Former Inland Rail project director claims $14bn freight line plans ‘made in a hurry’

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With an independent review of the $14.5 billion Inland Rail project looming, a former project director claims those charged with the initial planning “just looked at Google Maps”.

Cameron Simpkins, who was a project director at the Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC), which is building the 1,700 kilometer train line, said it was clear to him that early planning had been “rushed”.

The construction of the Inland Rail line from Melbourne to Brisbane has created thousands of jobs and boosted regional economies along the track.

But a damning Senate investigation report last year warned of significant challenges for the vital project, which aims to guarantee freight transport across the country, especially when roads are impassable due to flooding.

Workers installing railway sleepers on Inland Rail from ARTC Facebook post, July 2022.
Thousands of new jobs are being created in regional Australia as work continues on the 1,700 kilometer inland railway.(Provided: Australian Rail Track Corporation)

Former National Party leader Barnaby Joyce secured the first major funding commitment of $8.4 billion for the project through the 2016 coalition agreement with the then Malcolm Turnbull-led Liberal Party.

Since then, up to $14.5 billion has been committed to the project through the state-owned ARTC.

“Mr Turnbull wanted Western Sydney Airport. Well, I wanted Inland Rail and now we have the money,” Mr Joyce said.

But the Senate inquiry report, titled ‘Inland Rail: Derailed from the Start’, raised concerns about transparency and questioned the business case and the ever-increasing costswhich it said could blow out to more than 20 billion.

a man in a big cap is talking at Singleton railway station
Former National Party leader Barnaby Joyce secured $8.4 billion for Inland Rail in the 2017/18 Budget.(ABC Upper Hunter: Jake Lapham)

‘Like two guys in a Commodore’

The findings of the Senate report were consistent with the experience of Mr Simpkins, who was project director at ARTC between 2017 and 2019.

“When I arrived and we got the documentation, it was very clear that it had been done in a hurry,” he said.

Joyce disagreed.

“Rush? It should have happened in 1950 – if I followed the non-rush process, we wouldn’t be doing it at all,” he said.

A map of the Inland Rail route.
The trip along the 1,700 kilometer line from Melbourne to Brisbane will take less than 24 hours.(Provided: Australian Rail Track Corporation)

Simpkins said that when he started working at ARTC in 2017, many were “surprised” that they had secured the project.

He remembered reviewing 2015 business case for the project.

“It certainly seemed like two guys in a Commodore listening to KC and the Sunshine Band roaring up the road next to the railway going, ‘Yeah, it’s OK, it’s OK, it’s OK’,” said mr. Simpkins.

“I think they just looked at Google Maps and said, ‘No problem here, go ahead’.”

Millmerran cattle farmers Kim and Russell Stevens near their feedlot.
A proposed rail line would have passed through the middle of Kim and Russell Stevens’ house. (ABC Landline: Nathan Morris)

It was a theory consistent with a meeting Kim and Russell Stevens had with the ARTC on their southern Queensland cattle property.

“They asked me where the house was on the map and I said, ‘Well, it’s actually below the line you have there on the map in front of you’,” Ms Stevens said.

“They were a bit swallowed, and we were also over the fact that they didn’t know where they stood.”

Sir. Simpkins said at one point he was trying to understand why “the numbers [the cost] had increased exponentially”.

An independent engineer was then called in to review the plans.

“All the culverts have been removed to eliminate the cost, all the level crossings have been removed, the fencing – the kilometers and kilometers of fencing – was not included and none of that is included in the original price,” he said.

Sir. Joyce had a different recollection.

“I think everything was examined for effectiveness, but I don’t think it was removed,” he said.

“I think in any kind of quantity surveyor process, we look for value for money.”

Around 300 km of track has been built since 2017, and all but 5.3 km are upgrades to existing railway lines.

According to the ARTC, about $2 billion has been spent so far.

Infrastructure and Transport Minister Catherine King said the project was “certainly way over budget and I suspect it will potentially blow even further without me doing anything”.

“I think the previous government tried to make us believe it would be open and finished in 2026-27 – it’s clear that’s absolutely not going to be the case,” she said.

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Tracking the $14 billion Inland Rail project.(ABC Landline: Nathan Morris)

However, ARTC acting chief executive Rebecca Pickering said it would be an “iconic project” that would change how freight moved around Australia.

“By crossing through regional areas of Australia, we have an opportunity to bring these regional communities closer to their markets and their customers,” she said.

“We have a huge task ahead of us to meet the demands of the freight market, which I say will more than double in the next 30 years.”

Transformation of regional cities

At a grassroots level, tensions are growing between inner cities over the potential economic impact of the rail line, with some communities already reaping the economic benefits and others fearing they will miss out as the track bypasses them.

Construction is now focused on the Narrabri to North Star section of the Inland Rail, where ARTC reports it has employed more than 1,800 people, including hundreds of local residents and First Nations people.

Hundreds of millions of dollars were also spent on local businesses in places like Moree in north-west New South Wales.

Lloyd Munro stands on the tracks at Moree train station.
Lloyd Munro says the opportunities provided by the Inland Rail project are changing Moree for the better.(ABC Landline: Nathan Morris)

“We’ve had a lot of young people [who] has got a start on the Inland Railway. Also training to actually drive the trucks, use the machinery,” Aboriginal elder Lloyd Munro senior said.

He said his mob often struggled to get good jobs and training opportunities in Moree, but he hoped the Inland Rail was a chance for real change.

“That work gives you an opportunity for our mob to be trained and work side by side in all the professional trades,” he said.

He also hoped it could be a project that helped change the narrative of Moree, a place with a history of tension between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people.

“Moree is changing, that’s what I want them to know … and for the better,” he said.

But elsewhere, among the more populous communities between Toowoomba and Brisbane, such as the outer suburbs the line will pass through on its way to the Port of Brisbane, concerns remain about the frequency of huge freight trains cutting through communities.

Sir. Simpkins said he believed important design considerations were getting lost in the fog of politics and money sticks.

“I have stood at those gates and talked to the farmers,” he said.

“If we’re going to impact these families and impact these communities, we owe it to them and we owe it to our future generations to do it right.”

Heavy machinery moves sleepers along the inner rail route.
Work on the now completed Parkes to Narromine section of the inland railway.(Image provided by ARTC)

Seizing the political opportunity

A former senior civil servant involved in the feasibility study of the Inland Rail project said recently that in 2015, when the initial business case was completed, much of the route had not been fully investigated and costs were always going to rise.

The public servant, who asked not to be named, said to get an ambitious project like this over the line, political opportunities had to be seized.

It is widely accepted that an inland rail line will be needed to meet the East Coast’s freight needs, which are expected to double over the next 20 to 30 years.

“Getting this thing built is of prime importance,” Mr Joyce said.

A sign criticizing ARTC flood modeling near the Pampas.
The proposed Inland Rail crossing of the Pampas floodplain in southern Queensland remains contentious.(ABC Landline: Nathan Morris)

There are two pending reviews of ARTC’s flood modeling that have yet to be published, and the now Labor government promised a review of the project before the election earlier this year.

Ms King said she was finalizing the terms of reference for an independent review of the rail project.

“It’s going to be a short, sharp review. What I’m really looking to do is get a real sense of where all the problems along the route [are]and where is a path to actually solve some of these problems,” she said.

“We may not be able to fix everything.”

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