The federal and state governments are seeking ‘expressions of interest’ (EOI) to complete the first package of works for the Melbourne Airport Rail link. Read more
A future train line to the Melbourne airport will utilise the under-construction Melbourne Metro tunnel, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews confirmed on Saturday.
The route was confirmed along with a start date for construction and a forecast completion date of 2029. Read more
Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development Michael McCormack sets out how rail transport could lead Australia out of a COVID-19 recession.
In July 2019, prior to the arrival of COVID-19, governor of the Reserve Bank, Philip Lowe called on governments around the country to invest more in infrastructure. Cutting the official cash rate to a then-record 1 per cent, Lowe said that more spending on infrastructure was needed.
“This spending adds to demand in the economy and – provided the right projects are selected – it also adds to the country’s productive capacity. It is appropriate to be thinking about further investments in this area, especially with interest rates at a record low, the economy having spare capacity and some of our existing infrastructure struggling to cope with ongoing population growth,” he told the Darwin business community.
Much has changed since that speech, but in some ways, Lowe’s words could be read, word for word, again, with added emphasis, as the cash rate is now 0.25 per cent and spare capacity in the form of unemployment has only risen.
To hear how the federal government and opposition are responding to this call for an infrastructure-led recovery, earlier in 2020, Rail Express spoke to Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development Michael McCormack and his shadow, Catherine King. The below interview with McCormack has been condensed and edited for clarity and length. To read Rail Express‘s interview with Catherine King, follow this link.
THE ROUTE AHEAD FOR INLAND RAIL
It’s a project that all major parties support, however Inland Rail has been a headache for the government and the Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC) since objections have been raised to the route over floodplains in northern NSW and Queensland. With the rail industry looking for certainty over the project, governments are hoping to increase the project’s momentum.
Rail Express (REX): In June this year there was another review announced about the project, this time looking at the so-called forestry route. Can you provide industry with some certainty about the project, particularly that critical stage between the NSW-Queensland border and Gowrie?
Michael McCormack: It’s important that regional Australia understands that by the mid-2020s when this project is completed that it is going to bring the benefits that have been talked about since the 1890s. There’s been independent analysis, there’s been hydrological reports, there’s been everything you would expect to be in a project of this size, scale, and scope. With the Condamine Plain, I appreciate that some local people have some issues with the selected route and so to certainly make sure that we’ve got the right route we’re looking at that forestry route. We’ll put the ruler over it, we’ll have independent analysis of it, we’ll have a hydrological study of it, just to make sure that the right route is eventually selected.
REX: Currently, we have forestry route review and then we have the independent panel who are reviewing the hydrological modelling on the original route, what happens if the conclusions out of both come into conflict?
McCormack: Of course we need to take on board the expert advice, to make sure that the full benefits are passed on, making sure that we can get goods from paddock to port within 24 hours. When you talk to people as I have in the Toowoomba area, and you take Jill Allwright, she’s got a cereal producing factory there, she moved to Toowoomba eight years ago. She set up her company and she’s really looking forward to Inland Rail because freight is over 20 per cent of her operating costs.
REX: I imagine businesses up and down the line such as Allwright’s would appreciate a connection to the ports of Melbourne and Brisbane as well?
McCormack: Well they will, and they’re already benefiting and during COVID-19 when so many industries have been shut down and so many jobs have been lost it’s heartening and rewarding to see that along the Parkes to Narromine section work has just continued and that’s employing thousands of people directly and indirectly.
REX: But in terms of the direct connection between Acacia Ridge and the Port of Brisbane for double stacked trains which is such a significant aspect of what makes Inland Rail competitive, how are you going to ensure that a rail connection is built, if not when the line is opened, soon afterwards?
McCormack: We’re working through those issues with state government as well as local governments. The NSW government for instance has put a special activation precinct around the Bowman area at north Wagga Wagga and invested heavily into that, and so there is buy in there for state governments, there is buy in there for local governments and of course private entities as well. We will continue to work with and negotiate with and embrace all the activity involved with Inland Rail and it’s been a collaborative project.
A LEVEL PLAYING FIELD FOR FREIGHT
Without freight rail continuing to operate throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Australia’s supermarkets shelves would be empty and commodities would be sitting at farms and mines, never making it to market. To ensure that this critical link in the logistics chain continued to operate, governments stepped in, allowing freight to cross otherwise closed borders. In May, the ARTC provided some financial relief for rail freight operators by extending payment terms for current access charges and deferring a consumer price index increase that was scheduled for July. Rail freight operators are still concerned however, with more empty containers being transported by sea, and a lack of competitive neutrality with road freight.
REX: Freight rail has rightly been recognised for the critical role it has played during the COVID-19 pandemic, how are you going to ensure the competitiveness of rail freight continues after the crisis?
McCormack: Some of the real heroes in COVID 19 have been train drivers and intermodal workers, who have delivered. We’ve got this national freight and supply chain strategy since August 2019 when states and territories agreed with the federal government to sign up to the 20 year plan and we’ve got a five year national action plan. We’re tackling the growing and changing freight task and Inland Rail is going to dovetail into that.
REX: One of the concerns of the rail freight industry has been about a lack of a level playing field between rail freight and road transport. One positive thing that we saw come out of the crisis was that the ARTC extended the payment terms for current access charges and suspended CPI-tied increases to the fees.
McCormack: We need everybody to be a player in this regard and yes there have been pressures on rail, I understand that, but that’s why Inland Rail is so important. That’s why the Victorian rail revival and other projects that we’re doing, both transpoting people and transporting freight, are just so crucial and that’s why we are investing so heavily. I am talking to ministers of all political persuasions to get the right outcomes. Is crucial that we get all the right investment in track, the right investment by states in rollingstock, and we bring about benefits for all.
REX: But for those particular fees, for the road transport industry, CPI increases heavy vehicle road user charges have been suspended for about half a decade, while it just happened now for rail. Is there a possibility to extend that to create a more competitive rail freight environment?
McCormack: We do want a more competitive rail freight industry and that’s why we are investing so heavily in it. At the end of the day, businesses and private individuals if they want to get something transported from one side of the country to the other or indeed from one town to the next, they’ll always make decisions based on cost. We want every stakeholder in the country to be competitive, whether it’s air, rail, road, or indeed whether it’s our sea lanes and our maritime freight, has a part to play in this.
AN INFRASTRUCTURE LED RECOVERY?
Infrastructure will undoubtedly play a role in getting Australia back to work after the COVID-19 recession, but what form that infrastructure will take is still up in the air. While some jurisdictions are looking for zero emissions mobility and rail to play a larger role, funding announced so far has brought forward a number of smaller roads projects around Australia, to ensure that planning times are reduced. While the age of the megaproject is not over yet, what shape those projects take could be very different in the future.
REX: What projects are you looking at in terms of bringing forward work or funding and is there a change in preference in terms of wanting to do smaller projects that can get started straight away?
McCormack: Well I can almost say watch this space because it was of course really genuinely pleasing to be working with the states and request that they bring forward some of the projects that we’ve asked them to. I wrote to them late last year and I sent another letter to them early this year when COVID-19 really started to take hold on all aspects of the economy.
REX: There’s two projects, for example, that are sitting with you right now awaiting federal approval; the Murray Darling Basin Rail Project and Melbourne Airport Rail. Is there any indication that you can move forward on either of those?
McCormack: I’ve actually messaged Victorian Minister for Transport Infrastructure Jacinta Allan about that and other infrastructure projects. There’s a lot happening in Victoria, a lot happening with Commonwealth money of course, and we want to make sure that whether it’s Murray Basin Rail or Melbourne Airport Rail, it’s something that’s been talked about for years and years and we’re delivering.
REX: In particular with the Melbourne Airport Rail Link, your colleague Treasurer Josh Frydenburg has suggested that super funds should bring forward more investment in infrastructure and this is one project where a consortium of super funds said they want to build a tunnel from Sunshine to Southern Cross station. Are you leaning towards a tunnel or an above ground option?
McCormack: Let’s continue to talk about that. There are some announcements that are soon to be made, whether it’s Melbourne, whether it’s our capital cities or whether it is our most rural and remote and outback towns. There’s plans being drawn up whether it’s tunnels for rail, tunnels for the Coffs Harbour bypass or whether it’s just getting that long awaited bitumen on roads in outback dusty Queensland cattle tracks.
THE FASTER OR HIGH-SPEED RAIL DILEMMA
In a speech delivered to shadow cabinet in May, Anthony Albanese reaffirmed Labor’s commitment to building a high-speed rail link between Melbourne and Brisbane, via Sydney and Canberra. As a nation-building project it would certainly be iconic, but could COVID-19 actually turn Australia’s long held dream of high-speed rail into reality?
REX: The leader of the opposition brought up high-speed rail but you have suggested you wanted to focus on faster rail. Could you give us an indication about your thinking about why you’d like to focus on faster rail rather than high-speed rail?
McCormack: I can remember holding a community conference in my home town of Wagga Wagga when I first was elected back in 2010. The late Brian Nye headed up the Australasian Railway Association (ARA) back then and I invited him to speak. I was amazed at how many people turned up but even back then, the cost of high-speed rail a link between Sydney and Melbourne via Canberra, it had a price tag then on it of $114 billion. That figure has just escalated and while there have been moves to protect and preserve the corridor so that we can ultimately do something along these lines you have to have the willingness, the capacity, and also the commuter interest to do it.
Australia is a big country and we don’t have the population that some of those countries which have invested heavily in high-speed rail do. In Australia we’re investing in the infrastructure fits the bill for what we’re doing right now.
High-speed rail, I’d like to see it in my lifetime, but we’re a big country and we’re very densely populated in our capital cities. There are opportunities of course for this type of investment but given the fact that it’s going to be very difficult to with COVID-19 to actually find that sort of investment anywhere in the world at the moment, there are other priorities at hand.
New projects and upgrades to existing technology should be considered for funding as part of the federal budget, CEO of the Australasian Railway Association (ARA) Caroline Wilkie has said.
With the budget to be handed down on October 6 and early announcements already coming out, Wilkie said that rail was ready to contribute to Australia’s economic recovery.
“There is a significant pipeline of rail investment that could be fast tracked to generate more jobs and opportunity to support our economic recovery,” said Wilkie.
“This is work that will make a difference right now while leaving a lasting legacy for the cities and towns that benefit from new rail projects.”
A number of rail projects are awaiting federal funding to take the next step. The Melbourne Airport Rail Link will proceed once final funding from the federal government confirmed, as can the resumption of the Murray Basin Rail Project, with a business case sitting with Canberra.
In addition to new construction, funding for technology upgrades such as the Australian Rail Track Corporation’s Advanced Train Management System, would provide long term benefits. Infrastructure upgrades such as level crossing removals are another way the federal government’s funding to rail would conitrbute to wider economic outcomes.
“At a time where we desperately need more people in jobs and more certainty for those rebounding from the economic hardships of the pandemic, we need to see more projects started sooner to build the country back up again,” said Wilkie.
Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development Michael McCormack has indicated that major infrastructure projects will be part of the 2020 budget, however no particular projects have been tipped yet. The federal government has indicated that money allocated to the states for infrastructure will be needed to be spent quickly and may be a condition of further funding.
The Committee of Melbourne has called for the development of an integrated transport plan for Melbourne to coordinate the provision of transport infrastructure in the city.
While a number of government plans have been developed to guide infrastructure investment, the Committee for Melbourne has found that none are truly comprehensive, detailed, or strategic enough to outline how Melbourne will grow in the long-term.
Martine Letts, CEO Committee for Melbourne said that now was the right time to plan for the future of Melbourne.
“Mobility in Melbourne has reached a tipping point. With the growth pressures the city is facing that continue to build, more than ever a plan is required to accommodate the efficient movement of people and freight. A business-as-usual approach will see road congestion cost Melbourne’s economy up to $10.2 billion per annum by 2031 in operation and pollution costs.”
The report calls for a plan that integrates mobility patterns, land-use, and economic patterns, to enable seamless mobility throughout Greater Melbourne. This would mean that projects such as Suburban Rail Loop and the Melbourne Airport Rail Link would be included as certain aspects of the city’s future, along with further projects such as Melbourne Metro 2.
In addition to the infrastructure itself, the integrated plan would also combine elements such as demand management, technology, land-use planning, and economic development. These elements would guide measures such as public transport frequency, integrated mobility services, transport-oriented development, and using infrastructure investment as a level for investment.
The report recommends that with Melbourne’s population expected to continue to grow, and freight volumes also expected to increase, there is a need for integrated transport planning.
“It is not in anyone’s interest that Melbourne’s transport network returns to the state that it was in prior to the COVID-19 crisis. Peak hour commutes on public transport had become increasingly uncomfortable, while traffic congestion on the road network was worse than any other Australian capital city,” said Letts.
Melbourne was recently highlighted as a major Australian city with worsening congestion and reliability in travel in research by Infrastructure Partnerships Australia and Uber.
“As our economy recovers and we once again welcome increasing numbers of new residents and visitors, and as we produce and consume more goods and services, we must ask ourselves what it will take to remain a highly liveable, prosperous, and sustainable, twenty-first century city. Designing, publishing, and implementing a strategic plan which considers transport, land-use, and economic development planning is a good place to start,” said Letts.
While governments are recalibrating their infrastructure pipeline, Peter Gill of DCWC argues that this presents an opportunity to get the build right. Read more
300km of regional rail track and 15 train stations will be upgraded as part of a $2.7 billion spending plan to help Victoria recover after the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
The spending will be spread across the economy, including education, social housing, and tourism upgrades, however $328 million is targeted at the transport sector.
Part of the funding will go towards upgrades of trains and trams and is in addition to the $107bn Big Build program.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said that the funding will go to projects that will begin immediately.
“We’re getting to work on hundreds of new projects across the state, meaning shovels in the ground – and boots in the mud – within a matter of weeks and months,” he said.
“From upgrading our roads and rail, to critical maintenance for social housing and new projects for our tourist destinations, this package will create jobs for our local tradies and so many others – and support local businesses all over Victoria.”
$90m will be invested in upgrading and replacing sleepers, structures, and signalling across the regional rail network. This funding will cover the renewal of 300km of sleepers and ballast across the regional network.
$62.6m will go towards the maintenance and restoration of trams and regional trains. Over half of this funding will go towards improving the reliability of V/Line trains.
$23m will be spent on improving stations and stops, including better seating, passenger information, toilets, and accessibility upgrades.
$5.6m will be spent on removing rubbish and graffiti as well as managing vegetation along transport corridors.
Chief executive of Infrastructure Partnerships Australia Adrian Dwyer said that the funding was well structured.
“The phase one package provides the right blend of projects and programs that will support job creation and stimulate economic activity,” he said.
“The focus on new and existing projects across schools, social housing, and road and rail maintenance means that the benefits of this stimulus will be broad-based.”
Victorian Treasurer Tim Pallas said that the funding will help the wider economy.
“We’ve always said Victoria is the engine room of the nation – with this package, we’re cranking the engine and kickstarting our economy.”
The entire funding package is expected to create 3,700 direct jobs with many thousands more in the supply chain. For companies which need to hire extra employees, the Victorian government has mandated that new hires are to be found through the Working for Victoria scheme.
In a press conference on May 18, Andrews said that this announcement would be followed by other announcements which will target particular sectors. Andrews would not confirm whether the Melbourne Airport Rail Link would be announced, however he suggested that a decision would be made soon.
Australasian Railway Association boss Danny Broad has asked for “visionary thinking” from Victorian and federal politicians amid reports both sides are leaning toward a cheaper above-ground route for the future rail link to Melbourne Airport.
Both federal and state governments have committed $5 billion towards the Melbourne Airport Rail Link (MARL), but the combined $10 billion is unlikely to be enough to fund a new tunnel between Sunshine and the airport without private sector involvement.
While more expensive, a tunnel would provide greater capacity, and could connect to the federal government’s planned Geelong fast rail. It would also provide a better foundation for the state’s plans to turn Sunshine into a transport super-hub, building off the MARL, the Geelong and Ballarat Lines, and the Western Rail Plan.
The federal government had been pressuring the state to commit to a tunnel option, but recent reports have suggested the state’s preferred ground-level option could win-out.
“Our ambition is to have a train journey to the airport from the city that is fast, affordable and meets the needs of travellers,” a spokesperson for federal urban infrastructure minister Alan Tudge was quoted by The Age.
“We want to see the MARL built as soon as possible.”
Responding to the news, ARA boss Danny Broad said it was important Victoria and the Commonwealth come to a unified agreement which fulfils long-term needs.
“With Melbourne forecast to become Australia’s biggest city by 2028, and also the expected increase in international and interstate travellers, it is crucial that the Airport rail link can manage frequent and fast journey times to deliver the level of service expected of an international city,” Broad said on December 13.
“Infrastructure Australia has long-ago already identified the corridor between Melbourne CBD and the Melbourne Airport as one of the most congested and one where the Tullamarine Freeway is already at capacity.
“We need visionary thinking from our elected leaders to ensure the infrastructure we build for the future meets customers’ expectations, is efficient and delivers adequate capacity for the population growth that Melbourne will undergo.
“If financing is an issue, then Governments should look to the private sector for additional investment.”
The Victorian treasurer has indicated the government may not accept a proposal for the Melbourne Airport Rail Link which would see the line privately owned and operated, despite pressure from the federal government.
Treasurer Tim Pallas, at a business event late last week, discussed a cheaper, above-ground route in complete contrast to the high-speed multibillion-dollar airport rail tunnel federal government would like built.
Despite an initial $5 billion commitment from the Victorian government, Pallas said the government might delay building the twin rail tunnels between the CBD and Sunshine, due to potentially rising project costs.
The Victorian government says it has not ruled out the airport tunnel option, according to The Age.
Private consortium AirRail recently offered $5 billion towards the airport tunnel project in return for owning and operating it.
The federal government, in turn, says that the 7-kilometre tunnels are crucial for the Geelong fast rail project, towards which it has committed $2 billion.
Federal Minister for Population, Cities and Urban Infrastructure, Alan Tudge, said the federal government wanted a high-speed airport rail service, and was working with the state government towards this, according to The Age.
“We want to see the Melbourne Airport Rail Link built as soon as possible.”