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On track or off track, inland rail must deliver for regional Australia

We’ve called for the evidence; we’ve called for answers; we’ve asked for the facts. Twelve months on from a commitment of funds to deliver inland rail, it’s now time for an inquiry to ensure the presently proposed inland rail route through New South Wales delivers the very best inland rail for agricultural communities impacted by this $9.3 billion project.

From a ‘corridor of commerce’ to a ‘steel highway’, even the ‘WestConnex of regional New South Wales’, the inland rail has been given many monikers by its advocates.   This $9.3 billion project has the potential to be a catalyst for change – but many questions remain unanswered about how it can properly fulfil its potential for, and deliver positive benefits to, Australia’s agricultural sector.

 

Doubts remain about how the inland rail will actually help locally-produced food and fibre on its journey from the paddock to the port, and the plate.  Serious questions about the way local farmers will access the line abound; no one seems able to answer exactly how a farmer will place their grain, red meat or horticultural produce on a train to move it north, south, east or west.  Similarly, without dedicated freight connections right to the port, rather than the outer suburbs of Brisbane and Melbourne, the line risks failing to deliver the revolution it is said to offer.

Many people are starting to ask: is this railway line being constructed to move imported goods such as flat screen televisions between Brisbane and Melbourne, or is it to transport local food and fibre, which is capable of being loaded along the route?

Doubts remain, also, about the proposed route – at present, 700 kilometres of new railway line for the 1,700 kilometre total journey is required to be constructed, and the government proposes to impact more than 500 farm businesses in order to satisfy inland rail’s service offering.  In New South Wales, the Australian Government has rejected an opportunity to upgrade an existing railway line in favour of constructing a new line across 300 farms – the impacts range from running along a property boundary through to slicing properties in half; in some cases, houses will need to move to accommodate the new line.

 

For months now, NSW Farmers has been calling for answers from the Australian Government, and the Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC), the government-owned company building the railway line.  Documents have been reluctantly released by the ARTC which, they claim, support the identification of a preferred corridor for the track.  However, with every document released comes yet more questions – frustration with the inland rail project grows and community support for it heads south.

NSW Farmers has sought answers, principally, about the preferred route between Narromine and Narrabri.  The proposed route in this section ignores an existing railway line between Dubbo and Coonamble in favour of constructing a new line.  When asked why they will not upgrade this existing rail corridor, the ARTC claims it would cost too much and add too much time to the journey.  The calculations underpinning this are, however, questionable - to many, it beggars belief that it is (apparently) cheaper to acquire new land and build a new railway line than it is to upgrade an existing railway line on an already reserved railway corridor.  Assumptions about the relative costs of brownfields versus greenfields development have been prepared on a ‘desktop’ analysis, using cost estimations to determine the best approach.

 

The ARTC is unable to tell farmers and landholders where passing loops and intermodal terminals will be located.  Until recently they promised to only fence the line where it passed through a farming business carrying livestock at the time of planning and construction – this ignores the fact that many farms will carry livestock in every other year depending on climatic conditions.  The question of how much of the line will be fenced is one without a final outcome.

Farmers asking how they will transport their stock from one side of the line to another, or move their large on-farm machinery from one paddock to another, are told they will have to use approved crossings, which could result in 20 to 30 kilometre round journeys – private crossings are not going to be allowed.  With up to one 1.8 kilometre-long train every hour, potentially travelling at 110k/hr, this is an understandable position, but it makes moving farm machinery a big hassle.

Here’s an example: a farmer who asked for a stock underpass to be installed was told it was not possible; this is despite that farmer operating either side of an existing railway line for generations.  Rather than build a simple stock underpass, the ARTC instead proposes to construct expensive stock handling yards on either side of the line – the farmer will then be responsible for the added expense of loading and transporting his stock via public road from one paddock to another, just 40 metres, as the crow flies, across the rail corridor, but possibly 20, 30 or 40 kilometre (or more) round trip on public roads as many times as is needed to move a mob or a flock from one side of the line to another.

The ARTC has admitted that their consultation has been sub-optimal.  Despite community consultation being scheduled during busy harvest periods, hundreds of concerned locals have voiced their reservations about the proposed corridor, but their concerns appear to have been largely ignored.

Two independent analyses into route options along other parts of the network have been undertaken – a 2015 study by Deloitte questioned a route travelling via Shepparton or Albury, and a 2017 Australian Government-commissioned study into options for travelling from Goondiwindi to Toowoomba.  This second study resulted in the Australian Government rejecting the original advice of the ARTC and selecting a new route linking inland rail to the Wellkamp Charlton Airport and industrial precinct.

If it’s good enough to seek external advice about the route through Victoria and Queensland, why should New South Wales not be treated equally?  It’s time we have independent verification that the inland rail Australian taxpayers are building is the best inland rail money can buy.

The ARTC, and the Australian Government, have been reluctant to consider alternative options through New South Wales.  They have based all of their decisions solely on the advice of the ARTC.  This advice has ignored the concerns of local residents, forsaking their concerns because this ‘nation building infrastructure’ must meet the inland rail service offering – this means moving freight from Melbourne to Brisbane in under 24 hours.  It seems a few minutes longer here or there, saving a farm business from destruction, is not ‘optimal’ for the ARTC – the farm business is expendable, the service offering less so.

An inquiry, held independently of government, is the only way communities impacted by inland rail will be satisfied that every consideration has been given to their concerns in the selection of the preferred route.  Any inquiry must consider the selection of a route which reduces impacts on landholders, maximises opportunities to move locally-grown food and fibre from the paddock to the port and keeps costs down, maximises competition and drives a supply chain revolution for Australian farmers.

NSW Farmers has been an active and long-time supporter of inland rail.  With some of the longest supply chains in the country, farmers growing produce west of the Great Dividing Range face enormous challenges moving their produce from paddock to port via already crowded corridors into Sydney, Newcastle and Wollongong.  Transportation can be as much as 30 per cent of expenses for farmers

The inland rail opens up the prospect of food and fibre grown in New South Wales travelling to Brisbane and Melbourne, as well as to Perth, Adelaide and Darwin.  Greater competition for the produce grown in this region will bring with it new markets for produce, driving up the post-farm gate value of our clean and green produce.

NSW Farmers has written to the Deputy Prime Minister, the Hon Michael McCormack MP, calling for him to commission an inquiry into the New South Wales section of inland rail.  We have also written to the Labor Opposition, through Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon, calling for Labor to support an inquiry and, in the event of a change of government, to commit to delivering inland rail in full.  We need inland rail to help us achieve our goal for agriculture to be Australia’s next $100 billion industry.  We have to get it right – taking time to pause and reflect will help ensure the community understands why we are building this important nation building infrastructure.

 

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