ABC North Queensland—Interview with Pat Hession

Interview

DCI003/2016

23 August 2016

Topic: Eastern Rail Access Corridor

Pat Hession: In the next few years there could be a significant change to the way that rail freight moves in and out of the Townsville Port. If you'd been around for a few years you'll remember that it's not that long ago that all of the traffic on the road going to and from the port had to come through the city streets. These days the Port Access Road takes a portion of that traffic away. In a similar principle, the Rail Corridor sits right next door to it but it comes with a hefty price tag, $150 million is how much the Federal Government committed during the election campaign. The first part of this process is assessing things with a business case and the Minister responsible, that's the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport Darren Chester, is here for an update this afternoon. Good afternoon Minister.

Darren Chester: Oh g'day Pat. I wish I was in Townsville with you, I hear it's 25 degrees and sunny there again today.

Pat Hession: In fact it might have even been a bit warmer than that early in the day but yes, dependable with the sunshine and we will rub it in at every opportunity.

Darren Chester: Well, it's about seven degrees in Canberra so I'm very envious.

Pat Hession: You can have that. Now, let's focus on this project here, $3 million for a business case for the Eastern Rail Access Corridor. Why do you need a business case given that the money's already been committed?

Darren Chester: Well, it's an important part of the process. We announced, during the election campaign, with our candidate and the former member Ewen Jones, $150 million commitment from the Federal Government because we recognised this is a project which has a great deal of merit. Infrastructure Australia is certainly supportive of the project and I know the Queensland Government has identified it as a key initiative in Northern Australia. So, it was identified as a key project but we still don't have the complete business case on the full cost of the project as well. So, $150 million is on the table from the Commonwealth Government. We're seeking matching funding from the Queensland Government but as a first step, we'll need to go through the full detailed business case process and that'll cost us in the order of $6 million and the Federal Government is saying to the Queensland Government, basically, we've put our $3 million on the table to support you, let's get on with our work, let's get the business case done.

Pat Hession: Where's the value for taxpayer's out of that potentially $6 million if you've already committed the money and it looks as though it's going to go ahead regardless?

Darren Chester: Well it's not a question of saying it goes ahead regardless Pat, it's about making …

Pat Hession: [Interrupts] You've committed the money though so …

Darren Chester: Oh absolutely yes, sorry, but you- by doing the business case process you work out exactly- you know, you do the feasibility work and you get a full detail on the cost estimate, you work through issues regarding the corridor, that type of thing, so you finalise the actual project and get some rigour around the total costing. It may well be that it comes in at a smaller amount or it may come in at a slightly higher amount but these are the questions you need to ask as part of the business case process. So, the $150 million is based on an old figure that was put forward in studies a couple of years ago that said it would cost in the order of $285 million to do the project.

So, we're now working on a figure that is dated to some extent, so it's important that we get more up to date figures and work with the Queensland Government, work with the community to make sure we get this project right because it's obviously a very significant investment and one that I think will really transform the Port of Townsville and improve the amenity of life in your great city.

Pat Hession: There is a significant decrease in the amount of freight going through the port and on the rail lines as a result of the closure of Queensland Nickel. Is there potential that the business case just isn't going to be there, that it's not going to stack up because there won't be the amount of freight to be carried?

Darren Chester: Well, I doubt that. I think that the Port of Townsville, which facilitates already about $8 million in trade, will grow into the future. You've got obviously Queensland's major export in terms of sugar, you've got the copper to lead, zinc fertiliser which already primary exports from the Port of Townsville. I see a great deal of growth and a great future for Northern Australia and Townsville's going to play a critical part in that. Obviously the Government is very keen to invest in good infrastructure. We understand that when you build good infrastructure, you can change people's lives and actually save people's lives. You change lives by improving productivity, reducing congestion but also by getting more of the freight task onto rail, you save lives by taking some of that activity off our roads which obviously is an important consideration as well.

Now, you know, I think it's a good project. In fact I think it's a great project. Ewen Jones is obviously a very strong supporter of it during the election campaign and now we're going through the next process working with the Queensland Government, working with the new member on this business case process and then we look forward to getting on with the job of building it.

Pat Hession: Darren Chester, the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport here this afternoon. This is 630 ABC North Queensland discussing money being put forward for the business case into the Eastern Rail Access Corridor, that's the corridor that would bring a second rail line into the Townsville Port near the mouth of the river, near the Port Access Road in layman's terms. Minister, around five year ago somebody said to me, someone who seemed to feel as though they were well informed on the subject said it'll never happen. Getting it up above the river along similar lines to what you are doing with the road and then also turning it into the port just can't be done. I guess with a lot of projects it can be done it just depends how much money you're prepared to throw at it. How aware are you of those engineering concerns that may be present?

Darren Chester: Well, there's a lot of projects that people have said over time that can't be done that have been built in Australia. We look at the $6.7 billion that have been put into a ten year works program on the Bruce Highway and there's programs there which have improved safety and flood mitigation and reduced congestion and people said that would never happen as well and those works are rolling out everyday and now we're seeing a reduction in the road toll on the Bruce Highway and Queensland.

So you know, we'll work obviously as part of this business case process with engineering firms, with the local council, with the state government, we see this as a great project for Townsville's future. I think you've got a remarkable city in Townsville and I certainly look forward to returning in the near future and having more briefings with the Port of Townsville and your local authorities, as we work towards the completion of this project, I think it's something that Townsville will benefit from for many decades to come. It's just important that now we spend taxpayers' money wisely in these next 12 months and get the business case done and then we get on with construction work and that'll be jobs will be created during the construction period, and I think there'll plenty of long term economic and social benefits for Townsville into the future as a result of this great project.

Pat Hession: Has it been raised with you, some possible concerns with what we might call politely engineering challenges?

Darren Chester: Well I think that's a good polite term, Pat, the engineering challenges have been presented to me from time to time, when I was in Townsville, I was there several times during the election campaign and there were concerns raised but as much as you have engineering challenges, you have engineering solutions, we have very smart people who work on these projects, they don't rely on politicians from Canberra to tell them what to do, they get out there and figure it out for themselves and come up with the solutions that will get us value for money.

Pat Hession: As part of obviously you've had a look at this before deciding during the election campaign to commit money towards it, is it something that you're aware of, that there may be some problems there?

Darren Chester: Oh absolutely, there's always challenges when it comes to these difficult engineering tasks but there's always solutions as well if you're prepared to work through them with the people that have that particular (*) expertise. Look I think the critical point, Pat, when I was in Townsville talking to the Port of Townsville local residents, they were very keen to see the benefits to the city in terms of greater efficiency that this project of Townsville Eastern Access Rail Corridor offers and also the capacity to improve safety on roads and I think there's some real opportunities once you actually get the project done for some renewal within the city centre as well, so I think it's a great project and it's one that I'm looking forward to seeing progressed firstly through the business case process but then through the actual construction period.

Pat Hession: Minister when would you hope that construction period might be getting started?

Darren Chester: Well our expectation is that we'll reach agreement very quickly with the Queensland Government; I've already had conversations with state ministers on the business case issue and they're keen to progress that, so I think that will take about 12 months, then it's a question of getting on with the job. Now, I understand we're talking about a construction period of a couple of years at least, so it's going… it is a big job, there's no shying away from that but once we get that business case done I think we'll want to move pretty quickly, obviously I'm very aware that there's challenges in employment in the local community at the moment, so jobs are a premium, the sooner we can get work underway and get some of those jobs into the local community, I think it's a real benefit, a double benefit for the community, you'll get the immediate stimulus of local jobs at the same time you got the long term benefits of improved efficiency and productivity at the port

Pat Hession: Minister, appreciate your time this afternoon. Thank you.

Darren Chester: I appreciate it, Pat, and I look forward to visiting very soon.

Pat Hession: Indeed well especially with that weather down in Canberra by the sounds of things. Darren Chester, the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport here with you this afternoon.