project to upgrade sections of existing rail lines that will be part of Inland Rail and to advance planning for other sections that need to be built from scratch.

However, as NSW Nationals Leader John Barilaro told a meeting of farmers in Dubbo in February, Inland Rail has “barnacles’’ on it that need to be sorted out by the Federal Government.

The first problem is financing.

To keep the project off budget, the Morrison Government is funding Inland Rail via an $8.4 billion equity investment into the Australian Rail Track Corporation.

Labor has no problem with equity financing when it stacks up. The same financing model is being used to deliver the Western Sydney Airport and the Sydney’s Moorebank Intermodal Project.

However, the basic rule of equity financing is that it can only be used to fund projects that repay the capital outlay and produce an ongoing financial return.

Former Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson expressed his doubts in 2015 in the Inland Rail Implementation Study he produced for the Government.

Mr Anderson wrote that: “operating revenue over 50 years will not cover the initial capital investment required to build the railway’’.

The CEO of the ARTC, John Fullerton, has also raised doubts, telling a Senate Estimates Hearing in February, 2018: “From a strict ARTC point of view, no, the revenue that flows to us would never cover the full capital cost and provide a return’’.

With such a large amount of money involved, Australians deserve greater transparency.

The next problem with Inland Rail is the fact that it does not go to the Port of Brisbane but stops Acacia Ridge, 38km short of the Port of Brisbane.

That makes no sense.

Port of Brisbane chief executive Roy Cummins has described Inland Rail as “fundamentally flawed,’’ noting that containers bound for the port will have to be unloaded at Acacia Ridge and taken to the port by trucks.

“That means millions of tonnes of product will still have to fight its way through Brisbane’s congested passenger rail networks, which will negatively impact the liveability of Brisbane’s suburbs, as well as the export efficiency of our economy,’’ Mr Cummins told The Courier-Mail in January last year.

For Inland Rail to work, rail access to the port is critical. This is a detail that should have been resolved years ago and factored into the cost of the project.

There are also serious concerns about route selection.

The NSW Farmers Association has expressed concerns about inadequate consultation with landholders over route selection on the greenfield section of Inland Rail between Narromine and Narrabri.

And its Queensland counterpart, Agforce, has warned that the proposed route through the Condamine floodplain, in southern Queensland, could exacerbate flooding events.

Inland Rail can be a great project for Australia. It’s the kind of project that, if delivered properly, will underpin decades of economic prosperity and growth.

But we need to get it right.