The Federal Government has committed to building a $10 billion inland rail line that will transport freight between Melbourne and Brisbane.
Advocates say it’s vital to ease the number of trucks on our roads and to link Australia’s farmers and manufacturers more efficiently with their markets.
While generally welcomed, the massive project has also raised plenty of questions from those whose lives will be most affected, as the ABC discovered when it travelled along the proposed route.
To answer some of the key questions we’ve gone to the top — John Fullerton, the chief executive of the Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC), which has the job of turning the century-old dream into a reality.
Why do we need inland rail?
Because of the sheer volume of goods it will be able to move, according to Mr Fullerton.
“One 1,800-metre train, double-stacked, operating between Melbourne and Brisbane is equivalent to over 100 B-double [trucks],” he said.
“So to me that should tell people what the benefits of rail is, compared to road, when you can take those trucks off the road, reduce congestion, improve safety.”
The volume of freight travelling along the eastern seaboard is expected to double to 8 billion tonnes by 2030, he said.
Currently three-quarters of all freight is transported by road and one-quarter by rail. The ARTC’s ambitious aim is to reverse that mix.
“The real problem we have on the coastal route today is that it takes 32 hours to move freight from Melbourne to Brisbane via Sydney,” he said.
“It has to navigate the curfews in the Sydney metro area, so you can understand why we only have 25 per cent of that [freight] volume on rail, because it only attracts the slow-moving, non-time sensitive freight.”
One of inland rail’s key targets is to offer an express service that delivers freight directly between Melbourne and Brisbane in less than 24 hours.
Will an inland railway take trucks off the road?
Yes, if rail is cheaper and more efficient than road.
“If the costs are the same as road, most times customers will choose [road] because it is more flexible,” Mr Fullerton said.
“But if you can make rail 20 to 30 per cent cheaper than road, as well as providing the same level of service in terms of transit time, freight availability, it is a very easy decision for our customers to make.”
But there are no promises.
ARTC is building the railway and will charge rail and freight companies to use it. Freight companies will factor that cost into the rates they charge farmers and businesses to carry their goods.
Graham Moore, from Pacific National — the largest rail freight company in Australia — said he was hopeful rates would drop.
“I think we can create the opportunity for [lower rates] to occur. Is there a guarantee? I don’t think you can put a guarantee in place,” the national manager of planning operations said.
Mr Fullerton is confident inland rail will lower freight costs for consumers.
“The best example is to look at our east-west business between Sydney and Perth and Melbourne and Perth,” Mr Fullerton said. “It’s two-thirds cheaper than road, running on those long distances.”
Will inland rail be a huge boon for regional Australia?
When federal Treasurer Scott Morrison committed the bulk of the estimated $10 billion cost of the inland railway in this year’s budget, he said the project would “support every regional location along the route”.
But that support may be a lot, or very little, depending on where you live.
Inland rail advocate and former Nationals deputy leader Tim Fischer told the ABC the rail line wouldn’t revive all of the dying towns along its route.
It’ll be the regional centres which become freight hubs that will benefit most.
In New South Wales, Parkes — which sits at the centre of the Perth-to-Sydney and planned Melbourne-to-Brisbane rail lines — already has two major freight terminals, and Pacific National is pouring millions of dollars into expanding its base there.
“A lot of work has been done in Parkes and Moree and Toowoomba, Wodonga, Albury, Wagga — all those locations are looking at inland rail as being a big opportunity to establish freight hubs to handle freight that is either being generated in their communities or freight that is destined into those regional areas,” Mr Fullerton said.
ARTC estimates inland rail will create 16,000 jobs during the construction phase. The company will employ another 500 staff and there will be 5,000 contractors, Mr Fullerton added.
“If you think about the local benefits from the construction you’ve got local delis, local motels, local earthmoving companies, you’ve got local employment and you can see the multiplier effect quickly adding up to that estimate of 16,000,” he said.
There will also be ongoing employment in roles such as train drivers and maintenance workers, he said.
Should taxpayers be investing $10b in newer technologies rather than rail?
Inland rail has been sold as providing the backbone for a freight system to last 100 years.
But given the pace of technological change, is rail in danger of being rendered a dinosaur?
Driverless vehicles, for example, are potentially only years away from taking to the roads, and who knows what artificial intelligence will bring to mobility and all forms of transport and infrastructure in the future?
Mr Fullerton believes rail will hold its own.
“A number of years ago rail was considered to be old-world technology. But it has been remarkable how it’s made a recovery around the world,” he said.
“Rail is now seen as the perfect way to move freight and people around the country and get congestion off the roads, make roads safer and it is good for the environment.
“So that’s why governments around the world are now investing heavily in rail networks because of the benefits they offer.”
Mr Moore from Pacific National goes further.
“What you get for your dollar on inland rail is a huge bang for your buck,” he said. “The amount being spent … this would deliver only a very small section of highway in metro Sydney.”
And he says rail is also constantly developing.
“We’d like to explore technology that allows us to do transitions of freight while we are moving,” he said, as a lot of fuel is wasted in stopping and starting trains.
If all goes according to ARTC’s business plan, inland rail will boost Australia’s GDP by $16 billion over the next 50 years — but it’s not expected to turn its first profit until just before then.
Have communities been able to have their say?
One third of the 1,700-kilometre inland railway will be completely new railway corridors, carved through state and privately owned land.
Balancing ARTC’s need for a straight, flat track allowing speed and efficiency, and the myriad concerns of landowners, businesses and communities is a continuing challenge.
The Narrabri and Barradine Local Aboriginal Land Councils (LALCs) that oversee the Pilliga Forest in New South Wales said they were contacted by ARTC in May about the possibility of the railway going through the forest, which contains Aboriginal heritage sites, or surrounding farmland.
Infrastructure Minister Darren Chester last month announced the route would go through the forest, but the LALCs were unaware of this until informed by the ABC.
Mr Fullerton said there had been “significant” consultation, but acknowledged “we could always do better”.
“Determining the alignment is just the first step in the process,” he said. “We’ll be working closely with all of those parties that are potentially impacted by the railway.
“And they’ll also have a lot of opportunity to submit their concerns through that environmental approval process.”
Millmerran farmer Russell Stevens, whose property lies within the preferred new rail corridor through south-east Queensland, has said he would have to be dragged off his land.
“Our commitment is to work with every individual landowner, understand what their issues are so that we can get to a satisfactory resolution,” Mr Fullerton said.
“I am not going to second guess those things. I think we can avoid them from happening.”
He has met with Mr Stevens and floodplain farmers in the wake of the announced route.
“We really want to bring the whole population with us to make inland rail an experience that is good for the regions and people can see the value in it for the Australian economy,” he added.
Will the inland rail project come in on time and on budget?
Construction on a new section of the railway — Parkes to Narromine in NSW— will begin by the middle of next year and the first freight train is due to roll along the entire line in 2024-25, according to Mr Fullerton.
“It’s a 10-year schedule we put together in 2015,” he said.
“There’s certainly been some delays around determination of alignment and so on. But we are going to work very hard to get all of those things into place to enable us to run that first train in 2025.”
As for finishing the project within the estimated $10 billion cost: “ARTC has got the responsibility given to us by the Federal Government … and that is what we are going to get on and do.”