Multi-billion dollar Inland Rail plan gathers momentum.

A CONTRACT for 14,000 tonnes of steel has been signed and, come late January, more than 100 workers will once again be buzzing about the 12th floor of the Australian Rail Track Corporation’s Brisbane headquarters, united in pursuing the cause.

The Inland Rail, that century-old dream of linking Melbourne to Brisbane in 24 hours, appeared to be materialising into a reality in 2017 as a visionary, nation-building project to light a fire under eastern state economies and inject new vigour into Australia’s interior.

Last October, the people tasked with bringing the project to life, ARTC, even allowed themselves a moment of self-indulgence as they celebrated the 100th anniversary of another great Australian engineering feat – the first passenger train link between Port Augusta and Perth.

That famous rail link is 1700km long, almost the exact length of the long-awaited Melbourne-Brisbane link, and it fulfilled the promise made to Western Australia at Federation in 1901 that the state would have a transport connection to the rest of the nation.

ARTC’s chief executive and managing director, John Fullerton, used the anniversary to ponder the extraordinary power rail has always had to supercharge economies, boldly suggesting we Queenslanders might soon be in for a 21st century version of the historically proven economic elixir.

“One hundred years after its connection, the Trans-Australian Railway is still bringing jobs, innovation and prosperity to the desert,’’ Fullerton said.

“The centenary celebrates one of our nation’s great engineering achievements, and the Inland Rail is building on that foundation to complete the spine of the Australian freight network.’’

The Inland Rail, that century-old dream of linking Melbourne to Brisbane in 24 hours, appeared to be materialising into a reality in 2017 and now an order has been placed for the first lot of steel for the project. Photo: iStock

Maybe it will, maybe it won’t.

No one – not even the Inland Rail’s most indefatigable booster, Everald Compton AM, who, in 1996, marched into the office of newly minted prime minister John Howard and put the
100-year-old idea back on the policy agenda – can be absolutely certain this nation-building project will actually reach completion.

The public has been burned too many times as politicians dust off the idea in every federal election campaign to wrap themselves in nation-building colours, only to let it slide off the radar once power is secured.

Many (by way of example) remember the “first day of work’’ on the project back in the federal election campaign of 2001. Then transport minister John Anderson vigorously hammered a golden spike into the ground at the McIntyre River on the New South Wales/Queensland border and everyone called it a day for the next 16 years.

Yet there’s no cure for cynicism like $8.4 billion. That was the equity investment given to the ARTC in last May’s Budget, and there is no question that it has now begun to crystallise into tangible realities.

Last month, Whyalla’s Liberty OneSteel was awarded the contract to supply 14,000 tonnes of steel for the first section of the project between Parkes and Narromine

That contract is worth about $5 million and is only a drop in the bucket of a project requiring about 262,000 tonnes of steel – the equivalent of about five Sydney Harbour Bridges.

But no one, not even the Inland Rail’s most indefatigable booster Everald Compton, AM, can be absolutely certain this nation-building project will actually reach completion. Photo: Richard Walker

Challenges surrounding the project continue to arise, though – not least in Queensland, where there are concerns about the proposed route, which was finalised late last year and follows, in large part, the path proposed by the ARTC in 2010.

It crosses prime agricultural land on the Condamine floodplain, then follows an alternative route east via Pittsworth and Brookstead, and takes in the Wagner family’s Wellcamp Airport and industrial precinct outside Toowoomba.

AgForce says the track will cause flooding on some of the state’s most valuable agricultural land and farmers are certain to fight the proposal in the Environment Court once the resumption notices land in their letter boxes.

In the Southern Downs, Mayor Tracy Dobie is echoing the anger of constituents, loudly pointing out that the entire project could be built far more cheaply if the ARTC simply followed an existing, state-owned rail corridor.

And late last year, the LNP’s federal member for Maranoa, David Littleproud – backed by several National Party MPs – blasted the proposal following Senate Estimate hearings.

Littleproud says the ARTC has got the proposed Queensland route wrong, and his word carries significantly more weight after his recent elevation as Minister for Agriculture.

Littleproud’s close colleague, Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, is also the newly appointed Infrastructure Minister who has carriage of the project.

As well, the Port of Brisbane will intensify pressure for the line to connect to the port rather than ending at Acacia Ridge.

“The fact is, this project is fundamentally flawed because it stops at Acacia Ridge and does not provide dedicated freight rail access to the port of Brisbane,’’ says chief executive Roy Cummins.

“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 livability of Brisbane’s suburbs, as well as the export efficiency of our economy.”

There are, of course, mutterings that the port is merely using the project as a means of gaining a magnificent piece of port-enhancing infrastructure.

But Compton, the project’s “grandfather’’ – who is also a genius when it comes to political fundraising and is well connected on both sides of politics – sees the port link as a sticking point.

“The public looking at this project see the whole idea of the Inland Rail as farmers shooting their produce off for export. You have to have that direct link to the port.’’

His solution is to have the port railway leave the Ipswich Line at the commencement of the Logan Motorway and run beside it to its junction with the Gateway Motorway, where it would turn left and follow that motorway to the river, then follow the river to the port.

“It will barely increase the noise factor caused now by cars on both motorways,’’ Compton says. “About 100 houses will have to be moved to make way for the rail corridor, with adequate compensation being given to the owners.

“This is far more practical than building a tunnel, which will be horrendously expensive and have no possibility of ever paying its way.’’

Maranoa MP David Littleproud says the ARTC have simply got the proposed Queensland route “wrong,’’ and his word carries significant more weight after his recent elevation to Minister for Agriculture. Photo: Lachie Millard

John McVeigh, the federal member for Groom – the electorate that takes in Toowoomba and stretches to the east – was recently elevated to Minister for Regional Development and is caught smack bang in the middle of all these competing interests.

All the while he must be seen to be backing Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who, in a federal election that could be held this year, will hang his hard hat on a project that’s now front and centre of McVeigh’s new ministry.

Yet McVeigh earnestly believes that, this time, the Inland Rail is a goer.

“It was the $18 billion in the May Budget that changed things – this project is now going to happen,’’ he says.

“The fact is this project is fundamentally flawed because it stops at Acacia Ridge and does not provide dedicated freight rail access to the port Brisbane,’’ says Port of Brisbane CEO Roy Cummins. Photo: Peter Wallis

McVeigh still has a 19th century map that was once pinned to the office wall of the chairman of Clifton Shire – a man who happened to be McVeigh’s grandfather.

The old map depicts the network of new rail tracks springing up across the fertile Darling Downs, creating the practical economic links that would go on to fuel the extraordinary growth of Queensland into the internationally recognised economic powerhouse it is today.

To McVeigh, that map represents something powerful – the extraordinary creative ability that humanity has to control its own destiny.

“They were looking forward way back then, planning out the future,’’ he says.

“I find it exciting that, here in the 21st century, we’re doing exactly the same thing.”


If you want to know more about the Inland Rail Plan and other ideas by Everald Compton and other Goondeens we encourage you to read Goondeen – Understanding Australia

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