Shortly after John Howard was elected Prime Minister of Australia in 1996, I visited him at Parliament to outline a plan that I had to build an Inland Railway from Melbourne to Darwin via Parkes, Toowoomba, Brisbane, Gladstone, Mount Isa and Tennant Creek.
He has readily agreed to see me as I had been his honorary fund raiser for the marginal seats he had to win in order to be PM. I was not a member of the Liberal Party and had done this with no strings attached as he was an old friend, and still his.
Howard apologised and said he did not see it as a priority. He wanted to carry out all of his election promises and this was not one of them. That decision blows the theory that politicians are duty bound to repay political debts, not that I ever expected him to do so.
I decided to undertake the project privately and formed a company that I called Australian Transport and Energy Corridor Ltd which is still operating 21 years later. It is largely responsible for the decision in last Tuesday’s Budget to fund the Melbourne Brisbane section of the Inland Railway.
Let me tell you the story of two decades of persistence.
Peter Costello was not interested as he only favoured infrastructure that was privately funded and was profitable from its opening day, but studies I had done showed that this was not possible. It had to have substantial government funding.
Tim Fisher was a supporter, but he did not have the numbers to get there and John Anderson sat on the fence, offering token funds for small studies.
Nevertheless, my team was able to keep it on the agenda and Anna Bligh backed our plan to link Toowoomba and Gladstone. Sadly it became unviable when the mining boom collapsed.
Then, Anthony Albanese and Wayne Swan pledged 300,000 dollars to buy land for the new corridors needed for the Melbourne Brisbane route, but their government fell before the work could commence and Abbott cancelled it because it was a decision of the Gillard Government. Some time later Truss reinstated it, then doubled it, while Turnbull added extra, but little work was actually done.
Now, Malcolm Turnbull has committed to build it, stating that it will be done irrespective of whether or not private capital is contributed. The Australian Rail Transport Corporation, the government’s own railway company, will receive the funding and has been instructed to form a public private consortium.
ATEC Rail Group, which my old company is now called, has been invited to put capital into the consortium and we will do so along with other private investors.
Will it happen?
21 years of planning will enable work to commence in July.
However, we still have many opponents. They can’t stop us, but they could cause delays. My job is to sell its positives and there are plenty.
Freight trains will run at 120 kilometres an hour and get from Melbourne to Brisbane faster than trucks.
Freight charges will be slashed as long double stacked trains need only two staff whereas every truck has to have a driver.
Trucks wont go out of business. They will service the freight centres along the way and their drivers will be able to go home every night.
The massive cost of being maintaining highways that are crushed by trucks will be saved and the environment will be enhanced as trains create less contamination than trucks.
New value-adding rural industries will be founded as the horrendous cost of getting products to ports will be reduced. Right now, this is not possible as it costs more to get freight to one of our ports than it does to get it from there to China and USA.
These new industries will cause inland cities to grow, encouraging population to move from our overcrowded capital cities.
I could go on, but let me say this.
There is something seriously wrong with government and politics in Australia when it takes 21 years to get an infrastructure project up. Indeed, it is quite disgraceful that infrastructure has had such a low priority.
But, credit is due to Turnbull for committing an amount which is the largest for a nation building project since the Snowy Mountains Hydro 70 years ago.
Cynics say he has done it only to save his political hide, but whatever his reasons, I am cheering.
It will pass Parliament because Shorten will back it. He has been a volunteer on my team for many years because of his personal commitment to create jobs for his Australian Workers Union.
Finally, what it also means is that I can now help ATEC Rail get the Toowoomba Gladstone Railway underway. We have already made proposals to the Queensland Government about this.
I am only 85 years old.
I have got at least another ten years to help make a difference.