Rail reports false, says transport head

The Coalition seized on the media reports to vindicate its claims that the Parramatta to Epping rail project was a “con job”, designed to win votes.

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But Mike Mrdak, the head of the department that takes in transport and infrastructure, rejected newspaper reports he found out about the planned spending from the media.

“The claims relating to myself in the article are not correct and have no basis,” he said in a statement posted on the department’s website.

“Prior to the caretaker period commencing, the Parramatta to Epping rail project was among a range of investment proposals considered in discussions between the minister and the department.”

His denial blunted a coalition attack against the government over the policy, which could win Labor votes in some crucial Sydney seats, such as Bennelong.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard signalled “processes” were followed but offered little further detail.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott claimed the train line would be another promise that was never delivered.

“It was very significant that the prime minister refused to deny that the secretary of the Department of Transport and Infrastructure had gone ballistic when he heard via the media of the government’s hastily-cobbled $2.6 billion announcement,” he said.

“This is school halls on rails, this is another example of an announcement by the government which is never going to be delivered.

“It’s just a sign that this desperate government is trying to con people.”

In the single biggest promise of the election campaign, Ms Gillard has offered $2.1 billion, 80 per cent of the money needed, to build the long-promised link between Parramatta and Epping.

Ms Gillard reiterated her belief that linking the “two major economic zones” was the right decision.

The NSW government will put up $520 million to fund the remainder of the $2.6 billion 14km rail link, which is expected to be completed in 2017.

But there has been widespread cynicism about the project, particularly among Sydney voters who have previously seen the state Labor government, which faces an election in March 2011, dump plans for the link.

But Ms Gillard said the project would go ahead regardless of which political party was in power in NSW next year, with the polls currently pointing to a Liberal/National win.

Under its arrangement with the commonwealth, the NSW government will begin injecting its funds in 2011 when it takes on the design, planning and environment assessments.

Federal funding will come in 2014/15 from a national building program and the project will be overseen by Infrastructure Australia.

NSW Opposition Leader Barry O’Farrell said on Friday the large amount of state funding required to build the link meant other projects under the state government’s $50.2 billion Sydney transport plan would be jeopardised.

“What this today is about is a state Labor government that will do whatever it takes to assist Julia Gillard and her federal colleagues get re-elected,” he said.

But Acting Transport Minister David Borger said the $520 million would come out of the state’s transport plan funding.

“It represents less than one per cent of a $50 billion program,” he said.

“Of course there are opportunities to deliver this program and of course we cannot reject the commonwealth’s offer.”

The Parramatta to Epping rail link was originally proposed by the state government in 1998 but was abandoned in 2003.

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