Inland rail extension to Gladstone less Rocky

The current configuration of the Inland Rail route.

By Duncan Evans

There is growing pressure on the federal government to extend its multi-billion dollar Inland Rail project to Gladstone.

To give readers of CQ Today a clearer understanding of this mammoth enterprise, we outline its central features and some of the current tensions surrounding its development.

What is it?

Inland Rail is a 1700 km rail line linking the port cities of Melbourne and Brisbane. The line traverses the interior, or ‘inland’, portions of Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland, connecting regional towns with capital cities and export hubs.

According to a March 2020 government pre feasibility study, the purpose of the project is to:

“Improve the reliability and resilience of the freight network, free up metropolitan rail networks for passengers and local freight and reduce the impacts of heavy vehicles on the highway network.”

The project is being orchestrated by the Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC), a government-owned corporation.

Where does it go exactly?

At present, the route is marked to travel from Melbourne towards Gowrie, Queensland, near Toowoomba. From there, it branches off to the east to terminate in the southern Brisbane suburb of Acacia Ridge. From Acacia Ridge, trucks are expected to unload freight to ship to Brisbane distribution centres and to the Port of Brisbane.

Alongside the initial line linking Melbourne with Southeast Queensland, there is a possibility that the line will extend further north to the Port of Gladstone.

When will it be delivered?

Inland Rail is a multi-year infrastructure project and the entire enterprise will be broken up into 13 separate ‘sub-projects’. Each sub-project has its own timeline and there is no fixed date for the final completion of the entire project.

In 2019, a bilateral agreement was signed between the Australian government and the Queensland government for the delivery of Inland Rail in Queensland.

Construction has not yet commenced on any Queensland sections of the line.

A key tension

A key tension in the project is whether the line should terminate in Toowoomba or southern Brisbane.

An extension of the line to Gladstone would branch off from Toowoomba, and so whether the route ends in Toowoomba or southern Brisbane will affect how an extension to Gladstone develops.

Earlier iterations of the project had the line ending in Toowoomba instead of southern Brisbane. However, an ARTC spokesperson contacted by CQ Today said the route to Acacia Ridge was selected on the basic assumption that Southeast Queensland would see the most amount of population growth over the coming years, and therefore freight transportation dollars should be directed to accommodate this reality.

“The primary purpose of Inland Rail is to move everyday goods around Australia to where it is needed. The reason the route starts in Melbourne and terminates in Brisbane is basic supply and demand as Southeast Queensland is the second fastest growing area in the country – every new person needs more goods which results in more freight,” the spokesperson said.

Though the route is technically set, the possibility of an alternative route ending in Toowoomba and then extending to Gladstone is gaining traction across the political spectrum.

The case for Toowoomba and an extension to Gladstone.

In a recent submission to the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport, John Abbott, the Deputy Chairman of Regional Development Australia for Central and Western Queensland, and the Gladstone Ports Corporation (GPC), argue in favour of an extension to Gladstone from Toowoomba.

Mr Abbott and the GPC put forward three central arguments for their position.

Firstly, they argue that Australia requires a fourth major container port on the east coast and that the Port of Gladstone should serve this need.

“The existing major container ports of Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne are land-locked, with expansion options both limited and expensive. These ports have limited transport corridors to accommodate the predicted growth of containerised freight over the next 30 years,” the submission reads.

“If the T2G (Toowoomba to Gladstone) rail link is constructed connecting the Port of Gladstone to the Inland rail, a very different outcome is achievable.”

In the view of Mr Abbott and the GPC, the Gladstone Port is better prepared to handle greater Twenty-Foot Equivalent Unit (TEU) capacity into the future.

Secondly, the submission states:

“The financial case for the Inland Rail to the Port of Brisbane is based on growth of coal exports growing to 19.5 million tpa (tonnes per annum). Both existing and future export growth of coal can be exported from Gladstone.”

Thirdly, the submission states:

“The financial case for the Toowoomba to Gladstone rail are superior to that of Toowoomba to Brisbane.”

In the view of Mr Abbott and the GPC, an extension to Gladstone would be cheaper to construct than a line from Toowoomba into the dense heart of Brisbane and the value generated over time would exceed that of a Toowoomba to Brisbane link.

A discussion with Mr Abbott

In an extended interview with CQ Today, Mr Abbott expanded on the arguments outlined in his submission.

He said that while the economics of extending the line from Toowoomba to Brisbane were poor, a line to Brisbane would not necessarily preclude an extension to Gladstone.

“We actually believe that if they come to Brisbane it will have no impact on the economics of a link to Gladstone, but the link to Gladstone will have a significant impact on the economics of a link to Brisbane. For two reasons. The first is that we believe that any growth, or even some of the existing coal, will go to Gladstone rather than the Port of Brisbane. The capacity is there, the infrastructure is there, the ability to go to bigger ships is there, all of those things,” he said.

“Secondly, it’s also the import-export freight task, which is expected to nearly treble over the next thirty years, and that is where the real difference will happen. Gladstone can take bigger ships, we’re the farthest point north, and if we’re connected to Inland Rail, the time-freight cost options means it’ll be cheaper to unload containers in Gladstone and rail them to all and sundry through the east coast of Australia than it will be to take them to Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne.”

The federal government’s opposition

The federal government, however, does not support Mr Abbott’s arguments.

In a statement released to CQ Today, a spokesperson from the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications said:

“The Australian Government has completed a pre feasibility study looking at extending Inland Rail to the Port of Gladstone. This study examined two possible alignments – the Inland Route via Toowoomba, and the Coastal Route, along the existing North Coast Line corridor from Brisbane to Gladstone – and considered the potential demand for freight services to and from Gladstone, in addition to the economic, financial, environmental and community consideration of a rail link. An extension of Inland Rail to the Port of Gladstone was found to not be economically viable at this time, with potential demand for the connection not sufficient to justify the capital cost, estimated to be up to $5 billion.”

Mr Abbott’s refutation

When pressed on this point, Mr Abbott said the conclusions of the prefeasibility study were flawed because they rested on false assumptions.

“The fundamental flaw (of the study) was that the link to Gladstone would have no impact on the freight traffic to Brisbane,” Mr Abbott said.

“They didn’t assume any of the import-export freight task would come out of Gladstone. That was a short assumption. They also didn’t assume that coal freight and future freight bound for Brisbane would redirect to Gladstone. They also assumed that coal usage would stop in the world in 2050.”

The study, in effect, does not factor in the kind of economic activity that Mr Abbott expects would be generated by an extension to Gladstone. Consequently, the study does not see any justification for the capital costs of an extension.

Escalating political support for termination in Toowoomba and an extension to Gladstone

Despite the arguments from the Infrastructure Department, there is a growing bipartisan consensus that the line should be reconfigured to end in Toowoomba and then extend to Gladstone.

LNP and Labor representatives across Queensland, the Gladstone region and Southern Brisbane are moving towards the option preferred by Mr Abbott and the GPC.

Ken O’Dowd

In a series of statements released to CQ Today, Ken O’Dowd, the federal LNP member for the Division of Flynn, which includes Gladstone within its boundary, expressed his strong support for an extension.

“I have been advocating for the Inland Rail link to come to Gladstone for many years now along with Barnaby Joyce,” Mr O’Dowd writes.

“I will continue to do so with the support from local stakeholders such as the Gladstone Port Authority, Gladstone Regional Council, Banana Shire Council and Central Queensland University. I will not stop lobbying the Department of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development for them to consider Gladstone as a future option.

“The Central Queensland region is developing into a major energy resources hub and the Gladstone Port is in prime position to distribute natural resources all over the world and to our own backyard. Utilising the Inland Rail link this will make it more cost effective and a saving of nine days turnaround from Gladstone to Melbourne.

Trucking companies would prefer to deliver freight into Southeast Queensland from the Toowoomba side of the range vs Acacia Ridge. The Acacia Ridge/Toowoomba Range has many logistical problems.”

Anthony Chisholm

In a statement released to CQ Today, Queensland Labor Senator Anthony Chisholm, a man who has closely tracked the progress of Inland Rail for years, expressed his strong support for an extension.

“The current proposed route into Brisbane is plagued with issues and it was revealed that the government had to pour in an extra $5.5 billion worth of funding into the project. And the current route doesn’t even get the freight to the port of Brisbane. It gets the freight to Acacia Ridge 30km away, where it will have to be taken by truck,” Senator Chisholm writes.

“Inland Rail to Gladstone could complement other major infrastructure projects all across Central Queensland. It could also mean that businesses across Central Queensland would get improved access to markets throughout Australia and Internationally.”

The report conducted by Regional Development Australia Central and Western Queensland found that going to Gladstone instead of Brisbane could save the project around $1.6 billion. The study showed that with the current route, the Toowoomba to Brisbane component accounts for 50 per cent of the cost of the project but only 10 per cent of the distance.”

Colin Boyce

LNP member Colin Boyce represents the electorate of Callide in state parliament. Callide covers the portion of Central Queensland immediately to the south of Gladstone. In a letter to CQ Today, Mr Boyce expressed his strong support for an extension.

“I urge the Queensland government to take the first step in guiding Queensland towards a viable economic future by committing to the Inland Rail proposal from Toowoomba to Gladstone,” Mr Boyce writes.

“The Inland Rail options clearly show that the Port of Gladstone is a far better choice than the Port of Brisbane. Gladstone’s location alone and the reduced freight costs from Singapore to Shanghai are enough reason to progress this as a major project. The Port of Gladstone has the capability to accommodate large, modern container ships, similar to Port Botany near Sydney. The removal of coal trains from Brisbane suburbs would be an added benefit.

“It is crucial that transport links are prioritised to realise the potential expansion of the agricultural, mining, resource and energy sectors of Central Queensland. The Port of Gladstone and the Central Queensland region are being developed as a future energy production hub to the energy hungry southern states.”

In a telephone call with CQ Today, Mr Boyce reiterated his support for the project and said that he had met with Michael McCormack, the Federal Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development, in Canberra to discuss the possibility of funnelling money from the National Australia Infrastructure Fund (NAIF) to support an extension.

The results of that discussion, however, are unknown at this point in time.

Political opposition in southern Brisbane

Furthermore, in contrast to the wide bipartisan support for an extension to Gladstone from Toowoomba, a line through southern Brisbane cannot claim unqualified and uniform support.

Leeanne Enoch

Leeanne Enoch, the state Labor member for Algester, whose electorate includes the suburb of Acacia Ridge, expressed some concern over the project’s development in a statement released to CQ Today.

“For three years I have been calling on the ARTC and the federal Government to properly consult and provide transparency about the federal government’s Inland Rail project and its impact on local communities, including Acacia Ridge,” she writes.

“We’ve always said the federal government, as a minimum, should not increase the existing line’s freight capacity, including allowing coal trains, until it also provides capacity for a passenger line between Beaudesert and Salisbury.”

Graham Perrett

In a conversation with CQ Today, Graham Perrett, the federal Labor member for the electorate of Moreton, the boundaries of which include Acacia Ridge, expressed considerable skepticism towards the Brisbane section of the project on a number of fronts.

Chiefly, Mr Perrett questioned the wisdom of terminating the line at Acacia Ridge, some 37km from the Port of Brisbane.

To unload trains at this point and then shift freight to the port would increase the number of truck movements through suburban Brisbane by millions each year, he said.

“The whole point of the project was to move goods to a deep water harbour,” Mr Perrett said.

“This would not be it.”

Mr Perrett also said that his constituents would likely baulk at the prospect of extended coal trains moving their way through his electorate’s leafy suburbs.

“Putting coal through busy Brisbane streets is never an easy exercise,” he added.

“I just can’t see how it stacks up.”

The route is still ‘up for grabs’

Though the route has technically been set, the issue is not yet set in stone. As noted earlier, construction has not begun at any section of the Queensland portion of the project.

“They don’t have approvals (for the line) to go to Brisbane. They’re still going through the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) process,” Mr Abbott said.

What’s more, the project is already over budget and the cost of constructing a line from Toowoomba to Brisbane looks set to push up costs dramatically.

“Given that Inland Rail is at least four to five billion dollars over budget, and they really haven’t even started on the Queensland bit, the general consensus from everyone I’ve spoken to, including those I spoke to in Canberra, is that the final price tag if it goes as it is currently configured, is over $20 billion dollars,” Mr Abbott said.

An extension to Gladstone, by contrast, would be less costly and would fulfill the central mission of Inland Rail to link freight movement to capital cities and export hubs.

According to economic analysis from the ATEC Rail Group, a complete dual-gauge line to Gladstone would cost some $3 billion.

Furthermore, the Gladstone link is already ‘ahead’ of the Toowoomba to Brisbane section of Inland Rail in terms of the approvals and design process.

“The design is complete, the act of parliament is in place and the EIS is in place,” Mr Abbott said.

The extension to Gladstone

Much of the link to Gladstone is already in place. An extension would primarily involve constructing a missing ‘southern link’ between existing rail lines.

There are four key sections of the extension:

1. Gladstone to Banana – An existing narrow gauge heavy haul rail link.

2. Banana to Wandoan – 210km of new line, narrow gauge, dual gauge capable. The ‘missing southern link’.

3. Wandoan to Miles – 70km of new line, narrow gauge, dual gauge capable. Existing corridor currently decommissioned, track removed.

4. Miles to Toowoomba – 220km of existing Aurizon line.

Conclusion

It is rare to witness such broad-based consensus on anything in contemporary Australia. Reconfiguring Inland Rail to terminate in Toowoomba and then extend to Gladstone stands out as an exception to the general rule of heated disagreement which characterises our society.