TRANSPORT and Infrastructure Minister Darren Chester has a personal saying that contradicts the core political dilemma underpinning the inland rail project that’s been over-promised but under-delivered for the past 15-years.
The old saying says, ‘It’s later than you think but you haven’t got as much time as you really think you have’.
And Mr Chester’s maxim will be need to posted somewhere prominent in his office to regularly remind himself there’s a political clock ticking on the inland rail project’s long-awaited arrival at Grand Central Credibility, in the new term of government.
“The sense of urgency I’m trying to instil amongst my staff, and within the department, is that we need to make decisions and they have to be good decisions, but we actually have to get on with it,” he said.
Like National Party Transport Ministers before him - John Anderson, Mark Vaile and Warren Truss - the 48 year-old Victorian Nationals MP gets excited about the project’s obvious potential while others look on, frustrated by its actual delivery.
The mooted 1700kms rail line from Brisbane to Melbourne has been pitched as an iconic national building project in political circles since Mr Anderson unveiled it during his time in the job over nearly seven years, in the Howard government.
The former Nationals leader also chaired the Inland Rail Implementation Group that handed a report to the Coalition in September last year outlining details of a $10 billion, 10-year construction timeframe, including about 600kms of new rail track.
In the previous parliament, $300 million was allocated to start pre-construction activities and early works on the ambitious rail-line, when Mr Truss was the minister.
Mr Chester said the “big breakthrough” was an additional $594m allocated in the 2016-17 budget unveiled earlier this year, to advance pre-construction activities and acquire the necessary land needed to build the rail-line.
“We need to get ourselves in a position where we fully consult with the communities along the route, define the route, purchase the land required and begin that pre-construction activity with a view to getting the inland rail built within the decade,” he said.
“Now that’s the challenge and that’s a challenging time-frame but people have talked about it for long enough and now we just need to get on with the job.
“We’re talking about a $10 billion project all up so it’s a massive commitment.”
Mr Chester said his ministerial challenge was to get the inland rail project into a position where “it becomes inevitable that it will be built”.
“Irrespective of whether I’m the minister in three years’ time, the momentum will have been built to such a stage that the project’s underway and we will have made the case so clearly to the Australian people about the importance of this project, that no future government will be able to unpick it,” he said.
“I think it’s an outstanding project of national significance and one that we desperately need and I’m very keen to get it done and get it done well.”
The National Farmers’ Federation has identified the inland rail as a critical project for improving the efficient delivery of agricultural product to market; especially in terms of maximising producer returns from recently signed free trade agreements.
Mr Anderson’s report said the 600kms of proposed new track would reduce the distance between Brisbane and Melbourne by around 200kms and between Brisbane and Perth by around 500kms.
It also said the new rail line would improve access to and from regional markets with 2 million tonnes of agricultural freight shifted from road to rail and 8.9mt of agricultural freight expected to be carried in 2050.
Mr Chester said the government was currently conducting market testing to “firm-up” the project’s business case and ensure it had a “better handle” on the final numbers, while testing the private sector’s appetite for partnering with government.
“The consultation now is getting amongst the communities and letting them have a real say in how the project progresses,” he said.
Mr Chester said the future of any major project like the inland rail inevitably often does come down to money.
But he said his portfolio outlook was that the government must think as long-term as it possibly can and part of the conversation, in his mind, is the Coalition should be building projects today that “our kids and our grandkids will thank us for”.
“In terms of the inland rail, the benefits will start accruing from day one but in 20 or 30 years’ time our kids and grandkids will thank us for having the foresight to have built it,” he said.
“It’ll be the first time we have a proper north-south link from Brisbane to Melbourne and also importantly it’ll link WA into those markets as well, with a link coming through Parkes.”
The inland rail is a fright driven project designed to deliver product to market in a more cost-efficient way for sectors like agriculture but also carries other community benefits.
Mr Chester said a great “side benefit” which he was particularly passionate about was road safety improvements, with more freight moved onto rail leading to fewer trucks movements on roads and interacting with mums and dads on holidays.
But he said that change of freight movement wouldn’t endanger the jobs of mum and dad owner-drivers that he also wanted to protect.
“The freight task in Australia is growing so considerably that there will be plenty of jobs left for mums and dads in the owner-driver sector,” he said.
“It’s not a question of owner-drivers being put out of work because of the inland rail – it’s a question of how that industry still grows.
“Another piece of work we’re doing now is evaluating what the freight task will be by 2030 and how that’ll fit into the final analysis of the inland rail, from a cost benefit consideration.
“But there’s going to be more than enough jobs for truck drivers with the freight task as we continue to increase our production in the agricultural sector and other industries, as a growing nation.”