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Inland Rail set to flourish elsewhere while Queensland ponders destination

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Trying to connect the $15 billion Inland Rail project to a Queensland port will keep governments talking beyond the federal election.

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The Inland Rail freight line between Melbourne and Brisbane, as originally envisaged, is set to start hauling in 2027. Some upgrades and new works on the southern sections have already been completed.

But, even on paper, there is still a long way to go, particularly in Queensland. The lack of a dedicated rail connection to the Port of Brisbane has sparked an ongoing debate over alternatives, including the prospect of rerouting Inland Rail to the Gladstone port.

Environmental approvals are anticipated for three sections north of the NSW-Queensland border in early 2022, but the final leg, from Kagaru to Acacia Ridge and Bromelton, is more complex.

The Federal and Queensland Governments are still examining whether Acacia Ridge will be the only terminal, or intermodal facility, for Inland Rail in south-east Queensland, or whether trucks can connect with trains at other locations.

Facing a public backlash over the prospect of more trucks, the governments have also funded some planning work for a Port of Brisbane link that includes sounding out the private sector for any interest in designing, building, owning and operating a dedicated freight rail connection.

However, that work – which some want to include a rail tunnel under the suburbs – will not be completed until the end of 2022. That means talks will continue beyond the federal election and Queensland may be slow to seize any opportunities arising from Inland Rail.

The Commonwealth has already established the Inland Rail Interface Implementation Program, with $44 million to fund business cases into ways in which communities and businesses along the route can benefit.

While Queensland doesn’t yet have a port connection, across the border Ports NSW is lobbying to open up Inland Rail, including to haul empty containers to regional producers in the state. The operator of ports in Sydney and Wollongong wants Inland Rail to be “more than just a Brisbane to Melbourne link”.

“To this end, NSW Ports advocates for the Inland Rail project to include a focus on connections to the existing NSW freight rail network and the global gateways of Port Botany and Port Kembla,” it told a recent NSW parliamentary inquiry.

“The funding of freight rail in Australia is welcomed, and Inland Rail provides an opportunity to provide improvements to regional exporters in accessing all east coast ports.”

In Brisbane, the prospect of extra trucks carrying freight from Acacia Ridge to the port has soured public opinion over an already complex project.

As governments discuss options with the private sector, it remains to be seen whether coal freight might be added to a future underground connection to make it more economically viable; the forecasts for the Kagaru to Acacia Ridge and Bromelton section currently predict 30 trains per day, or 46 if coal trains are diverted off the Ipswich line, with different community impacts.

Late last year, the Commonwealth pumped more money into the project, taking its commitment to $14.5 billion, and is also seeking public private partnerships, including for a tunnel under the Toowoomba range.

While the Commonwealth insists the economic benefits of Inland Rail will outweigh the cost – its latest estimates put the benefits at $18.4 billion – it has declined to reveal the total cost of the project while it negotiates with the private sector.

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