Feature article by Michael Madigan in The Courier-Mail 20 August 2016
IT’S a bit like our own infrastructure version of the “Yowie’’ – plenty have seen visions of it, but no-one has been able to capture this magnificent, mythical 1700km rail corridor holding the key to untold economic riches.
The Inland Rail has glittered with promise in the Australian subconscious ever since 1893 when a consortium of Victorian businessmen announced they would build it to link Melbourne to the gold fields of Normanton in far-north Queensland.
Politics, mingled with the still bewildering array of rail gauges across this nation, put an end to their dreams, but the notion of laying down a silver ribbon across Australia’s fertile, inner interior has stirred nation-building dreamers ever since.
For Queensland, stalled in financial doldrums, the rail represents a fresh gust of financial wind, guaranteed to fill our sails and transport us to ports stacked with (according to Federal Treasurer Scott Morrison) $22 billion worth of riches.
For those who still believe in the now rather antiquated notion of nation-building, the rail represents a vast people pollinator, weaning Australia off its addiction to coastal living and seeding the inland with new settlements to replicate the vast cities of America’s mid west.
For the wealthy Wagner family of Toowoomba, it represents the possibility of a key trade and transport link inside their privately owned international Wellcamp Airport, as well as a lucrative funnel to pour millions of potential visitors towards their latest project – a colossal events centre incorporating a V8 Supercar track and rock concert amphitheatre.
For the southeast’s farmers, it represents cheap access to vast southern markets, for motorists it represents clearer runs along the Pacific Highway no longer clogged by massive trucks. And for the venerable Everald Compton, 85, chairman for 18 years of the Australian Transport and Energy Corridor Ltd (ATEC), it represents a crying shame.
“The story of the Inland Rail is a story of bureaucracy, red tape and political gutlessness,’’ says the man whose commitment to community service won him the Order of Australia 24 years ago, and whose optimism is normally a defining characteristic.
Compton, an expert in fund raising, sat down with ATEC’s present chairman, the wealthy Queensland beef baron Don McDonald, in the plush confines of their Brisbane club one afternoon in 1996 to first discuss the 20th century attempt to build the inland rail and form the ATEC.
With a newly installed conservative government in Canberra, both men, who had grown up in a nation that prided itself on building things, had reason to be confident.
Yet Compton, accustomed to getting things done, faced defeat at every turn.
“They gave us a few crumbs here and there in terms of feasibility studies, but everyone was terrified that if it fell over they would be held to blame,’’ he recalls.
After being ruthlessly done over by a succession of governments of all stripes, including the previous Queensland LNP government under Campbell Newman, the realist in Compton appears to have trumped the optimist.
Over the past five decades he has witnessed the political will to pursue big projects evaporate in the ruthless pursuit of power.
“I really don’t see an Australian politician on the horizon with the guts to build it, not at least unless we can find a (former British Prime Minister) Maggie Thatcher.’’
The Turnbull Government insists the inland rail is a goer, and while it may be echoing a boast that’s now 126 years old, it can point to $594 million allocation in the May Budget.
Given the technology is more than 200 years old, the rail project is simple to grasp. It’s a 1700km rail line from Tottenham in Victoria to Acacia Ridge, Queensland, taking double-stacked, 1800m-long trains carrying freight, which would normally require 108 B-double trucks from Brisbane to Melbourne in 24 hours at speeds up to 115km.
It involves three segments – Melbourne to Parkes, Parkes to Moree and Moree to Brisbane. The Moree to Brisbane segment presents both the biggest challenges and the greatest potential for solutions.
Under the Australian Constitution, the Queensland Government holds the power to decide where that track goes, and here lies a problem already jeopardising the project.
The Commonwealth-owned Australian Rail Track Corporation appears to have settled on a route from Inglewood through to Toowoomba, traversing some of the state’s most fertile, irrigated farmland.
That proposal would require resumption of land from hundreds of farmers who have already registered strong objections to a rail corridor that would not merely impact on farming operations, but effectively create a dam wall built across a floodplain.
Agricultural investor Chris Hood – who has significant investments that would benefit from an inland rail, including a grain exporting outfit on the Darling Downs – says one of the difficulties with the ARTC route is that it was decided upon in 2010, four years before the Wellcamp Airport opened.
Hood, who has experience in formulating public policy as a former staffer for the Queensland National Party, has a simple solution he is now actively pursuing in Canberra.
His proposal would use existing rail corridors pretty much all the way to Toowoomba’s outskirts, then build a mere 30km of corridor to sweep into the Wellcamp Airport and link up with existing corridors, taking trains through to the Brisbane Ports.
“I simply believe that this idea is one way of getting the thing finally built. The other option would take decades, even if it got the green light and farmers agreed to have land resumed,’’ Hood says.
The Wagners are, obviously, 100 per cent behind the proposal, seeing their vast industrial park at Wellcamp being transformed into a giant exporting hub, with produce from the Darling Downs and Lockyer Valley flying northward to Asia and being railed south to Melbourne.
Compton, elderly but with the energy of men half his age, looks on hopefully, backing his replacement McDonald 100 per cent and taking every opportunity to promote the project in media.
He recently wrote a book about John Flynn, the man whose vision gave Australia not merely the Flying Doctor Service, but whose energy helped open up the nation’s interior.
It was his early hero worship of Flynn that led to Compton’s obsession with the inland rail, and that youthful idealism has never left him.
To Compton, the inland rail is a relatively simply project, requiring little more than one political leader who can cut through bureaucracy.
His experience with the project has clearly rattled him, but he won’t give up flying to Canberra to confront whoever is in power to fulfil his quest.
As he said in an interview earlier this year, he’s a scourge to politicians.
“And I’ll be a scourge until the day I die.’’