21 September 2017
Subject: Melbourne–Brisbane Inland Rail preferred alignment route (Yelarbon to Gowrie)
Darren Chester: Can I begin by firstly thanking the community of the Darling Downs for their patience and the respect they have shown me and John McVeigh and Bruce Wilson [indistinct] been quite a difficult task. The Melbourne-Brisbane inland rail project, the decision made by government to proceed with this project, which is an $8.4 billion equity investment in ARTC, is truly a transformational project. It's going to create thousands of jobs right around our nation and is to deliver some major improvements in terms of our freight competitiveness, in terms of delivering products to market. But also, very importantly, it's going to deliver some major social benefits in terms of reducing road trauma. We understand that getting more of the freight task in the future on to rail and off our roads is going to deliver a reduction in road trauma, it's going to save lives in our community so it is a project of great significance, but a project of this scale was always going to have some challenges.
One of those challenges has been deciding on the preferred alignment between Yelarbon and Gowrie, the border section to basically Toowoomba, has been a challenging process. Last year, following consultation with John McVeigh and David Littleproud and concerned residents in the community, I initiated the process which Bruce Wilson undertook on behalf of the Government for the project reference group to consider some alternative options, some alternative routes for that section of the Inland Rail project. It has been an exhaustive process, there's been a great deal of consultation which has occurred over the past 12 months and today I'm here to announce the Federal Government's preferred alignment for the Yelarbon to Gowrie section of the Inland Rail project.
After a great deal of consideration, after looking at social, economic and environmental factors, our decision going forward is to pursue the route which goes through Millmerran, Brookstead, Southbrook on to Wellcamp and through to Charlton as the Inland Rail route continues through to Brisbane.
Now, I recognise that this will be a decision that causes some consternation in some parts of the community; in other parts of the community it will be greeted with a great deal of relief and celebration. What I can undertake to the people who believe they'll be impacted by this alignment is that we will work with them. We will work with the community and show them the enormous amount of respect they deserve as we go through what is now a quite exhaustive process to finalise that alignment within that broader corridor. It's important to understand that we're talking now about a corridor which is about two kilometres wide, so a great deal of work is required through an Environmental Impact Statement which is required by the Queensland Government as we drill down to the detailed design which will answer a lot of the questions that people have in regards to that preferred alignment.
So it is a complex and exhaustive process which lies ahead of us and it will take the best part of 18 months to two years before that is resolved. And again, I want to stress: there will be enormous amounts of opportunity for the community to be involved and to that end I've asked Bruce Wilson to form a community consultation committee and I've asked Bruce to be the interim chair of that committee. So he will establish that committee and it's up to that committee then to decide whether Bruce continues as the chair or whether they'd like to have someone from the local community more directly involved as the chair of that committee going forward. The role of that committee will be to inform the EIS process, to ensure there is a great deal of local engagement, and that those questions that people have are properly answered in regard to social issues, cultural issues, economic and environmental issues that they might like to raise.
Can I say that the four routes that we considered each presented some challenges to the government, and each presented some opportunities. In going through the four routes, I'd like to just clarify the decision-making process, perhaps ahead of some of your questions. The base case route which had been on the books since basically 2010 and again, was put forward in 2015, was regarded as not picking up the value out of the major Wellcamp industrial precinct which was developed post that decision being made. It also presented some concerns to us regarding the alignment through Kingsthorpe given the corridor through Kingsthorpe was not going to be wide enough to accommodate the Inland Rail. And in terms of the Warwick option, it was vastly more expensive than the other two options. So it came down to quite a difficult decision between the two other alignments that had been put forward; so the Leyburn-Felton alignment and, if you like, Millmerran, Brookstead, Southbrook alignment. On the basis of the time savings, the cost savings and also in relation to being able to utilise existing transport corridors it was felt, on balance, by Cabinet, by the Federal Government Cabinet, that the route that we're putting forward today as the preferred alignment was the best way forward.
But I want to emphasise again: throughout this process, as we look to the next two years, I want to work very closely with the local community. I deeply respect the local knowledge that is available to us, particularly across the Condamine flood plain; so I believe a combination of that local knowledge plus some of the best engineering minds in Australia will allow us to deliver a project that our kids and our grandkids will thank us for. I have no question that this is a project of great significance to the Darling Downs and great significance to the Australian nation, but it will present us some challenges as we go forward; I want to assure the local community that I will be insisting the ARTC, with my department and through my own office, that they'll be treated with a great deal of respect and their views will be closely considered as we develop the final alignment within that two kilometre wide preferred corridor.
Now, with those words can I simply say also, John McVeigh and David Littleproud, as local Members of Parliament, have been outstanding champions for their communities through this process. Throughout the past 20 months that I've been involved as the Federal Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, I can't think of two local Members of Parliament who have spent more time in my office raising the concerns, pointing out ideas, coming up with approaches that they believe will deliver maximum benefits for their community through this project. So to John and to David, I thank them for their detailed consideration, their consultation with their community and their willingness to engage in a very active, positive and productive way and I want to assure them that relationship will continue to grow as we deliver the benefits of the Inland Rail project.
Thank you, John.
John McVeigh: Thank you Darren. I acknowledge, ladies and gentlemen, the decision that the Minister has announced in the last 24 hours about the preferred corridor across the Darling Downs region, across our community on the Darling Downs. This has been a very difficult decision for the Minister and I know for locals from Mount Tyson in the west, through to Greenmount in the east, there has been a lot of anticipation about this decision. We've been waiting for a very long time.
The decision of any Minister about a major infrastructure project will always have impacts on a particular part of any community and today we now move on to that detailed consideration within the two kilometre wide corridor that the Minister has selected. The work really starts now in getting down to that detail, it's difficult to work on detail until you've got a preferred corridor and I certainly commit myself to working with the local communities from Brookstead right through to Wellcamp and Charlton in minimising those impacts and making sure that we get the best outcome possible.
Bruce Wilson: Well thanks, Minister. As the Minister mentioned, my role has been- I chaired the project reference group for the investigations that occurred in the past and now he's asked me to chair the community consultation committee which I'm delighted to do. I certainly look forward to working with the community and representatives of the community who will form that committee to make sure that, as the Minister said, their views are heard and that the further investigations—now to start—are conducted in a very thorough and satisfactory way for all of the community, to ensure this great project is achieved at minimum impact on the community.
Question: Minister, we've spoken to farmers this morning who say that they're outraged and furious at the community consultation process that took place; do you stand by the process that did take place?
Darren Chester: Well I certainly stand by the process that's been undertaken over the past 12 months. Post the election last year, concerns were raised with me directly through the offices of David Littleproud and John McVeigh and residents directly that they didn't believe there had been a full consideration of all the options that were available to link the Inland Rail project from New South Wales and then down into Brisbane. So we initiated a process where four alignments were considered, Bruce Wilson as the chair of the PRG conducted a great deal of formal community consultation, and keep in mind there was a fair degree of informal community consultation as well where people who would post messages on social media, we certainly looked at the comments they raised, and John McVeigh and David Littleproud were out in the community bringing their concerns directly to me. I'm under no illusion about the level of concern amongst some members of the community along the preferred alignment that we're putting forward today, under no illusion whatsoever, that there are concerns that people quite rightly have and they want answers to questions. Now, the problem we have, until we have a preferred alignment it's very difficult to provide those answers to the questions they are putting forward. The detailed analysis that goes on now as part of the Environment Impact Statement, the detailed design work which occurs now is all about engaging with the local community, getting that local knowledge and using that, combining that with the best available engineering and technical minds in the country to come up with resolutions to the concerns they raise.
Question: Does that mean that the route may change still?
Darren Chester: Well, we have a preferred alignment; a two kilometre wide corridor that we've taken forward for that EIS process and detailed design phase. Now, it's a two kilometre wide corridor, so within that corridor there is going to be a further alignment of the route, and the opportunity will be there, an extensive opportunity for more engagement with the local community, and I give this undertaking—as I did just a few moments ago—I'm very determined that landholders will be treated with a great deal of respect, and their local knowledge will be fed into this process. So this is a complex and difficult project, and it's going to require the involvement of the local community, along with the engineering solutions that are so desperately needed to overcome their concerns, particularly on the Condamine floodplain.
Question: But why would you put it across a floodplain when there are other options?
Darren Chester: Well, Melbourne-to-Brisbane Inland Rail project was always going to have to cross the Condamine floodplain in some shape or form to achieve …
Question: But it could go across an area that was much less affected by floods?
Darren Chester: I find that these work a lot better if I actually get to finish the sentence. Now, it's always going to have to cross the Condamine floodplain in some shape or form. Now, in terms of engineering solutions to these difficult questions about rail projects around Australia and around the world: there are projects being built, have been built and will be continued to be built, across floodplains that require unique engineering solutions, and I'm determined to make sure that the unique nature of Condamine floodplain, the local knowledge which has been developed over generations, will be respected through this process. This is really the beginning of what is a very detailed process, and won't be something that can be rushed through. It's going to take the best part of 18 months to two years to finalise the alignment, to finalise the EIS process, and during that time, there'll be enormous opportunities for even more consultation around the social, the economic, the environmental and the cultural impacts.
Question: [Indistinct] going across a floodplain?
Darren Chester: Well, the Melbourne-Brisbane Inland Rail project is going to go from Melbourne to Brisbane, and it's going to have to cross the Condamine floodplain, and we're committed to doing that, and committed to working with the community to minimise the impacts and maximise the benefits. This is a project of national significance, and there's always going to be local impacts, and the challenge as a Minister and the challenge that John McVeigh and David Littleproud have as local Members is to minimise those impacts on individual residents and local communities, recognising there is a broader national benefit to be achieved through improved economic links and the social benefits that I talked about before. The more heavy vehicles we can take off road and replace that with freight moving on rail, the more lives we'll save on our roads. So there are very significant social and economic benefits to be gained by this project, but notwithstanding that, I recognise there are going to be individual landholders impacted and we need to try and minimise those impacts as much as we possibly can.
Question: Minister, as you said before, the base route was back- you decided on that back in 2010. Now, after only a year, you're deciding on this new one. How can you be sure that it's undergone the same scrutiny as that base route? I mean, it's been less than a year compared to seven years.
Darren Chester: Well, it's a good question. Largely, the preferred alignment we put forward today follows the base route to Millmerran and Brookstead, and then diverges across towards Southbrook, the Wellcamp industrial precinct, through to Charlton. The point I made in my opening comments was that when that base route was first developed, there was no consideration that there would be an international airport at Wellcamp, and very little consideration that the Wellcamp industrial precinct would be developed in that area. So, it would be foolish for any government to not consider that very considerable investment that's occurred there, and the future investment that's going to occur there, in terms of moving the freight task in that region. We've also got the Interlink project, which will be picked up through this alignment.
Now, in terms of the other point I made in my opening comments regarding Kingsthorpe, further analysis of that alignment through the Kingsthorpe township had indicated that the Inland Rail corridor wouldn't fit within the proposed corridor of that base route.
Question: Landholders say that this decision has been subject to political manipulation and that this route was preconceived. What's your response to that?
Darren Chester: Well, I simply disagree. I mean, I took on this role, I think it was January 2016, and went through the election process and came out the other side. We were determined to continue to pursue the Melbourne-Brisbane Inland Rail as a project. Very real concerns were presented to me about whether we'd fully considered the opportunities or the different options that might be available to cross the Darling Downs, and we initiated a process where I had Bruce Wilson as an independent chair do the project reference group work, with a lot of involvement from local stakeholders. To suggest that it was a preconceived view does enormous discredit to myself as a Minister, but also enormous discredit to Bruce Wilson, who's a respected member of the Queensland community. He went through a very detailed process.
Now, I fully understand and respect the fact that there are a lot of people today who will be very disappointed in my decision. I respect that, and I understand that any time you're building a major infrastructure project it's going to have local impacts, and that people are going to be disappointed by the decision if it impacts them directly, but the process has been absolutely above board. I stand by the process, and I certainly stand by the integrity of people like Bruce Wilson, the people who have informed my decision, who have provided advice to me—quite exhaustive advice to me. They haven't had a preconceived view of how this project preferred alignment should be resolved. They've put forward information to me for my consideration, and then Cabinet considered this issue last week, and endorsed the preferred position I put forward.
So this is a decision of Government. It's a difficult decision of Government—I acknowledge that—but at the same time, I've been contacted by many people over the last couple of months telling me to hurry up. Telling me to hurry up, make a decision so we have some certainty and confidence. So, you're in an awkward situation sometimes as Ministers that you're damned if you do and damned if you don't. We had to make a decision. We've made a decision on a preferred alignment, and we're going to work with the community and show them the enormous respect they deserve as we work through the final alignment and the mitigation measures required to minimise those impacts.
Question: Are you confident that the route across the floodplain will not increase the possibilities of risk to life?
Darren Chester: Well, flood mitigation is going to be a critical aspect of the detailed design phase. So, I read those reports in the local media today, and I understand why people have concerns about what impact a project like this might have on their community until they see the detailed design work. Now, there is a process we go through now for, as I said, the next 18 months to two years, which will allow every one of those concerns to be aired, both publicly and privately, if the individuals prefer to do it privately. All those issues will be able to be raised and fully fleshed out as part of the EIS process. So it looks at those social, economic and environmental, cultural issues that are may be of concern to people, and I can only give the assurance I gave earlier: is I deeply respect local knowledge. I want the local community, which has had generations of experience on the floodplain, to feel confident they will have the opportunity to have their inputs. At the same time, when you combine that with some of the best technical and engineering minds in the nation, I'm sure that we can resolve the issues they put forward. Now, it is a challenging project; no one—no one—is under any false illusions about the difficulty of this project. It is a multi-billion dollar investment in our nation's future, and we need to get it right.
Question: Is this the cheapest route?
Darren Chester: No. No, it's not the cheapest route. The cheapest route was the base route.
Question: How much money did the Federal Government spend on looking into the base route? With studies, et cetera.
Darren Chester: Look, I don't have those numbers to hand, I'm sorry. I really don't- I'd have no idea what sort of money's spent so far.
So, in terms of the price differential, if you like, the route we're putting forward as the preferred alignment—put forward today—is in the order of $180 million cheaper than the Leyburn route, but the Warwick route was somewhat more expensive, and that information will be made available publicly through the release of the multi-criteria analysis and the PRG report this afternoon.
Question: Are the Wagners helping to fund this project?
Darren Chester: No.
Question: Minister, you have said that you're waiting for the alignment to be announced before those engineering studies into the floodplain went ahead. Is it not irresponsible to put it across that floodplain without having had that proper engineering solution in mind?
Darren Chester: Well, there has been nothing irresponsible about the decision-making process. It has been exhaustive and detailed. The point I would make is that to proceed to the detailed design phase requires the full Environmental Impact Statement to be developed. It's a Queensland state-based legislation that will need to be adhered to, and there'll be enormous opportunities for the local community to have their input in that process.
Question: Some residents are wondering why you brought the decision forward. They were promised from 1 September it'd be six weeks, giving, I guess, more time for a bit more consultation. Why did you bring it forward?
Darren Chester: Well, that's a fair question. Some residents have criticised me for taking too long as well. I mean, it's like I said earlier, you're kind of damned if you do and damned if you don't in a situation like this. There has been a great deal of consultation over the past 12 months. When issues have been presented to me by people like John McVeigh and David Littleproud, I've gone back to ARTC or gone back to the Department and sought further advice. That has taken some time. So I've asked for more information quite regularly over the last few months. It got to the point where I didn't believe there was any more information that I required to make a decision, and that, in terms of consultation, I was under no illusion that there were people who, on any route, would be disappointed with the decision I had to make. So, it got to the point where there was nothing to be gained by waiting any longer; in fact, there was probably more to be lost in terms of cost to the project in delays, but also I was very conscious that people were becoming frustrated and concerned about the uncertainty, so I think today is very much about making a decision that would allow people to have more certainty about our preferred alignment, and then we could work with the impacted community, in terms of explaining to them the process going forward. So, it wasn't a question of bringing things forward or rushing things by any stretch. It was more about there was nothing to be gained by any further delays, and I'd had as much information as I thought I required to make a recommendation to Cabinet, and Cabinet endorsed that decision.