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Inland Rail Would Profoundly Transform Australia

Posted on 15 January 2020

Source: The Courier Mail


It's nation building on a heroic scale, a train line that will reduce the Great Dividing Range to a gentle slope, the vast plains of inland Australia to scenery and hook up billions of dollars worth of products and produce to customers hungry for them across Australia and the world.

The Inland Rail, which finally got the green light from the State and Federal governments last week, is set to transform how freight gets around Queensland and Australia. Its proponents say Queensland's 400km section will create an incredible 7200 jobs, and pour $7.2 billion into the state economy. It will take more than 3500 trucks off Queensland roads and cut hours from passenger journeys.

For the traditionalists, railways are peak infrastructure. They make such good sense, taking goods off expensive-to-build roads and out of competition with car passengers.

For the proudly progressive, the project will create not just commerce but communities, drafted to include targets for local and indigenous employment. For the engineering buffs, it has been likened to the Snowy River scheme, opening up the landscape.

And for the green-tinted, it will cut freight carbon emissions by 750,000 tonnes a year by taking long-haul trucks off the road.

Hooking up with the line from Melbourne through New South Wales to enter Queensland near Goondiwindi, it will cut across the Condamine and Macintyre floodplains and under the Great Dividing Range at Gowrie near Toowoomba. The 6km tunnel high enough to handle double-height containers will cut almost five hours from the current trip from the top of the range to the bottom. It will take the line from Gowrie at 493m above sea level 99m lower by the end of the tunnel before hitting 145m above sea level at Helidon. The 400km Queensland stretch will include 79 bridges, including 11 viaducts to carry the line high and flat across deep valleys in the landscape. As well as the epic 6km Toowoomba tunnel, there will be two others. An amazing 24 million cubic metres of earthworks will be needed to make the line come true. South of the border, the rail line has spurred the creating of "inland ports" where products arrive or depart, loaded or unloaded from other train lines or trucks and moved on to either market or customers.

In Parkes, where the east-west line to Perth arrives at the north-south Melbourne-to-Brisbane axis, property prices are rising and jobs numbers are growing. There are already 1000 service providers attached to work out of Inland Rail's Brisbane HQ, with $700 million in contracts already signed and being spent. That will only increase when construction on the Queensland section begins, probably in 2022. But like the arrival of the railroads across the American west, it is not without its challenges. To farmers who rely on water flows during big rains to top up their dams, cutting across flood plains is a big concern, a worry sharpened by Queensland's current terrible dry. And communities that remember the devastation of floods are worried, too, about the line's possible impacts. Closer in, residents around urban corridors have raised objections about noise and the goods that will rumble past their properties.

Inland Rail boss Richard Wankmuller part of the government-owned Australian Rail Track Corporation said they would listen to concerns. He said public consultation and the local expertise it could provide along the rail routes would be a big part of planning where the line goes, but pointed out many use existing train corridors. "When you grow up, when you and generations of your family grew up in a floodplain, you're pretty convinced you can't build anything in a floodplain because anything that's been built before has failed," Mr Wankmuller said. "A lot of that stuff was designed way back when under old standards and some of it even before computers. "So it's a little bit different situation today but we certainly understand why people are scared. "And we have the obligation to help them through that and prove to them that this can be done. "We're bringing technologies that have been used elsewhere. We're doing it in a very safe way. "We've set up an international panel to bring people from around the world to help the local population understand this has been done before and we have experts on looking at it to make sure that we're going to be safe. "And quite frankly, in a floodplain, you don't just solve it with technology, you solve it with local knowledge. "So what people have to say is really important, the photos they have from the '60s and the '70s, where we can triangulate that and say yeah, you're right, look at that water level, because we don't have measuring devices back then we can calibrate using their data." The benefits of getting the line built would be massive, he said.

At $6 billion for the Queensland section alone, it is one of the biggest building projects in the state. It's been broken up into four sections to open the way for smaller, local contractors and companies to bid for the work, and built into that is also demands for indigenous employment. The list of jobs needed is extensive tunnelling technicians, 3D modellers, geotechnical specialists, engineers, hydrology experts, construction apprentices, electricians, designers, traffic controllers, concreters, drivers, fencers, earthworks machinery operators, security guards, sign-writers and an army of hospitality and accommodation providers. Iconic Australian manufacturing operations at Whyalla and Port Augusta will get a boost, too, providing the steel and welding needed for the mammoth project. "We have a skills development program where we get out in the region," Mr Wankmuller said. "If farmers can operate heavy machinery and they think they can help in the construction we are trying to develop skills' programs to allow them to do that, get the tickets and certifications they need. "There's also a lot of people you don't have to retrain. "For electricians we have all kinds of signs that have to be put on these work sites and vehicles, the restaurants, the coffee shops. "Even tyre repair shops with so many vehicles the tyre repair businesses are going to boom. It goes beyond what everybody just thinks of as rail."