Back in the days of his prime, Barnaby Joyce announced that the Coalition Government had allocated 9.5 billion dollars for the construction of the Inland Railway.
He had demanded this from Malcolm Turnbull as the price for National Party cooperation at the time of Turnbull’s coup to topple Abbott.
Turnbull reluctantly agreed, but insisted that it had to be funded ‘off balance sheet’, ie, not taken from general taxpayer revenue in the next Budget, but funded by loans to be taken out by the Federal Government’s own railway company, ARTC (Australian Rail Track Corporation) against its balance sheet. Future revenue would pay back the loans.
This was mentioned only in the fine print of the public announcement. Most voters think it is being funded by regular government grants.
In other words, Barnaby Joyce proceeded with the project without allocating one cent of government funds to it. This means that his in-depth commitment to it has been Nil. It was simply a vote getting stunt.
It still is a very shallow commitment by those who have followed him and it will cause future governments huge pain when, inevitably. they are forced to pick up the large tab.
Based on current planning, it will take a full decade or more to build the railway from Melbourne to Brisbane via Parkes and Toowoomba.
Interest on the ever increasing ARTC loans will rapidly multiply over those years.
Then, it will take another ten years for freight traffic on the railway to generate enough revenue to start repaying the loans, while, in the meantime, huge operating losses will add onto those loans.
The venture will bankrupt ARTC.
The facts are that the Inland Railway can only ever attain viability if it is funded totally without debt and this was known to both Turnbull and Joyce when the deal was done.
Their actions represent one of the most irresponsible decisions in Australian political history and could easily have been avoided.
It has always been possible to run freight trains from Melbourne to North Star, which is north of Moree. All that is needed is to build a 300k standard gauge railway on from there to Toowoomba which can act as a freight hub for the whole of South East Queensland without the track going any further. It can also send airfreight from Toowoomba’s International Airport.
All that is needed is three billion dollars in tax payer funding. This would make it possible for revenue generating freight trains to run from Melbourne to Toowoomba and return, many years ahead of the current plans.
All of the creation of short cuts and upgrading in NSW could then be progressively implemented in the years ahead with small but regular doses of taxpayer funding annually.
The proposed highly expensive track from Toowoomba to Brisbane will never be needed as it is a better strategy to build the Inland Railway on to Gladstone and open up a huge regional development opportunity on the Darling Downs, Maranoa and Central Queensland.
But negotiations between the Morrison and Palaszczuk Governments have broken down over the cancellation of promised federal funding for Brisbane’s Cross River Rail by Abbott six years ago. It would have been built and operating by now if Abbott had not done this.
So, Palaszczuk now makes a fair comment to Morrison: “You restore the Cross River Rail money and we will let the Inland Railway into Queensland.”
Who can blame her? But I am sure that Albo will fix it when he becomes Infrastructure Minister in May.
In the meantime, the current Infrastructure Minister, McCormack, is spending 300 million dollars unnecessarily upgrading the rail track from Parkes to Narromine which is in his own electorate. He had earlier announced, at a sod turning ceremony beside a rail track that has been there for 150 years, that it would cost 160 million.
It will not cause even one more freight train to appear on the line to North Star and so it is an utter waste of public funds that will send that massive overdraft soaring higher.
In addition, farmers between Narromine and Narrabri are in uproar over the proposed short cut rail track which is next on McCormack’s list for the Inland Railway. Negotiations for resumption of their land have been brutal, so 300 of them abused him mightily at a recent public meeting and there is some evidence that Barnaby, who wants his old job back, helped organise the protest.
There is a similar uproar among the farmers around Millmerran in Queensland. The public relations skills of ARTC are totally missing.
The best that can be said today is that the creation of the Inland Railway, a great national development project, is in the hands of gross political and bureaucratic incompetents who have turned it into an unbelievable farce at huge cost to the nation.
It must not be destroyed by irresponsible vandalism.
Everald Compton was a founding director of ATEC Rail Group in 1996 and served as chairman for 18 years. He now serves as a consultant to the company.