Australia has embarked upon one of its most ambitious rail infrastructure projects – and the program delivery is being guided by an engineer who once aspired to go into outer space. Marnie Evans explains to Damian Christie why the Inland Rail project is transforming Australia – and why she relishes her work on terra firma.
The 1700km Inland Rail project from Melbourne to Brisbane is designed to connect Australia’s growing freight needs via the regional areas of Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland. Inland Rail requires 500km of new tracks and will utilise about 30 million cubic metres of construction materials (including 745,000 cubic metres of concrete and more than eight million tonnes of ballast, capping and roadbase materials) to upgrade 1,200km of existing rail corridors (see Figure 1). During the peak of construction, it is expected to create more than 21,500 direct and indirect jobs along the rail alignment.
When the work is completed in 2027, the rail line will enable the delivery of freight between Melbourne and Brisbane within 24 hours. It will offer Australia long-term, wide-ranging benefits by linking farmers, producers and businesses to national and global markets, satisfying the freight demands of a burgeoning Australian population, generating new opportunities for regional communities and reducing the reliance on roads for moving freight (see Figure 2).
The Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC) is overseeing this multi-billion-dollar project in partnership with the private sector. ARTC was established in 1998 and operates more than 8,500km of the nation’s rail network in five states. This includes managing the transit of about 450 passenger and freight trains per day across NSW, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia. Since 2005-06, ARTC has also invested more than $7 billion in key rail infrastructure projects.
The Parkes to Narromine section was completed in 2021 and is one of the 13 project segments across 36 local government areas. (see Figure 3). Trains are now running on this connection which had almost 100km of existing track upgraded and 5.3km of new rail added. This connection will link up with the east-west transcontinental line to Perth and play a critical role in freighting materials between southeast Queensland, SA and WA.
Another six of the 13 segments will be completed in NSW, starting with the Narrabri to North Star section, which was awarded to Trans4M Rail, a joint venture involving John Holland and SEE Civil. The Narrabri to North Star section will involve upgrading almost 185km of existing rail corridor and constructing 1.7km of new track near Moree, NSW. The other NSW legs include Albury to Illabo, Illabo to Stockinbingal, Stockinbingal to Parkes, Narromine to Narrabri, and North Star to the NSW/Queensland border.
The five Queensland sections comprise the NSW/Queensland border to Gowrie, Gowrie to Helidon, Helidon to Calvert, Calvert to Kagaru, and Kagaru to Acacia Ridge and Bromelton, just outside of Brisbane. The Victorian section will span Tottenham to Albury and will upgrade 305km of existing rail corridor between Melbourne and Albury-Wodonga.
Marnie Evans, the Director of Inland Rail’s commercial, risk and program assurances, told Quarry that Inland Rail has the potential to transform the Australian industrial and social landscape.
“When you think about it, a lot of freight is moved around Australia via road, and given the expansion that is happening in Australia, and our need for freight movement demands, continuing to rely on road to expand is not good for the nation,” Evans said. “It’s increased congestion on roads, increased costs and it increases safety risks. By providing another way to move freight, which what is other nations have done – a blend of freight by rail and road, choosing what is best for you – you’re providing a backbone that allows that transformation for how goods are moved around Australia to occur, so that we can do it more effectively to meet the necessary demands of our customers and consumers.
“It’s not about competing for road freight today – it’s about understanding that future demand and building that backbone as future demand occurs. You have the ability to choose and meet those needs that suit you as a customer, whether you want to get microwaves up from Melbourne if you’re The Good Guys, or you need to move your products to the ports of Newcastle and Wollongong if you’re in the grain industry. You have the option to choose what is best for you.
“Rail freight is also safer,” Evans added. “You don’t have an increasing number of trucks on the road. We’re not planning to remove trucks from the road – that’s not our intention – but the Inland Rail project will mean you’re not having to put trucks on the road that aren’t needed and to me, that is the importance of the safety element. It’s also about diversifying Australia – we have to recognise that Australia is large and more than Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. There is a wealth of regional communities that support the capitals and by connecting them, it transforms the way goods are moved around the nation.”
CONNECTING THE PIECES
It was the complexity and the logistics that drew the interest of Evans to this national rail project. When she joined Inland Rail in 2019, Evans already had more than two decades of project management experience in the engineering and construction sectors, including multi-billion-dollar projects in mine development and materials handling, and processing plants for coal, bauxite and zinc across Australia, Indonesia and the Middle East. Many of these projects were undertaken with international construction and engineering giant Bechtel’s mining and metals global business unit.
“The last big project I was on was in Abu Dhabi, I had five years on the project senior leadership team,” Evans explained. “We developed and delivered a major piece of resource infrastructure for the client. So when I returned to Australia in 2018, it was obvious our country was going through a massive infrastructure boom, and for me it was about looking around and asking: ‘What big projects are happening out there that I can be a part of? What’s the next big challenge that I can chase? In what else do you get to be part of such a complex and unique project?
“Inland Rail is required to engage every part of industry to achieve its objectives. How often do you get to be part of public private partnerships (PPPs), multiple design and construction projects, and large construction-only contracts, working with multiple service providers and engineering houses around Australia? Here was the opportunity to basically realise that vision – and I had the opportunity in my role to ensure that everyone is rowing in the same boat, in the same direction and at the same speed.
“So that’s the opportunity and diversity that the Inland Rail project brings across as a program. It’s so different to any other infrastructure program. We’re in three states, we’re in the rural communities and we’re also in the cities.”
In many respects, Evans’ approach to Inland Rail also ties in with her reasons for becoming a qualified engineer in the first place. “I’ve always had a desire to understand and ask the question ‘Why?’” she said. “Why do things work? Why do things fit together this way? Why do you get that outcome? That led me into the engineering pathway.”
Growing up, she initially harboured ambitions to join the aerospace industry. “I had a fascination with doing a mechanical and space engineering degree,” she elaborated. “It was the desire to get into something big, bold and challenging. While I never ended up in that industry and travelling to Mars, I ended up working in the resources sector on mega-projects, and that’s why I got interested in project delivery and execution. Often people would say ‘That can’t be done’, and I would say: ‘Why not?’ It’s just a matter of empowering the vision to get there and planning your journey, and making sure you have the right toolkit, the scope and the schedule organised, and that shall happen.”
As Inland Rail’s commercial, risk and program assurance director, Evans said she is responsible for leading key functional organisations including commercial, the program management office and engineering. These services are integral to support and enable program delivery by providing procurement and contract management, risk management and project control expertise. Her key activities include driving program execution and assurance, monitoring overall program performance and working across the business ensuring program compliance and accreditation with relevant legislation and regulations.
“It’s about monitoring overall program performance and making sure we are going to deliver on our objectives to our stakeholders and shareholders and to industry and the community,” Evans said to sum up her position.
Part of that responsibility is also engagement between Evans’ operations program division, the delivery teams and the industry partners via face-to-face meetings (when safe to do so) within the 13 segments and 36 local government areas. This interaction is constantly being fine-tuned, with a particular focus on the procurement of local businesses to work along the different sections of the Inland Rail alignment.
“When we did our community engagement on Narrabri to North Star, we went out with the principal contractor and held briefings in the community,” Evans explained. “We see our role as an advocate and a connector, as we work to connect the principal contractor with the community as soon as possible. Even as the bidding process is underway, we are doing that connection in the community. We had all the proponents who were bidding on the recent work from the Narrabri to North Star section in the community during the proposal phase, connecting with the local suppliers, including the local quarries, so that they were aware of what the local quarries can provide for them.
“Last year, in recognition of what we were seeing from within industry and responding to requests to get Inland Rail moving as much and as quickly as possible as we come out of COVID, we reviewed our delivery strategy with our greenfield projects, namely where the bulk of the materials will be needed. We have now packaged the works into a civil works program and a rail corridor program so they are smaller packages to be spread across a wider diversity of industry,” Evans explained.
“That way, you are enabling principal contractors to engage more locally themselves. We are going to work with everyone in this industry and we have already engaged with more than 300 companies.
That’s incredible, when you think about it,” Evans added. “That’s so many different companies for just Inland Rail. How about then when our contractors go out? They will be going out to potentially thousands of more partners. Our change in delivery strategy was heavily focused on getting the right contractor in the right location to deliver, which presents opportunities for local participation for materials.”
To that end, Evans foresees opportunities for medium and smaller quarries along the Inland Rail alignment to provide construction materials for the project. “I suspect that in some areas along the alignment, where there’s not a business that’s been there before, there are possibilities,” she said. “When we did Parkes to Narromine, two quarries supplied product to InLink. On Narrabri to North Star, the contractor is engaged with local quarries, and we anticipate several local quarries will supply the project because it stretches for more than 100km.
“That’s why it’s so important for quarries that are interested in Inland Rail to be prepared, to have their systems in place, have their accreditations current, and be aware of what they can supply because different materials are required in different areas. It’s really important knowing what is available, so as that design happens, you’ll know where you are going to source your materials from.”
Evans said the materials required for Inland Rail range from ballast to capping and structural fill to concrete aggregates. “The supply of concrete aggregates will depend on whether we are building more structures than simple earthworks,” she qualified. “However, when you think about the supply of concrete aggregates, we’ll see how far it goes down the supply chain, whether it comes from quarries that are also concrete suppliers or which supply other concrete suppliers that in turn supply the principal contractor.”
OPENING DOORS TO QUARRYING
Another important aspect of engaging with the contractors and their customers for Evans is that it has also brought her into contact with the Institute of Quarrying Australia (IQA). Evans hadn’t previously engaged with the IQA and relished the opportunity to present at the IQA’s Queensland Women in Quarrying (WIQ) conference in Brisbane on 19 November, 2020.
“I really enjoyed being part of the WIQ Queensland conference,” she said. “It was an opportunity for me to learn how Inland Rail can actually support the IQA as it supports its members as part of delivering our program. It’s so important for leaders on the Inland Rail project to recognise the industry advocates, and how they can actually enable our industry partners. We will only be successful if our industry partners are successful. I really see my role as a promoter and a connector, and an advocate for the IQA.”
For Evans, the highlight of the conference was learning more about the quarrying industry.
“From talking to the quarrying operators, it was about really understanding the capabilities of the quarries themselves, and some of the expectations or challenges they have from the principal contractors. From my perspective, particularly in the commercial world, it’s about asking: ‘How do we make sure that relationship is a good one?’ Often that starts at the top. If you have good flow-down of your terms and conditions through the supply chain, it means we’re not putting onuses on the sub-suppliers that just aren’t sustainable.
“It was really good to get that one or two level removal, and recognise where we may be disadvantaging or missing opportunities to leverage better. It’s a real opportunity for us to be an advocate for the IQA and women in quarrying.”
WOMEN IN THE CONSTRUCTION SPACE
As a veteran of two decades in engineering construction, Evans said project delivery roles for women have traditionally been tough because of the remoteness of projects. Historically, women may have worked in home offices in major capital cities, and then once the designs were issued for construction, “everything was thrown over the fence to the project site with construction, commissioning, and handover”. She said that today, the execution of project delivery has evolved with more technology and that has “opened up new types of roles” and redefined job descriptions because the roles are no longer confined to any one location. “It can suit any individual, maybe a woman who is keen to oversee work in a construction modular yard or manage the construction site costs from a home office in Brisbane,” Evans said. “It’s allowed diversity into the industry. Different people now can do the job because the role is different – the job title is just the same.”
While there are more opportunities for women today, Evans said the challenge is still to engage and encourage them “to the table”. She broadly agrees with the notion that organisations should be setting diversity targets – “I think it’s a business imperative. If an organisation doesn’t have a diversity goal, they’ll be the exception, not the norm” – but added that “practical implementation at specific levels within targeted industries is very challenging”.
“If you focus on selection of merit, that actually assumes you have candidates at the table, and that assumption is invalid,” she elaborated. “You have to specifically attract people to the table, so that’s through training programs, mentoring, relevant and future selection criteria. I think we have to focus on getting people to the table first, it’s not just about selecting them.”
Evans said women still encounter some gender biases in the sector because of totally innocuous (rather than sinister) misconceptions. “What people continually fail to do is ask women what they want to do with their careers. For example, I once came back from maternity leave, and there was a job for a project controls manager in a regional community in Queensland. I thought it would be a fabulous role and I asked about it. Unfortunately, my manager revealed the role had already been assigned because it was thought I wouldn’t take it being currently located in Brisbane. They didn’t realise I was from the region and it would have suited me perfectly, from a career, family and location perspective. They made the assumption that I would say ‘No’. So my request to readers is that if they don’t know what someone wants to do in their career, just ask the question and don’t assume. You may be surprised at the answer.”
As someone with a mechanical and space engineering degree, Evans was asked what advice she has for teenage girls and young adult women aspiring for a career in engineering and construction.
“I have two answers here,” she said. “The first one is never say ‘No’. And if it’s that difficult to answer in the affirmative, then ask the question: ‘What do we have to change to make it work?’ The second one is that the job you accept is never the role you perform. You’re actually the master of your own career. So don’t be afraid to change if it’s not working for you. Your worst decision is actually continuing to do a job that you don’t enjoy.”
Evans was also philosophical when asked if she would still like to pursue her original dream of one day working in the space industry. “I have a different answer today to what I had 10 years ago because then I was still chasing moon exploration and I was very interested in asteroid mining. Today I would say my feet are planted firmly on the ground. I’ve grown roots too deep now. But certainly it would be fabulous if one day I could be part of the industry partner that delivered an Australian spaceport for space exploration. If there was a spaceport being built somewhere, I think I’d put my hand up to ask: ‘Can I somehow be part of the team?’”
For now, though, Evans is content to continue the work that has begun with Inland Rail and see it through to its completion in 2027.