DEALING with the local rollout and fallout of the pragmatic realities underpinning the foundations of the inland rail’s construction is a double edged sword for rural members of federal parliament like Mark Coulton.
On one hand he’s embracing the opportunity to help drive the Coalition government’s historic project forward, to construct a 1700kms nation-building rail line from Brisbane to Melbourne to reduce freight costs and times for vital economic activity like farming.
Understandably, the broader community in his sweeping NSW rural electorate of Parkes is eager to get on board and embrace the potential of where that $10 billion economic pipe-dream may take them.
But on the other hand, landholders identified as being stuck in the pathway of the new rail line, as the project steamrolls further down the track, are fearful of the unknown aspects of that ride and the downside of what they’ll potentially be forced to live with.
This week, the rubber hit the road for the inland rail roadshow as it arrived at a critical juncture for Mr Coulton – the farmer and Nationals MP who is also deputy-speaker of the House of Representatives.
Landholders can now comment on the federal government’s preferred proposed route for the largest segment of the inland rail project – the 307kms Narromine to Narrabri corridor.
“I've got roughly 500kms of the inland rail track going through my electorate and 307kms in this Narromine to Narrabri section is green field site,” Mr Coulton said.
“This is going to present some difficulties for some farmers and obviously they live in an area where they haven’t had to contend with a railway line running through their properties before.
“Some of these areas are reasonably isolated and quite a long way from town so having to content with a railway line, that’s an issue for them.
“The Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC) has had communications with pretty well everyone along that section of the track but now that the exact corridor is known they can actually start talking specifics.
“One of the problems before was, because it was a general concept, people didn’t really know if they were going to be effected and the frustration was the ARTC wouldn’t tell them whether they were going to be effected or not because it hadn’t been decided.
“But now that’s been decided.”
Mr Coulton said one of the biggest changes from the originally flagged route that formed part of prior community consultation, which he says is “very positive”, is that a large part of the Baradine to Narrabri track would now go through the Pilliga State Forest.
“It’s not going to impact on landholders and it’ll only be an issue for the NSW state government, (to reach) an agreement there,” he said.
“It’ll only be a negotiation for the state government, not various landholders, unlike if we had of gone around the northern side of the Forest, which was originally planned.
“There will be some (environmental) sensitivities with this route but what I’ve heard with a lot of the conservationists is this could be a preferred route rather than having to interfere with clumps of remnant vegetation of farmland.
“If you’re going through farmland you take out clumps of trees which could have a bigger impact on wildlife – but largely that section of the track won‘t be impacting on private landholders.”
Mr Coulton said there was “general acceptance” amongst local farmers that the inland rail line project was going ahead but there’d also been “backlash and anger in some places”.
However, he said the last delegation of farmers he met with had expressed concerns about issues like gaining access to the rail line, compensation, and how the rail track would impact business operations like moving livestock and machinery across the track.
They also want to know if the rail line will impact the amenity of their houses because they don’t want trains running close to their homes, he said.
But Mr Coulton said the types of conversations he’s held with the broader community were about “how can we take advantage of this?”
“Will we have access through intermodal facilities; will our local contractors be able to get jobs with construction; and will we be able to supply gravel and water for the earthworks?” he said.
“This level of conversation is going on, for instance Narrabri and Narromine are looking at all options for intermodal stops where ultimately they can take advantage of attracting businesses to their area.
“Not just an intermodal facility to load the produce they’ve got – but also because of the connection to ports and every capital city in Australia.
“Ultimately, why wouldn’t you want to come and build a factory at Narromine, Narrabri or Moree or whatever where you have a good reliable rail service, good affordable availability of land, a contented workforce and not competing with the congestion of the suburbs of capital cities?
“I think we’re at a tipping point now.
“We’ve seen the value of land in Sydney going through the roof and ultimately the economics of having large industrial complexes in the suburbs of Sydney is only going to get harder and harder.
“But this inland rail could be the catalyst that will encourage some of those businesses to relocate, to help them survive.”
No nasty surprises in NSW rail route’s release
Mr Coulton said he didn’t think anyone would be “terribly surprised” by the release of the preferred corrido this week.
However, he said he expected some “resignation” from some locals who knew they’d be in the corridor pathway and “hoped that maybe they wouldn’t be”.
“This will confirm some people’s fears but now it’s up to the ARTC to make sure that these people are treated very respectfully and every possible effort is made to do this without impacting on them any more than it needs to,” he said.
Mr Coulton said he’d spoken to some landholders on the Queensland border that had some concerns – and he’d and taken those views to the ARTC – about cutting their blocks up into small pieces and causing flooding, if the rail construction changed water flows.
“I’ve been really straight with the ARTC and they need to be really listening to these people,” he said.
“They are intergenerational farming families and well-respected people who are not doing anything to be troublesome and they have genuine concerns that need to be taken into account.”
Mr Coulton said he didn’t know what the exact formulae would be used for devising compensation to any impacted landholders or what amount would be spent on this section of the inland, off the top of his head.
He said an agreement between the NSW and Commonwealth governments was the mechanism that would allow compensation to take place.
“My understanding is it’ll be quite significant in that area,” he said.
Mr Coulton said $300 million had been allocated to do the corridor study and another $580m had gone out for purchasing it which was yet to be spent, along with the $8.4 billion allocated for the construction of the track up to Toowoomba.
“I think there will be suitable garments made for compensation with landholders and that’s what I’ll be keeping an eye on to make sure they don’t get a raw deal,” he said.
“That’s why the Commonwealth needs to come to an agreement – we don’t have the powers to obtain land for this sort of thing – the state does.
“It’ll be Commonwealth funds but it’ll be a state mechanism that’s used to distribute those funds and come to an agreement.
“A whole range of things will be taken into account.
“There is the possibility, if it’s just too much for people to sell their property then the Commonwealth could sell that property, probably, to adjoining landholders on either side.
“There’s a possibility for lands swaps.
“And I’ve spoken to someone who had the Indian Pacific go through their property in South Australia back in the 1960’s and 70’s and of course there was a great deal of concern at the start but ultimately these things tend to get worked out.”
Asked if he believed any farmers would dig their heels in and refuse to budge potentially stopping the inland rail project’s construction he said “I hope that’s not the case”.
“Obviously there will be power to acquire land and it really would be a last resort to do that,” he said.
“This project is a nation building one and there are various reasons why it’s being built – the major one is to handle the intermodal traffic between Melbourne and Brisbane.
“But the reason I’ve been promoting are the opportunities for the local area to have access to cheaper rail freight and access to more ports and the ability for more value adding to come in and take advantage of the line.
“We’ll probably see a different model emerging.
“I’ve been speaking to one of the local farmers and I’m sure by the time this link’s finished he’ll have his own intermodal.
“He’s already loading his own trains and sending grains, barley and wheat, to Sydney and the Newcastle port and I think we’ll start to see some new and efficient quick-loading systems where farmers store grain on their own farms and market it throughout the year.
“They’re doing that already but largely they’re sending it by trucks and road trains out to Brisbane but obviously it’ll make more sense when the track’s finished, to send it by rail.”