Tuesday 27th Oct, 2020

Where are rail’s “shovel-ready” projects?

Bridgewater station yard. Image courtesy Rail Futures Institute.

Rail experts are calling for more plans to be developed to a “shovel-ready” stage, so that rail can take advantage of current infrastructure funding announcements.

With the federal government looking to states to nominate infrastructure projects that are ready to be rapidly implemented, a lack of ready to go projects is hampering rail’s ability to capitalise on current funding offers.

Rail Futures Institute President John Hearsch said that the industry needed to have projects prepared.

“While there’s lots of plans, having projects at a stage where they can be fairly rapidly implemented by and large doesn’t happen very much in the rail industry,” he said.

According to an industry survey carried out by the Australasian Railway Association (ARA), the most important action governments can make is to continue current projects. Caroline Wilkie, CEO of the ARA, welcomed the Morrison’s announcement that Inland Rail will be one of 15 fast-tracked projects.

In addition to the selected fast-track projects, Morrison has also dedicated $1.5bn to infrastructure funding. While road projects have been funded around the country, rail projects have largely missed out. Hearsch attributed the situation to the multiple bodies which have a responsibility for rail track infrastructure.

“It’s a reflection of the fact that the industry has become very disaggregated. Roads, broadly speaking, are either usually funded by the state or local government, whereas in the case of rail, you’ve got multiple track managers with differing agendas. Here in Victoria we’ve got three, MTM, V/Line, and ARTC.”

Wilkie noted the need to streamline approval processes to ensure rail projects are “shovel-ready”.

“Nationally consistent planning and procurement approaches are needed to get projects up and running faster. It is good to see governments looking at how we can make federal, state, and local approvals processes work more efficiently to support the COVID-19 recovery and we would like to see that focus continue beyond the current circumstances.”

While some projects are awaiting imminent final approval from the federal government, such as the updated Murray Basin Rail Project and Melbourne’s Airport Rail Link, ongoing discussions between the state and federal government have delayed the process. Wilkie said that work needs to begin for the next wave of rail projects.

“A strong project pipeline will help keep people working when the initial stimulus is over. Rail will play an important role, both in the short term and in the continuing recovery effort.”

With grain volumes increasing in Victoria, Hearsch nominated the need to reopening the Inglewood-Eaglehawk link as one “shovel-ready” project that would also improve road safety.

“By committing to a shovel-ready project that should take no more than 10 weeks to complete, there will be additional local jobs and business for regional Victorian suppliers hard-hit by the coronavirus recession,” said Hearsch.

“A big rise in the number of heavy trucks will have negative consequences for the wider community including accelerated damage to regional roads, dangerous driving conditions for motorists in rural and urban areas, increased air pollution and emissions and unnecessarily higher fuel consumption.”

At a cost of $25 million, the now dormant 41km line would remove bottlenecks south of Dunolly. Completion of the project in the short term would also not interfere with the long-term plan for the Murray Basin Rail Project.

“The Murray Basin Rail Project and the Inglewood-Eaglehawk line restoration are both means to a single end – moving as much freight as possible by rail – and through sound planning can be integrated compatibly,” said Hearsch.

As Wilkie noted, the benefits of rail go well beyond the project itself.

“Rail projects can reduce congestion and support sustainable outcomes to make our cities and communities function better and be more enjoyable to live in. Those benefits are sometimes hard to assess in a project approvals process, but they are the outcomes people want to see from infrastructure investment.

“Current stimulus projects should leave the legacy of better, smarter and more sustainable infrastructure long after they are completed and the rail industry can deliver that.”

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