INFRASTRUCTURE and Transport Minister Darren Chester has been forced to jerk the government-owned corporation charged with building Australia’s $10 billion inland rail project back into gear.
Despite both the minister and the Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC) promising “openness and transparency” over the process to build the Queensland section of the project, the afternoon devolved into near farce after ARTC ruled out considering the existing rail corridor running through Warwick.
The embarrassing slap down followed an earlier agreement between federal and state MPs and ARTC officials who had gathered for an emergency meeting in Warwick to address growing community concern over ARTC’s handling of the process.
At that closed door meeting it is understood all of the participants – including ARTC officials – agreed that three routes would be considered, in part to address a perception that ARTC was failing to appropriately consult with affected communities.
Those options were a greenfield track from Inglewood to Toowoomba via Millmerran, Inglewood to Toowoomba via a greenfield track from Karara, and using the existing rail corridor via Warwick. All would include consideration of the Brisbane West Wellcamp Airport.
No time frames were given to when a final decision on when a route would be selected or construction was likely to begin.
The promise of openness and transparency got off to a poor start. While MPs were keen for media attention in front of the assembled cameras, it appeared for some time there was no ARTC representative willing to speak to the issue.
When ATRC chief executive officer John Fullerton did front the media he made it clear only the Millmerran and Karara options were on the table.
However, following heated conversations with MPs and a subsequent meeting with Southern Downs Regional Council Mayor Tracy Dobie, an embarrassed minister subsequently directed ARTC to reassess its position.
Queensland Country Life was advised that ARTC would be issuing a media statement this evening stating that the existing rail corridor which runs from Inglewood to Warwick and onto Toowoomba would now be reconsidered.
That statement reads: “Warwick will be part of the ongoing consultation in coming months as we determine the final alignment. We did a detailed assessment of the options in the 2010 Alignment Study and we understand the importance of providing this detail to the community. Following a meeting today with the Minister and local MPs ARTC will work with the Southern Downs community to determine the route which will deliver the best outcome for QLD and Australia.” No ATRC spokesperson was attributed to the statement.
Today’s actions are certain to further erode community confidence in ARTC which had doggedly maintained that the Queensland section of the inland rail be constructed across the agriculturally important Condamine floodplain. That route would depart the rail corridor at Inglewood, heading via Millmerran to Charlton, west of Toowoomba.
However, the ARTC’s determination appears to be based on a 2010 report that ignores the construction of the Brisbane West Wellcamp Airport near Toowoomba, which opened in 2014.
Since then a report compiled by consultancy firm SMEC Holdings in 2015 has been leaked, suggesting there are two better, cheaper and lower-impact routes. They include using the existing rail corridor from Inglewood to Karara or Thane to connect Wellcamp Airport to Brisbane.
Southern Downs Regional Council said those plans would cripple communities on the existing rail network, maintaining the most logical and least disruptive route was one which uses the existing rail corridor.
ARTC has been previously slated for sale by the federal government, adding weight to the argument why a wholly owned track is preferable in terms of value. ARTC already owns some 10,000km of track, including track on the proposed inland rail from Melbourne to North Star near Moree, in northern NSW.