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Leader of One Nation in Queensland, Steve Dickson, says that Queensland's Cross River Rail project is "$5.4 billion that doesn't need to be spent until 2036. Infrastructure Australia has said that this project is not needed until that time". RMIT ABC Fact Check investigates.
The resurgence of Pauline Hanson's One Nation in Queensland has given both major parties cause for concern in the state election, with predictions the right-leaning minor party could hold the balance of power in the new parliament.
One of the party's major policies is to push for the axing of Brisbane's Cross River Rail project, while earmarking the money set aside for the project for other initiatives elsewhere in the state.
The party's leader in Queensland, Steve Dickson, told the Beattie and Newman program on Sky News that "it's $5.4 billion that doesn't need to be spent until 2036. Infrastructure Australia has said that this project is not needed until that time."
He added: "It's good for [Deputy Premier] Jackie Trad but it's not good for the rest of Queensland."
Did Infrastructure Australia conclude that the Cross River Rail project would not be needed until 2036? And what does its assessment mean?
RMIT ABC Fact Check investigates.
The verdictMr Dickson's claim is spin.
Infrastructure Australia makes recommendations on proposed investments to all levels of government, assessing projects according to their level of national significance.
Its report on Cross River Rail retains the project on its Infrastructure Priority List as a High Priority Initiative.
The project's retention on this list marks it as a project that seeks "to address a problem or opportunity of national significance" for which "a business case has not yet been completed".
The project was not moved to the top-level High Priority Projects list due to issues that Infrastructure Australia had with the Queensland Government's business case.
These include a concern that the Government's estimates of the growth in rail patronage were too high and that the network's capacity constraints could "take longer to materialise".
Infrastructure experts approached by Fact Check expressed mixed opinions as to whether the report was saying that the project was "not needed" until 2036.
Some experts disputed Infrastructure Australia's assessment of the Queensland Government's timeframe, while all experts contacted by Fact Check agreed that south-east Queensland's emerging rail capacity problem was more urgent than Infrastructure Australia had assessed it to be and that Cross River Rail would address the problem.
They said that delaying construction could lead to increased costs, and missed opportunities for developments around proposed station precincts, and that a construction period of at least six years would mean the Government would need to get started soon.
Infrastructure Australia has left the door open for a revised proposal from the Government to address not only the capacity issue but also "potential benefits from land use change and urban renewal expected to result from the proposed project, and potential benefits from better integration of Brisbane's rail and bus networks".
We asked for your thoughts on Mr Dickson's claim about Queensland's Cross River Rail project.
What is the Cross River Rail project?Cross River Rail is a multi-billion-dollar project that seeks to bolster Brisbane's inner city rail network with more than 10kms of track connecting Dutton Park and Bowen Hills, including a 5.9 kilometre tunnel under the Brisbane River — the city's second river rail crossing. It includes plans for five new and upgraded stations.
The project aims to alleviate growing pressure on the existing river railway crossing — the dual track Merivale Bridge, which opened in 1978 and connects South Brisbane to the city's Roma Street station.
The bridge, used for both passenger and freight trains, has a capacity of 24 services an hour. Currently, it takes 21.
Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk spoke to the benefits of Cross River Rail after providing an additional $1.95 billion for the project — a third iteration of the long-aspired upgrade — in this year's state budget.
The State Government hopes to complete the project by 2024 with preliminary geotechnical and survey work already under way.
What is Infrastructure Australia?Infrastructure Australia was established by the Rudd government as part of the Department of Infrastructure under the Infrastructure Australia Act 2008.
In 2013, the Abbott government introduced the Infrastructure Australia Amendment Bill 2013, reconstituting Infrastructure Australia as "an independent governing entity that is both legally and financially separate from the Commonwealth".
The Parliamentary Library Bills Digest for this amendment describes the entity's role as advising "all levels of government, investors, and infrastructure owners on matters relating to the provision of infrastructure".
One of the explicit functions of Infrastructure Australia, as laid out in the act, involves the development of "lists (to be known as Infrastructure Priority Lists), based on audits conducted ... and any additional research by Infrastructure Australia, that prioritise Australia's infrastructure needs".
According to Infrastructure Australia's website, these lists provide "decision makers with advice and guidance on specific infrastructure investments that will underpin Australia's continued prosperity".
The Infrastructure Priority List sorts assessed proposals into two key categories:
These two categories are split further, into "high priority" and "priority" cases, depending on whether the proposed infrastructure project is addressing or seeking to address something deemed a "major problem or opportunity of national significance" or just "a problem or opportunity of national significance".
A spokesman for Infrastructure Australia told Fact Check that "listing as a project on the Infrastructure Priority List indicates that a proposal is ready for an investment decision."
Meanwhile, proposals graded as initiatives "are potential infrastructure solutions for which a business case has not yet been completed", according to Infrastructure Australia's website.
On July 19, 2017, Infrastructure Australia issued a report on the Cross River Rail project.
In its summary, it said that the proposal for Cross River Rail had not been given "project" status on the Infrastructure Priority List "at this time".
However, the report said that Cross River Rail was being retained on its High Priority Initiative list.
Why the lower rating?The report's summary says that "[t]his rating recognises that the emerging problem of rail capacity into and through Brisbane's CBD is a nationally significant infrastructure problem which will need to be addressed".
The reason Infrastructure Australia gave for not moving the project onto its more prestigious list was that "the benefits of the proposed project, as set out in the business case, are significantly overstated, and that the costs of the project as currently presented are likely to exceed its benefits".
It says Queensland Government modelling of train capacity for the year 2036 shows maximum loadings of 150 per cent of seats during the morning peak.
This means that for a carriage with 80 seats, there would also be 40 passengers standing.
"This indicates that capacity constraints would likely become apparent sometime between 2026 and 2036," the report states.
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"However, if patronage growth is lower than currently forecast, capacity issues will take longer to materialise ... Infrastructure Australia considers that current patronage projections are well in excess of rates of growth previously achieved in Australia over an extended period."
A spokesman for Infrastructure Australia told Fact Check that "our independent analysis of the Cross River Rail business case found that the rail patronage was projected to grow at a higher rate than has previously been seen in Australia over an extended period, and that the capacity constraints were unlikely to materialise in the timeframes suggested by the Queensland Government".
This assessment, he said, was based on the Government's "current proposal for the Cross River Rail".
The report leaves the door open for a new proposal:
"Infrastructure Australia would welcome the opportunity to consider a revised business case which addresses our concerns with benefit estimation, and clarifies the estimated timeframe for the emerging capacity problem. A revised business case should also quantify potential benefits from land use change and urban renewal expected to result from the proposed project, and potential benefits from better integration of Brisbane's rail and bus networks."
Despite this assessment, the Queensland Government has decided to proceed with the project.
What the experts sayFact Check contacted infrastructure experts for help in interpreting Infrastructure Australia's report.
Stephen Kajewski, the head of the School of Civil Engineering and Built Environment at Queensland University of Technology, said "there is no specific mention in the report — or even an implied assertion that the project isn't needed until 2036".
Neil Sipe, a professor in Planning at the University of Queensland, told Fact Check that Infrastructure Australia had rejected the business case, but that the report doesn't "lend any credibility" to Mr Dickson's suggestion that the project is not needed before 2036.
Michael Regan, a professor in the Faculty of Society and Design at Bond University, said that while Infrastructure Australia was "not giving Mr Dickson grounds for claiming the project is not needed", he was "probably right on [Infrastructure Australia's assessment of the] timing of capacity constraints".
But Professor Regan said this could change if the Queensland Government remedied the concerns of Infrastructure Australia in regards to its business case.
Finally, Matthew Burke, principal research fellow at Griffith University's Cities Research Institute, said that Infrastructure Australia "did come out with that assessment" as described by Mr Dickson, but cautioned that its report had been disputed not just by the Queensland Government, but also by a number of experts in Queensland, including his institute.
Referring to capacity projections, Associate Professor Burke said there were a number of reasons patronage had declined for a few years, which included increased fares and decreased services.
He told Fact Check:
"In economic terms, there's been a set of artificial factors that have suppressed patronage growth in Queensland. This hasn't been helped by the continued situation in Queensland, where the major bus operator in south-east Queensland ... basically runs on an operating model where they do not run buses to train stations, except to a couple of noted locations on the network.
"We have one of the lowest percentages in the world of any city over one million people, and with over 200km of track, in terms of the proportion of people who arrive at a train by bus. For most years, it's been less that 10 per cent and comparative statistics in the rest of the world are often 50, 60 per cent."
He said that once buses begin to run services to train stations, which he said is part of the State Government and Brisbane City Council's new strategy, the system would be overwhelmed "pretty quickly".
Associate Professor Burke added that the project was being considered by Infrastructure Australia in a national context.
"They look at nationally significant infrastructure, and that's why they refuse to look at bicycle networks and things like that. Although, I could argue that the UK has got great value out of its national cycle network," he told Fact Check.
"They are saying they don't believe with scarce federal funding that the project in their assessment meets their criteria to warrant an immediate investment by the Federal Government. And that's their role — their role is to give frank and fearless advice to the Government. The Government can choose to ignore it if they wish."
So when will it be needed?Associate Professor Burke told Fact Check that Brisbane City has a major rail choke point — the Merivale Bridge.
"There are only two tracks over the Merivale bridge, and it is not possible to increase the number of services, hardly ever, anymore beyond what we have," he said.
Professor Sipe agreed: "One thing that people lose sight of is that it is the only rail bridge in the urban part of Brisbane that crosses the Brisbane river, and it's also used to carry freight from the Port of Brisbane ... So, basically, there's a couple times a day that the passenger network stops so that they can run freight trains through."
He estimated that capacity on the network would be exceeded possibly by as early as 2021.
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"I don't see conditions getting any better on the public transport ... Yes, you could make that argument that it doesn't look like your growth in public transport use is matching what you're predicting, but I think part of this is about being a bit proactive about these things — do it now before you get into a real crisis situation."
Professor Kajewski said that the Queensland Government's timetable for emerging capacity constraints in the early 2020s to early 2030s "would seem reasonable" citing "growth in passenger movements, general road and rail congestions, rail bottlenecks with all current lines running through Roma Street, Central and Bowen Hill stations".
Associate Professor Burke noted that the Government's six-year construction timeline means that the commencement of construction "in the very near future would be desirable".
"We'd be talking the mid-2020s for this to be up and operational, and I think that's about the timeframe when we are going to need new rail slots, particularly from the south," he said.
Professor Sipe agreed: "These projects don't happen at the drop of a hat and they do require adequate planning."
He added: "If the project were not needed until 2036, then one option would be to wait until 2031-32 to begin building the project. However, by that time, the cost of the project would be considerably more and development around the proposed station precincts might be precluded by other unanticipated development."
Associate Professor Burke noted that despite One Nation's pledge that the money be spent on projects which benefit "all Queenslanders", the Cross River Rail project would benefit more than just Brisbane:
"There's this huge misconception, and I think this is something that the political parties with a much more rural base are tapping into ... people don't understand that it's a project that helps the suburbs much more than it helps the inner city of Brisbane ... What the project actually does, is it vastly increases the number of services ... The beneficiaries are these huge swathes of the Gold Coast, the Sunshine Coast, out through Ipswich and right through outer suburban and suburban Brisbane."
He added that major rail projects were "100-year assets" and that long-term rail projects often struggled to make the case in cost-benefit analyses.
"The City Loop in Melbourne, it would have been a very difficult case to get that up at the time. You can't imagine Melbourne [now] without that infrastructure — it's been essential to the economic development of the city centre of Melbourne."
This article first appeared on www.abc.net.au
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