Parkes MP Mark Coulton has taken a swipe at the federal Labor government after an independent inquiry severely criticised the way the Inland Rail project had been handled by the Coalition when in government – a government Mr Coulton was a member of.
The project – a 1700km freight rail network planned to connect Melbourne and Brisbane via regional Victoria, New South Wales, and Queensland – has been dogged by cost blowouts.
The independent Schott report, commissioned by the Labor government, found there were serious governance failures by the former Coalition government, extending to the project being behind schedule, over budget, and in need of a major reset.
Dr Schott said she wasn’t confident her review had captured the full extent of damage with regards to cost blowouts and a timeline on the delivery of the project, adding that “it’s not a bad project, but it’s just been managed really badly”.
Mr Coulton’s reaction to the report was that Catherine King, Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development and Local Government, was not behind the Inland Rail project, but that doesn’t appear to the case.
Minister King says, “Inland Rail is 1700km of Liberal-National Party incompetence. Inland Rail does remain an important project to meet Australia’s growing freight task, improve road safety and to help decarbonise our economy. We have been left with one almighty mess.”
“I defend and support the project,” says Mr Coulton.
“In all of this report, there has remained no question as to the significance of and the need for the Inland Rail.
“If we are looking at reducing our global emissions, reducing the amount of trucks on the Newell Highway, and moving intermodal freight between two of our biggest capital cities, Inland Rail does that.
“I am not dismissing Kerry Schott’s report out of hand, but I am calling on Minister King to commit to the project because there are more than one hundred farmers awaiting confirmation that this project is going ahead. We need clarity on that.”
But the government has announced it is committed and will accept all 19 recommendations made in the Schott report, which means the project is ultimately going ahead.
Ms King says the priority for Labor is to now deliver the stretch of the line from outside Melbourne to Parkes by 2027, where trains could link up with the east-west corridor.
In 2017, the estimated cost presented by the Coalition was $9.3 billion. In 2020, the project was estimated to cost $16.4 billion with a competition date of 2026-27. However, the project’s cost estimation has now ballooned out to $31.4 billion with an expected completion date of 2030-31.
Mr Coulton said the massive cost blowout, “is in part a sign of the times.
“All large infrastructure projects in recent times are experiencing significant cost blowouts. However, the amount reported does seem outstanding and I will need to look further into that,” Mr Coulton says.
“Many of the recommendations made in this report have been directed at state governments for slowing down approvals processes, and in a time of rising costs, this will have impacted the budget.
“The report suggested that the previous government should not have begun construction before the entire project was approved, however, the cost would have been much larger had this project been delayed.
“This is a large and complex project crossing state lines and involving many levels of government and negotiation. If we were to build this all at once, we would not have laid a single sleeper yet.”
Part of the project’s rail line through NSW and the Parkes electorate has already been completed and are in use – Parkes to Narromine and Narrabri to Moree – with Mr Coulton admitting that despite some challenges relating to the pandemic and flooding, it had created hundreds of jobs, increased productivity and freight efficiency for farmers.
“Constructing a railway line in the middle of a pandemic on the black soil plains of Moree has been challenging, however during the floods that section of Inland Rail from Moree to Narrabri was the only piece of infrastructure in that area out of the water,” he said.
“While the suggestion of there being a need to fine tune the skillset on the board seems a reasonable comment, I want to make the point that the skillset on the ground is world class. The completed sections of the Inland Rail are as good as any railroad in the world.”
The Schott report was also welcomed by the Country Women’s Association (CWA) of NSW – who had been calling for an independent review for several years – as it vindicates concerns raised by landholders and community members positioned along the route.
CWA of NSW President, Joy Beames, said while the Schott review was welcomed, there was disappointment as well that a report could have been avoided if transparent and accountable processes and planning mechanisms had been employed from the start when the Coalition were in power.
“The findings don’t bring us any satisfaction when it’s identified gross mismanagement of the project, huge increases in the cost for taxpayers and confirmation that farmers and communities were right to be concerned about the level of consultation over the project’s route and the planning and assessment processes employed by ARTC [the track builder].
“We now hope this new federal government takes Dr Schott’s review and her recommendations on board and ensures full and transparent consultation with communities and stakeholders for the remainder of the project.”