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ABC News
the National Reporting Team's Nathan Morris and Clinton Jasper

Former Inland Rail project director claims $14b freight line plans 'done in a rush'

With an independent review of the $14.5 billion Inland Rail project looming, one former project director claims those charged with the initial planning "just looked on Google Maps".  

Cameron Simpkins, who was a project director at Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC), which is building the 1,700-kilometre train line, said it was clear to him that early planning had been "rushed'.

Construction of the Inland Rail line from Melbourne to Brisbane has created thousands of jobs and boosted regional economies along the track.

But a damning Senate inquiry report last year warned of significant challenges for the vital project, which aims to guarantee freight transportation across the nation, especially when roads are impassable due to flooding.

Former National Party leader Barnaby Joyce secured the first major funding commitment of $8.4 billion for the project, through the coalition agreement in 2016 with the then Malcolm Turnbull-led Liberal Party.

Since then, through the government-owned ARTC, up to $14.5 billion has been committed to the project.

"Mr Turnbull wanted Western Sydney Airport. Well, I wanted the Inland Rail, and now we've got the money," Mr Joyce said.

But the Senate inquiry report, titled 'Inland Rail: Derailed from the start', raised concerns about transparency and questioned the business case and the ever-increasing cost, which it said could blow out to more than $20 billion.

'Like two guys in a Commodore'

The Senate report findings were consistent with the experience of Mr Simpkins, who was a project director at ARTC between 2017 and 2019.

"When I arrived, and we got the documentation, it was very clear that it had been done in a rush," he said.

Mr Joyce disagreed.

"Rushed? It should have happened in like 1950 – if I followed the not-rushed process, we wouldn't be doing it at all," he said.

Mr Simpkins said when he began working at ARTC in 2017, many were "surprised" they had secured the project.

He recalled reviewing the 2015 business case for the project.

"It certainly appeared like two guys in a Commodore listening to KC and the Sunshine Band roaring up the road beside the railway going, 'Yeah, it's OK, it's OK, it's OK'," Mr Simpkins said.

"I think they just looked on Google Maps and went, 'No problems here, keep going'."

It was a theory that aligned with a meeting Kim and Russell Stevens had with ARTC on their cattle property in southern Queensland.

"They asked me where was the house on the map, and I said, 'Well, it's actually under the line that you have there on that map in front of you'," Ms Stevens said.

"They were a bit gobsmacked, and we were too, that they didn't know where they were standing."

Mr Simpkins said at one point he was trying to understand why the "numbers [the cost] had increased exponentially".

An independent engineer was then called in to review the plans.

"All the culverts have been stripped out to remove the cost, all the level crossings have been stripped out, the fencing — the kilometres and kilometres of fencing — hadn't been included, and none of that has been included in that initial cost," he said. 

Mr Joyce had a different recollection.

"I think everything was investigated for efficiency, but I don't believe that was stripped down," he said.

"I think, in any sort of quantity surveyor process, we look for value for money."

Roughly 300km of track has been built since 2017, and all but 5.3km of that are upgrades to existing railway lines.

According to the ARTC, about $2 billion has been spent so far.

Minister for Infrastructure and Transport Catherine King said the project was "certainly well over budget and I suspect will potentially blow out even further without me doing anything".

"I think the previous government was trying to have us believe that it would be open and finished by 2026-27 — it is clear that that is absolutely not going to be the case," she said.

Tracking the $14 billion Inland Rail project.(ABC Landline: Nathan Morris)

However, ARTC acting chief executive Rebecca Pickering said it would be an "iconic project" that would transform how freight moved around Australia.

"By traversing through regional areas of Australia, we have an opportunity to bring those regional communities in a way closer to their markets and their customers," she said.

"We've got a huge task ahead of us to meet the demands of the freight market, as I say it's going to more than double in the next 30 years."

Transforming regional towns

At the grassroots level, tensions between inland towns over the potential economic impacts of the rail line are growing, with some communities already reaping the financial benefits and others fearing they will miss out as the track bypasses them.

Construction is now focused on the Narrabri to North Star section of the Inland Rail, where ARTC reports it has employed more than 1,800 people, including hundreds of local residents and First Nations people. 

Hundreds of millions of dollars were also being spent at local businesses in places like Moree in north-west New South Wales.

"We've had many young people [who] have got a start on the Inland Rail. Also training to actually drive trucks, use the machinery," Aboriginal elder Lloyd Munro senior said. 

He said his mob often struggled to get good jobs and training opportunities in Moree, but he hoped the Inland Rail was a chance for genuine change.

"That work gives you an opportunity for our mob to be trained and working side by side in all the professional industries," he said.

He also hoped it might be a project that helped shift the narrative about Moree, a place with a history of tension between the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. 

"Moree is changing, that's what I'd like them to know … and for the good," he said.

But elsewhere, among the more populous communities between Toowoomba and Brisbane, such as the outer suburban areas that the line will pass through on its way to the Port of Brisbane, there remain concerns about the frequency of huge freight trains cutting through communities.

Mr Simpkins said he believed important construction considerations were being lost in the fog of politics and penny-pinching.

"I've stood at those gates and talked to the farmers," he said.

"If we're going to impact those families and impact these communities, then we owe it to them and we owe it to our future generations to do it properly."

Seizing political opportunity

A former senior public servant involved in the feasibility study of the Inland Rail project recently said in 2015, when the initial business case was completed, a lot of the route had not been completely surveyed and the cost was always going to increase.

The public servant, who asked not to be named, said to get an ambitious project like this over the line, political opportunities had to be seized.

There is a broad acceptance that an Inland Rail line will be needed to meet east coast freight demands, which are forecast to double in the next 20 to 30 years.

"Getting this thing built is of primary importance," Mr Joyce said.

There are two pending reviews of ARTC's flood modelling yet to be made public, and the now Labor government promised a review of the project before its election earlier this year.

Ms King said she was finalising the terms of reference for an independent review of the rail project.

"It will be a short, sharp review. Really what I'm looking to do is get a real handle on where all of the problems along the route [are], and where is a pathway to actually resolve some of these problems," she said.

"We might not be able to fix everything."

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