Inland Rail now almost 20 per cent complete, says CEO

Almost one-fifth of the $31 billion Inland Rail network from Melbourne to Brisbane is now complete, but the government-owned agency building the 1600-kilometre project still does not have a clear view on the ultimate cost and finish date.

Inland Rail chief executive Nick Miller said the government-owned corporation was trying to finish construction of rail tracks between Beveridge, near Melbourne, and the NSW town of Parkes by 2027. Just under 20 per cent of the total network had been completed, up from 17 per cent in February.

But Inland Rail, a subsidiary of the Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC) is still trying to get approvals for land acquisitions in NSW and has not yet attained environmental approvals in Queensland, which are expected to take several years.

Inland Rail Now Almost 20 Per Cent Complete, Says Ceo

Rail networks around Australia need more funding so trains can move easily between states and recover quickly from flooding, CEOs say. ARTC

“Our approvals in NSW are progressing well, we have already received state and federal approvals for the Narromine to Narrabri section,” Mr Miller said.

“For areas between Narromine and Ebenezer we are focused on securing approvals and land acquisition to help give the Australian government more certainty on the cost and schedule for the project.”

In Queensland, Inland Rail was working with the co-ordinator general and hoped to submit a revised environmental impact statement for the border to Gowrie section in the next couple of months, Mr Miller said.

While the Commonwealth has committed $14.5 billion to built Inland Rail, an independent review by former investment banker and academic Kerry Schott has forecast the rail network will cost at least $31.4 billion.

Chief executives of private companies are frustrated with the slow progress of Inland Rail and the development of other rail networks.


Pinch points

“Australia has historically been in the slow lane when it comes to rail, with network policies and regulation putting the handbrake on innovation,” said Paul Scurrah, chief executive of rail haulage group Pacific National.

“With bigger ships and trucks, it’s imperative government invests further in below rail infrastructure to ensure there are no pinch points in the supply chain.”

Hundreds of millions of dollars more annually need to be invested in rail to keep up with the money being invested in road expansion, Mr Scurrah said, adding that unlike roads, rail networks were required to make commercial returns, which made it harder to compete.

Aurizon chief executive Andrew Harding, who wants companies to rail goods from Darwin to other state capitals instead of putting them on ships and is testing battery and hydrogen-powered trains, said it was difficult to move freight across state borders because regulations varied state by state.

“Almost three decades since the nation was connected by standard gauge [in 1995], traversing jurisdictions remains less than optimal – with different operational rules and rolling stock requirements, which do not support the best productivity and safety outcomes,” he said.

Australia has 29 rail networks with three railway gauges and 11 separate signalling systems, according to the National Transport Commission, which is working with transport and infrastructure ministers to try to develop common standards.

Last year, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission allowed rail freight companies such as Aurizon, Pacific National, Qube Logistics and Southern Shorthaul Railroad to collectively bargain with network owners for access to rail tracks so they could receive the same terms and conditions.

The Australasian Railway Association, which is holding a rail freight conference in Sydney on Tuesday, wants national regulations so that trains can compete more effectively with trucks.

Georgia Nicholls, the ARA’s rail freight general manager, said the poor reliability and frequency of rail transport were more concerning than the cost for companies choosing between trains and trucks.

“It’s not reliable enough, it’s not frequent enough and they don’t get the stuff there quick enough,” she said.


Flooding of network

Rail freight operators were also reluctant to share information due to the concentrated nature of the market, which led to “poor decision-making from government because they don’t have a good feel for what’s really happening,” Ms Nicholls said.

Less than 2 per cent of the volume of goods moved between Melbourne and Sydney, Australia’s busiest freight corridor, is transported on rail, according to the ARA.

Volumes carried on rail between Sydney and Brisbane are less than 5 per cent of total freight, and less than 30 per cent of goods shifted between Melbourne and Brisbane goes by rail.

While more than 80 per cent of goods hauled between the east and west coasts goes on trains, grocery deliveries have previously been disrupted during flooding of the interstate rail network.

This year, a cyclone flooded rail tracks in Queensland in January and February while in March, part of the ARTC network in Western Australia near Kalgoorlie was submerged.

ARTC CEO Wayne Johnson said extreme weather events were becoming more prevalent and severe. “Infrastructure must be able to withstand and recover from these intense weather systems and other extraordinary events,” he said, adding the ARTC had completed a hydrology study so it could prepare for future floods.