FEDERAL Nationals leader and Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Barnaby Joyce has refused to confirm speculation suggesting next month’s federal budget will deliver an extra $1 billion to bolster the inland rail project.
However, speaking to media in Canberra today, Mr Joyce said the Coalition government had “refurbished the balance sheet” with about $596 million previously, which had allowed the Australian Rail Track Corporation to borrow for building in excess of $2b worth of construction.
“I won’t discuss what further might be in the budget – but we can already get going,” he said of the inland rail.
Mr Joyce held talks with relevant NSW ministers this week in Canberra regarding the inland rail project’s future development.
Today in reference to those meetings, he said “we’re lining all the things up and state and federal levels to drive this thing forward”.
“I’m sure Queensland they’ll come on board as well,” he said.
“I look forward to actually going out and start seeing them build culverts in the next couple of months.”
The National Farmers’ Federation’s pre-budget submission recommended the government commit at least $1b over the forward estimates to the Brisbane to Melbourne inland rail link.
“NFF is a strong supporter of the government’s commitment of $594 million to land acquisition for the Brisbane to Melbourne inland rail link, but believes that further funding needs to be committed to the project in the 2017-18 budget,” the submission said.
“The project is on Infrastructure Australia’s priority list and there are significant benefits that come from taking freight off the road network.”
Transport Minister Darren Chester also refused to speculate on whether the federal budget contained an additional $1b for the inland rail project.
“We are only a couple of weeks away from the Treasurer making his announcements,” he said.
“What I can say is that $894m is already on the table from the Turnbull-Joyce government for that pre-construction work.”
But Mr Chester said he recognised it had reached a “critical stage” in the inland rail project’s formation.
“There’s going to need to be significant further investments by the Commonwealth to get the work done but we can wait a couple of weeks until the budget to confirm what may or may not be in that,” he said.
“In terms of construction more broadly for the Melbourne Brisbane inland rail project, the Prime Minister has made it very clear he expects construction to start this year and it will.
“It will be in NSW towards the second half of this year.
“We expect to see Melbourne Brisbane inland rail construction beginning in earnest.
“It’s going to take us many years to develop the project (but) we’re on track to deliver it within the decade, as we said we would.”
However, in an opinion article this week, Shadow Transport Minister Anthony Albanese said it was “time to get cracking” on the inland rail project, between Brisbane and Melbourne.
He said travelling through the agricultural heartland of the Australia’s east, the new rail line would lift the export capacity of tens of thousands of businesses.
“That’s why the former Labor government invested $600m on improving parts of the existing rail network that would form a part of inland rail and also allocated a further $300 million for ongoing work,” he said.
“Since then, not a further sleeper has been laid, despite promises for action in both the 2013 and 2016 election campaigns.
“Infrastructure development in Australia has been allowed to lag behind demand because of a lack of vision.
“If we really want to set up long-term national prosperity and create jobs for future generations, it’s time to start building.”
Mr Chester said the federal government was also working with state colleagues in Queensland, NSW and Victoria on the agreements required to allow project delivery.
He said the $894m already committed to the inland rail had allowed some of the geo-technical work to be done, to get environmental assessments underway, and it would also assist with land acquisition.
“But more importantly, it will allow construction to start later this year,” he said.
“We need to recognise that a project like this will change lives and it will save lives.
“It will change lives by reducing the congestion and improve productivity.
“It will actually save lives by reducing road trauma and taking some of those heavy vehicles off the road and getting products on to rail.
“It is an exciting project and one we’re very keen to start delivering as soon as we possibly can.”
Mr Joyce said the inland rail would open up the western parts of NSW, and Queensland, and the central parts of Victoria to the commercial prospect of connecting people to the 22 million who live in an arc, running north of Brisbane to Adelaide.
“It has been talked about by other government, by Labor governments, but we actually have the belief and the vision and the strength to drive this project through,” he said.
“A lot of the alignment in NSW goes along existing rail corridors.
“There may be rail corridors that have long since never had a railway train on them, but the corridor still exists, the easement still exists.
“But we’ve got to create the mechanism for the State to work with the Commonwealth on how a 99-year lease is delivered, so we can utilise that corridor.”
Mr Joyce said the inland rail was “not a pipe dream - this is actually happening - this is billions of dollars of building that is going on”.
“We want to make sure that we get this thing built, we want to make sure that the people of NSW know that we’re not basically mucking about here, this is actually happening,” he said.