CONSTRUCTION of an inland rail corridor between Melbourne and Brisbane is set to get under way in October. The A$1·4bn Australian Inland Rail Expressway is intended to form the first phase of the ambitious Australian Transport & Energy Corridor linking the east coast cities with Darwin. The line is primarily intended as a freight corridor, but may also carry passenger trains.

ATEC chairman Everald Compton told the Melbourne Age at the end of April that the company planned a symbolic first spike ceremony at the McIntyre River near Goondiwindi on October 26; he expected construction to be finished in 2004.

Seven consortia have tendered to build the line, and Compton hoped to announce the winning consortium at the end of May. Several Victoria entrepreneurs are backing the project, and Macquarie Bank is raising private finance through a mixture of debt and equity. ATEC plans to float on the Australian Stock Exchange next year.

Costed at A$800m, the initial Melbourne - Toowoomba section largely involves reconstructing existing track to accommodate 1600m long double-stack container trains. The route will follow the existing standard gauge Melbourne - Sydney main line through Albury-Wodonga to Wagga Wagga in New South Wales. It then turns north on existing track through Parkes, Dubbo, Narrabri, and Moree. A new standard-gauge line would be built from the NSW border into Queensland, through Goondiwindi to Toowoomba.

Major freight hubs are planned at Parkes, where the route crosses the Sydney - Perth corridor, and at Toowoomba. A link will run east from Toowoomba to the Port of Brisbane.

Studies are under way for an A$550m extension from Toowoomba to Gladstone, where the Queensland government plans to expand the coal port. Compton expects this section to become viable in the medium term when three new coal mines come on stream in the Surat Basin.

ATEC expects freight trains to average 115 km/h over the route, giving an end-to-end journey time of under 30h. This would boost rail’s share of the Melbourne - Brisbane market from less than 20% to around 47%. Operation at 160 km/h in the future would cut the trip to less than 20h.

In the longer term, ATEC hopes to continue the route north through Queensland to Townsville and then west to meet the Alice - Darwin line at Tennant Creek. This would open up a second route from the eastern states to Darwin.