Freight expectations: inland rail father’s green dream

Adrian Black |

Michael Myer (left) and Everald Compton are working to develop sustainably fuelled freight.
Michael Myer (left) and Everald Compton are working to develop sustainably fuelled freight.

The father of Inland Rail is advancing an ignored section from his original plan, with a green twist that could transform Australian freight.

Everald Compton, 92, is no stranger to getting big projects moving.

One of Australia’s most successful corporate fundraisers, he founded National Seniors Australia, co-founded the Brisbane Lions and in 1996 visited prime minister John Howard with a bold idea for a freight rail line from Melbourne to Darwin.

Gladstone Port
Mr Compton believes Gladstone could become Australia’s major container port. (Dave Hunt/AAP PHOTOS)

For the next 20 years, Mr Compton invested his own time and money as a consultant on Inland Rail, a plan to build the 1700km Melbourne to Brisbane sections.

But when the Nationals under Barnaby Joyce took full control, he was kicked off the project.

“I was dispensed with without any compensation, but that doesn’t worry me,” Mr Compton told AAP.

“I’ve been kicked out of a lot of things in my life.”

But he wasn’t about to let years of work be derailed.

“I just said, ‘Well, I’ll do the second section of the track from Gladstone Port, which will link up with Inland Rail somewhere in the region of Goondiwindi’.”

Mr Compton believes Queensland’s port of Gladstone, a coal-focused commodities terminal, could become Australia’s major container port as fossil fuel use declines but the berths required for today’s massive container ships get deeper and deeper.

Only Gladstone and Sydney’s Port Botany can take the ultra-large 21,000-plus container vessels but Botany faces distribution difficulties and is further from Australia’s trade partners.

“We proved that freight by rail can get to Sydney four days quicker than if the boat went on from Gladstone,” he said.

“And then (to) Melbourne, seven days quicker.”

If Gladstone became Australia’s container hub, then his freight line – now called GreenLink – would become the keystone to connect Inland Rail with the world.

“This railway’s going to transform the way that freight goes in Australia and it will save the city of Gladstone from demise.”

The “semi-retired” corporate fundraiser has drummed up letters of support from all levels of government, political parties and freight companies, not to mention investors waiting in the wings to back the $7 billion project.

But a chance meeting at a luncheon soon added another missing piece to Mr Compton’s puzzle – how to power the trains.

“I’d always envisaged we’d have hydrogen trains that would run on our track, that the boats coming into Gladstone would eventually be hydrogen powered or methanol powered,” he said.

Sitting across from Mr Compton at a Climate 200 luncheon was Michael Myer, executive director at Sunshine Hydro – a “multi-hybrid” energy project using pumped hydro to shore up wind and solar energy while producing hydrogen and green methanol.

The company is the brainchild of civil and software engineer Chris Baker, who saw beyond pumped hydro as an arbitrage instrument.

“So when prices are low, you pump. When prices are high, you generate,” Mr Myer said.

“But if you can turn and re-imagine pumped hydro as a tool to firm-up the renewable energy, you get a totally different outcome.

“You’re able to produce this 24/7 carbon-free energy.”

Inland Rail link proposal
Mr Compton proposes linking Inland Rail at Goondiwindi with the Port of Gladstone. (Supplied/AAP PHOTOS)

Mr Baker’s algorithms use National Energy Market data to optimise the use of every electron in the ecosystem at any given time.

Sunshine Hydro’s flagship Djandori Gung-i project is modelled to produce an average of more than 99 per cent carbon-free energy.

After striking up a partnership with Mr Compton, it will also supply methanol for trains on the Gladstone freight line.

“We would be producing 600,000 tonnes of green methanol a day … so it’s about roughly 230 million litres a year,” Mr Myer said.

“In theory sufficient to run all the trains … up to about a million movements.”

Green methanol has been emerging as a competitor to hydrogen in freight’s energy transition.

Danish giant Maersk deployed the first of its 18 methanol-enabled vessels earlier this year and multiple locomotive freight companies are testing the fuel.

“It’s a complete change of how heavy transportation is done,” Mr Myer said.

Mr Compton and Mr Myer expect both GreenLink and Djandori Gung-i to be up and running by about 2030.

As Mr Compton has forged ahead with GreenLink, Inland Rail has suffered multi-billion dollar cost blowouts, delays and mismanagement, according to a damning 2023 independent report led by Kerry Schott.

It’s now expected to cost $31.4 billion, up from a $16.4 billion costing in 2020.

The Commonwealth-owned Australian Rail Track Corporation has been restructured and its leadership replaced, including some board appointments made by the former federal government.

Mr Compton said negotiations to connect Inland Rail with Greenlink have been sunnier since.

“All the hillbillies and gangsters that were employed by Barnaby have been fired,” he joked.

“Meeting with the ARTC now is a privilege.”

Mr Compton and the corporation are lobbying the federal government to fund Inland Rail’s final sections, but he isn’t waiting around for the project to reach Goondiwindi.

He plans to join GreenLink with the national rail network at North Star, south of the NSW-Queensland border.

“Trains can go all over from there (North Star), they’ll go a lot quicker once Inland Rail is finally built.”

Kerry Schott
Kerry Schott’s independent report on Inland Rail highlighted cost blowouts and delays. (Lukas Coch/AAP PHOTOS)

ARTC confirmed it had discussed the Goondiwindi to Gladstone line with Mr Compton and GreenLink.

“ARTC would always work constructively with any party that would seek to enhance the national rail network,” a spokesperson said.

The company said it was prepared to provide input leading to an environmental impact statement and to test assumptions for the project.

Still, Mr Compton has his work cut out to get his rail dream over the line.

“The negotiations are constant and the bureaucratic wrangles are constant, but at my age I’ve got nothing to lose by terrorising these blokes,” he said.

“Australia has gone a hundred years of going to sleep. It’s got to catch up.”