A Senate inquiry has issued a stinging assessment of the management of Australia’s biggest freight rail project, Inland Rail.

Key points:

  • A Senate report is highly critical of the management of Inland Rail
  • The inquiry identified poor planning and a lack of consultation
  • Communities want the federal government to act on the findings

The 211-page report provides 26 recommendations to fix failures in consultation, technical modelling and route planning of the 1,700-kilometre rail line connecting Brisbane to Melbourne.

Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee chair and WA Labor Senator Glenn Sterle described the “nation-building” project as rushed and half-baked.

“The government will tell you about the good bits, but you can’t keep covering up the ineptitude of the lack of consultation and poor route choice,” he said.

The construction of Inland Rail is underway and being delivered through the government-owned Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC).

The initial 2015 business case estimated a cost of $4.7 billion, which has now ballooned to $14.3b and could exceed $20b, according to the report.

The report recommends an independent review and update of the original business case to allow for accurate costing of the project.

At the same time, the report also proposes looking at extending the rail to Gladstone, 500 kilometres north of Brisbane, and building a passenger line from Brisbane to Toowoomba.

Brisbane to Melbourne inland rail alignment map, April 2021.

The 1,700km freight rail project is the biggest of its kind in the country.(

Supplied

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Community feels unheard

The report also found that community and stakeholder consultation had been poor and recommended ARTC set up regional forums to garner more community support.

Several local government areas in south-east Queensland have long held concerns about the prospect of dozens of freight trains travelling through residential areas daily.

A woman with short, dark hair, wearing a mask, stands outside in front of a marquee.

Tanya Milligan is not the only local government leader concerned about the project.(

ABC Southern Queensland: Jon Daly

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Lockyer Valley Mayor Tanya Milligan fears the impact the Gowrie to Helidon section of rail will have on the amenities of towns like Gatton.

“Really listen — it feels like it’s only still half-cooked,” she said.

Logan Mayor Darren Power shares similar concerns for the Kagaru-Acacia Ridge section of the proposed line, which slices through urban areas of south-east Queensland.

Under ARTC plans, Acacia Ridge could be a termination point for the line, ending in an intermodal terminal connecting freight to the Port of Brisbane.

The Senate report heavily criticised the fact that the endpoint was still uncertain, despite being subject to a business case and already under construction.

A digger working on constructing a rail track.

The Inland Rail project is underway, but a Senate report has been scathing of its management.(

Supplied: Steve MacGill

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Cr Power said the report offered some hope for Logan residents because it emphasised an alternative site for the freight hub, but said he and his community had little confidence in the ARTC.

“We’ll be making sure that residents know that unless they see real change here, they’re going to have to call for change in the federal government,” Cr Power said.

Interim chief executive Rebecca Pickering said the ARTC recognised the issues investigated by the committee were matters of great interest for communities.

“We have heard the call from stakeholders who expected more from our early engagement on Inland Rail, and we have continued to improve as the project progressed,” she said in a statement.

A drone image of a railway line under construction, with paddocks either side.

The Inland Rail project is considered a priority infrastructure project that will deliver big benefits for regional Australia.(

Supplied: Australian Rail Track Corporation

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Flood modelling flaws

The Senate report also highlighted issues raised by a draft independent study of the flood modelling used by ARTC for several routes through Queensland.

“The concern about the ARTC’s flood and hydrology modelling has been validated and further fuelled by the independent panel’s draft report that has identified a number of issues, many of which are highly significant,” the report read.

It recommends the ARTC address the issues raised by Queensland’s independent flood panel as a matter of priority.

Farmers near the small town of Millmerran, 200km south-west of Brisbane, felt vindicated by that finding.

The Millmerran Rail Group has fought the current proposed rail route through the Condamine floodplain for years, even commissioning its own hydrology study.

“Those modelling issues around flooding are very important and we’ve had concerns about that from the very first day,” Millmerran Rail Group chair Wes Judd said.

The front of a Pacific National freight train.

The Senate report made 26 recommendations for improvements to the project.(

ABC News: Dominique Schwartz

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Federal government action

In a statement, Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce said Inland Rail was vital infrastructure for regional Australia.

“The government will consider all recommendations in the Senate inquiry report into the management of inland rail and will respond in due course,” the statement said.

Mr Stearle said the Government would likely tuck the committee’s report away on “a dark shelf somewhere”.

“I have no doubt this government is going to try to bury it,”  he said.

The report also criticised the Queensland government for not engaging with the Senate inquiry.

Queensland Transport Minister Mark Bailey said Inland Rail was a federal government project and criticisms of the state government were “stretching it”.

Cr Milligan said her community wanted action on this report, but she held little hope her community would finally be listened to.

Posted , updated 

Scathing Senate report details mismanagement of ‘nation building’ rail project
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