On a rail to nowhere, or has Barnaby seized the engine?
Inland Rail might be inevitable, but it's a highly expensive pet project for some Nationals Party MPs that may well be too far ahead of its time.
Far be it from me to criticise visionary thinking and national building infrastructure for Australia spent in the regions, but at first glance, what is now a $14 billion-plus cost of the inland rail project looks like a big waste.
Especially when the initial estimate was $4.4 billion, according to a Senate report released on Thursday.
There were serious questions raised when the project was first announced during the Turnbull Coalition government era, including whether the cost-benefit stacked up - and whether the commercial sector had been willing to build it themselves at a substantially lesser cost than if the government built it.
CSIRO 2019 research indicated savings of up to $76 per tonne if horticultural produce then moved by truck was transported on Inland Rail, and $31 per tonne for similar produce currently moved on the coastal rail route. The change could also remove 63,000 trucks per annum from the Newell Highway, substantially reducing congestion and carbon emission levels.
As I discussed with NSW Farmers Inland Rail taskforce chairman Adrian Lyons on Friday, he believes the ultimate cost was always going to be much higher, noting the corners being cut were 'quite amazing':
"This was always going to be a $20-30 billion project.
"It's just had feature creep the whole way through it. Even though it's extended in volume of money and volume of track, they're still building some of this area to a budget which is very unsafe, especially with the flooding and hydrology - it is a disgrace."
The FlowNews24 podcast player below shares the full interview with Adrian Lyons. The article continues further below:
Mr Lyons said the NSW Farmers were relieved and felt that the long-standing concerns they had expressed about the handling of the project had been vindicated:
"I think everyone should feel really good about the fact we've made it this far, it was an independent inquiry, it's a Senate inquiry - so it actually legitimises the work that we've done."
It seems everyone in politics supports, in principle, the project to move freight off of the road between Brisbane and Melbourne via road - the question remains of just where it will go.
Labor's spokespersons senator Glenn Sterle and member for Ballarat Catherine King said in a statement on Thursday:
If you want to know about the Morrison-Joyce Government’s management of the Inland Rail project, you just have to read the title of the Senate report – 'Inland Rail: derailed from the start'. This project has been derailed from the start by Coalition mismanagement.
"This report reaffirms the importance of this project, while highlighting the need for better planning, better community engagement and better oversight.
"Incredibly, the Morrison-Joyce Government still has no plan where Inland Rail will start, where it will end, the route it will take or how it will interact with existing stations up and down the country.
The game-changer for this project could be the change in Nationals leadership and, thereby, the minister responsible for handling the project.
Barnaby Joyce has taken the engineers hat and is steaming ahead with redirecting the project to become, in effect, a Melbourne to Gladstone project instead.
The NSW Farmers' Adrian Lyons welcomed the potential shunting and nomination of a final destination:
"(Inland Rail) was built by the brainchild of John Howard and Neville Compton and it was always supposed to go to Gladstone and it was for regional benefit.
"We're the biggest state with the most to lose in NSW, well there's no benefit - it's just going to cost the state government.
"We want the line to pick up wherever it can on the existing corridors to communities to drought-proof themselves. We're not getting much assistance in the drought area but if we can get a cost saving for a farmer and grow these towns like Coonamble which is a diminishing town. Inland rail coming to it will economically develop it."