The Federal Opposition has pledged an independent inquiry into the route selection process and financing arrangements of the Inland Rail project.
Federal Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Cities and Regional Development, Anthony Albanese, said that, if elected, Labor would appoint an eminent Australian to conduct an inquiry into the integrity and efficacy of these areas of the project’s delivery.
Mr Albanese stressed Federal Labor’s support of Inland Rail, saying that the former Federal Labor Government invested $900 million to upgrade sections of existing track that will eventually form part of the project, and to advance early planning.
“However, if public confidence in this multi-billion dollar project is to be maintained we must get the planning and financing arrangements right,” Mr Albanese said.
“Equally, affected communities should be treated with respect and properly consulted.”
Mr Albanese argued that communities across Central and North West NSW, as well as those on the southern Darling Downs of Queensland, have become increasingly concerned about the lack of transparency associated with the route selection process endorsed by the Government.
This encompasses the Greenfield sections of Narromine to Narrabri and Yelarbon to Gowrie, as well as the possible future port connections at each end of the rail line.
Mr Albanese claimed the NSW Farmers Association has become so concerned about the process that they have called on their members to cease engagement with the ARTC in order to get answers.
The independent inquiry would also assess the appropriateness of the current financing arrangements, namely the Federal Government’s claim that the project can be fully funded via an ‘off-budget’ $8.4 billion equity injection into the ARTC.
This would include reviewing the decision-making process that led to the 2017 budget decision to finance the project in such a way, including advice to government from the departments of Infrastructure, Finance and Treasury.
Mr Albanese pointed out that the 2015 Inland Rail Implementation Group – established by the current Federal Government and chaired by the former Howard government Transport Minister, John Anderson – raised concerns about the project’s commercial viability.
The Group stated in their report:
“While the economic analysis indicates that Inland Rail will deliver a net economic benefit to Australia, the expected operating revenue over 50 years will not cover the initial capital investment required to build the railway — hence, a substantial public funding contribution is required to deliver Inland Rail.”
The inquiry proposed by Labor would take public submissions and hold public meetings in affected communities. It would have a reporting date of no later than the end of 2019.
The work of the eminent Australian would be supported by Infrastructure Australia and they would have access to the expertise of other departments, including Finance and Treasury.
The industry responds: an inquiry must not cause delays
The Australian Logistics Council (ALC) has warned that the inquiry into Inland Rail proposed by the Federal Opposition must not slow down construction on the project.
ALC CEO, Kirk Coningham, said, “Bipartisan support for Inland Rail has been a key feature of the project, and it is crucial that be maintained throughout the next Parliament.”
“ALC notes that today’s announcement from the Federal Opposition reaffirms their support for Inland Rail, which is welcome,” Mr Coningham said.
“Freight logistics operators and local communities are already making preparations for Inland Rail, and their investment decisions must be respected.
“The conduct of any proposed inquiry must not be allowed to slow the pace of construction on Inland Rail, which is already underway.”
The ALC also noted the proposed inquiry would be asked to examine possible port connections at either end of the Inland Rail route.
“ALC has consistently emphasised that finalising a dedicated freight rail connection to the Port of Brisbane as soon as possible will be essential to ensure full benefits can be derived from the substantial public investment being made in Inland Rail,” Mr Coningham said.
The ALC has previously noted a need for upgrading the current rail connection from Truganina to the Port of Melbourne, as well as on connections from Inland Rail to key NSW ports and intermodal terminals.
However, the Council reiterated that in the event of a change of government, the proposed inquiry should not be a reason for any delay to overall construction of the Inland Rail project.
“By 2030, we will need to move more than 32 million tonnes of freight along Australia’s east coast. We must find ways to do that which are safe, and which don’t add to road congestion and other existing bottlenecks in the freight network,” Mr Coningham said.
“Inland Rail is essential to achieving these goals – and will play an important role in boosting Australia’s export performance.”