Government at crossroads over rail upgrades


A train en-route to the Nambour Train Station on the NCL which is at the centre of debate regarding the B2N Project

As local politicians fight for territory in Fisher and Fairfax in the Federal election, commuters battle it out on the Bruce Highway and the worn train lines which make up part of the North Coast Line [NCL]. The Australian Government has announced $390 million in funding for upgrades to a section of rail between Beerburrum and Landsborough. The Federal Opposition has also recently announced an additional $390 million in a last-minute bid to win over some voters north of the border. Meanwhile, the Queensland State Government is maintaining its stance with an 80:20 funding ratio offering $160.8 million for the project.

Travelling upwards of 300km/h and peering out into the blur of lush green, commuters in Japan can wake up in Tokyo and eat brunch in Osaka, some 500-kilometres away.  On the Sunshine Coast, commuters who travel into Brisbane face the daunting challenge of deciding between a standstill Bruce Highway or an extensive train trip. Jeffrey Addison, who is the spokesman for the Rail Back on Track Group on the Sunshine Coast, is an everyday commuter from Palmwoods and knows the deadlock locals face with public transport. “Our levels of service, I describe them as abysmal,” Mr Addison said. “There are significant advantages to be gained by improving the line.”

With a journey which begins with breakfast on the run four hours prior to the 9am work start in the city, commuters are tasked with a possible three-hour journey south. The half hour bus trip which leaves from Caloundra en-route to Landsborough soldiers through the roadworks which flood the entry points to the Bruce Highway. The next part of the journey arrives with a total of 13 stops on the roughly 80-kilometre commute to Roma Street in the heart of the city. For a commuter from Caloundra, the route time of just under three hours means an expedition as the sun rises is only the first of the day.

Alternatively, the Queensland Government’s prized Bruce Highway offers a significant time discount of roughly an hour with a total route time of around 110 minutes as your car battery attempts to overcome the hazards of the traffic. There is, however, a solution which places the focus on a length of railway track between Beerburrum and Nambour [B2N].

The B2N Project Outline on the Queensland Department of Transport and Main Roads website is the Government response to this plan. According to the outline, commuters have been promised an upgrade from single track lines to double on the original line between Beerburrum and Landsborough. The upgrade, along with other improvements, would increase the frequency of passenger services and help ease congestion on the infamously busy Bruce Highway.

The upgrades announced for this limited section of track and the Government’s focus on the Bruce Highway expansions do have some critics, given it does not include duplication to the track network further north between Landsborough and Nambour. “You can’t just keep adding lanes and lanes to a highway,” Mr Addison said. “It is so much more advantageous if rail is usable, if rail is accessible.”

University of Wollongong associate professor Phillip Laird has been studying rail for decades and is passionate about changes that need to be made to the NCL. Having spent time experiencing rail in New Zealand, Japan and Canada, Dr Laird is focused on improving rail networks here in Australia.

“The reasons for duplication are less delays and that you can put more trains on the track,” Dr Laird said. “The catch is if you spend $10 billion rebuilding the Bruce Highway and do nothing to the NCL from Beerburrum to Cairns then what you’re going to end up with is just taking effectively the freight of the railway and putting it on the upgraded Bruce Highway, and I don’t think that is a win-win for anyone.”

Roughly a decade has passed since planning began for the B2N Project, and the issue is now evident on a national level after years of ineffective negotiations between opposing parties and State politics.

Rail Express’ report on Mark Bailey criticising LNP members acknowledges that the Queensland Transport Minister Mark Bailey believes the Queensland State Coalition is to blame. “We have consistently said the Federal Government should stick to its own funding rules and commit appropriate funding for this project,” Mr Bailey said.

Dr Laird says the Federal Coalition’s input is a good start. “I think 50% is better than nothing,” Dr Laird said. “It’s really up to the State Government having delayed the project. It should have been done, the whole thing, last decade.”

Liberal MP for Fisher Andrew Wallace is trying to hold onto his seat and continues to make promises with regards to the B2N project. In February, Mr Wallace spoke to the House of Representatives and shared the views of commuters on the Coast. “They want to see construction on the Bruce Highway and the north coast rail fast-tracked, and they want to see action from our helpless and hopeless State Government,” Mr Wallace said. “The Morrison Government is already taking action on the Bruce Highway, and the North Coast rail duplication, with $3.4 billion in federal investment.”

The B2N Project calls for Rail Duplication from Beerburrum to Landsborough

This declaration comes months after the Australian Government’s Department of Infrastructure, Regional Development and Cities media release by Minister Michael McCormack. “The Federal Government is committing $390 million to duplicate Queensland’s North Coast Rail Line between Beerburrum and Landsborough,” the document says. “The Federal Government was committed to providing the rail infrastructure Queenslanders need to enjoy the fast and reliable train services they deserve.”

Mr Addison has been working tirelessly for over a decade and is vocal online about improving the commuter experience for locals. In May 2018, he stood side by side in a committee hearing with Mr Wallace and Fairfax MP Ted O’Brien to discuss the need for more funding for NCL upgrades. More recently Mr Addison shared his beliefs regarding the likelihood of the project receiving national funding. “There is no guarantee that it will get funding under the Labor Federal Government,” Mr Addison said.

With no mention of the B2N project during the Opposition’s 2019 Budget Reply speech, Labor has turned its focus to improving the local highways and has been vocal about planning interstate rail networks. “I can announce we will deliver $1.5 billion to upgrade the Gateway Motorway from Bracken Ridge to the Pine River and the next stage of the Bruce Highway from the northern suburbs to Caboolture,” Mr Shorten said.

Federal Labor MP and Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Cities and Regional Development, Anthony Albanese announced a new promise of $390 million in a last-ditch effort to win over voters. Prior to the announcement by the Federal Labor Party, Mr Addison noted that Labor’s plans for interstate high-speed rail between capital cities were simply a pipe dream are for the future.

“That’s their only commitment for rail and obviously it doesn’t come anywhere near us on the Sunshine Coast even though we’re the ninth largest region in Australia,” Mr Addison said. “A population of 330,000 and we have a single-track line that services us.”

Mr Addison says local candidates need to promise funding towards the duplication otherwise they will face the consequences on election day. “I can’t see any of them winning a seat up here because they haven’t promised anything towards it,” Mr Addison said. “The most recent Budget a few weeks ago by Federal Labor basically said they would go back to the drawing board or change it.”

How do the Non-Urban Passenger Services Compare?

The Australian Government Department of Infrastructure, Regional Development and Cities Annual Statistical Report Trainline 6 2018 analyses aspects of train services nationwide. The statistics support the comments made by Mr Addison with regards to the inefficient service available on the Sunshine Coast. When compared to other services interstate, the Brisbane to Nambour route has one of the highest number of stops and travels at a low average speed of 56km/h. “We want to see rail infrastructure networks brought up to scratch first before proposing something ridiculously expensive,” Mr Addison said.

As debate continues between local candidates, state MPs and federal representatives, the Sunshine Coast community is suffering the consequences of a decade of political warfare. Commuters must choose between a rock and a hard place as they consider their options regarding travel into Brisbane. Critics such as Mr Addison have worked hard pushing for greater improvements to the North Coast Line and will continue to be vocal about commuter issues as locals attempt to end the political impasse on election day.