People of the project: bridge fan and all-round nice guy Keith McWhinnie

As the finishing touches are applied to the northern sections of the Narrabri to North Star Phase 1 project, we’re going behind the scenes and catching up with a few of our longest serving and hardest working team members.

September 13, 2023

Mike inspecting Gurley Creek Bridge

You’ve probably seen them in Moree and along the alignment, now learn about their contribution to the project, their favourite or most challenging bits of the job and what Inland Rail means to them.

This month Construction Lead Keith McWhinne, who started on the project in April 2021, looks back at his time building the second section of Inland Rail.

Where are you from Keith?

I live on the Sunshine Coast and drive into Moree for my 10-day shift. But I am not from there originally … I was born in Irvine on the West coast of Scotland and emigrated to Australia in September 2006.

What brought you to the project and Inland Rail?

I wanted to provide a legacy and something that my children and grandchildren can see and benefit from. Also, the possibility of a longer term project and the opportunity to work on other sections of Inland Rail, were big drawcards.

What does your day-to-day work involve?

It has evolved over the life of the project, as jobs tend to do! I start my day reviewing the tasks for the day to be completed by our contractor Trans4m Rail and assign inspection workloads to the surveillance team. I also get out to the site frequently and liaise with Trans4m, discussing what has been built and if it is compliant with specifications and design drawings. I manage feedback on construction designs from our field teams so we can understand what worked well and how designs can be modified to reflect site conditions. I also monitor construction progress and reporting to the relevant stakeholders.

What’s your favourite part of the job?

I have two! Construction wise – I love building bridges. I get a kick from seeing them go up. They are complex structures with many components. There is a lot of work done in terms of planning and then preparing the groundwork, then the piling, concrete pouring, bolts… and then bang, the bridge is up. We built seven bridges on the Phase 1 section with the Croppa Creek Bridge our most complex. It had different bearings and required more time in the planning stages plus some on-site design trouble shooting to get it right. I like the challenge and the aesthetics of bridges, the size and shape. They stand out in people’s minds.

The second is the people aspect. The opportunity I have had to lead and be part of a hardworking, collaborative team environment made work more meaningful and satisfying.

When things got tricky, the team aligned and pulled together in the same direction. People got support from their leaders and were empowered to make decisions and take actions. We were trusted to get on and deliver and it was refreshing – not many of my previous workplaces have been like this.

Also, I’ve been able to mentor graduate engineers. Being able to share my knowledge, watch them learn and grown in confidence was so rewarding. We’ve had a few next generation leaders with us in Moree and I am proud to have been part of their journeys.

We had a hardworking crew and at the end of the day we’re able to share a meal and a laugh. It has been a truly unique team environment, one of the best teams I have worked with over the years.

What’s been the most challenging aspect of the project for you?

Working within the track possession windows of April to October for the sections south of Moree. As we were upgrading working sections of track we were bound to very strict timeframes. This was something I’ve never experienced on a project before – it was exhilarating but also a bit of a pressure cooker situation! This meant things moved at a fast pace, lots of ‘thinking on your feet’ scenarios and harnessing the internal energy and motivation to keep the momentum going … both for myself but also as a leader for others.

Any one piece of work or event that made a big impact on you?

Without a doubt the flooding in October 2022. Where do I start… it was a big test of resilience – of people and of the infrastructure we had just built and a rollercoaster of emotion. I was actually on my days off when the peak swept through Moree, but I heard what my team and the Trans4m teams did in the lead up and during the worst of it and how the whole community came together and I was really proud. Proud of my colleagues and our organisation but also the human spirit and generosity shown by everyone in Moree.

At the same time I was really nervous about how the rail corridor would cope and what damage would be left after the flood. This was a major flood and the water moved quickly. That first day back on site was a nail biter! But in the end the design and construction withstood the test. There was no significant damage to the completed sections, the culverts and bridges worked as designed. The embankment held water back in the sections it was supposed to and let water through where it should have.

Seeing this was a huge relief, exciting and bittersweet.

In construction there are not many times you can observe your project bear the full brunt of nature and survive, whilst still working on it! It was a tense and strange moment in my construction career.

Any final thoughts on your time on the Phase 1 section as major construction draws to a close?

It’s been two and half years which is decent in project terms – but it feels so much longer due to everything we have been through! It honestly has been one of the best projects – great people, plenty of challenges and lots of special moments. And I am proud to have contributed to a huge and important piece of infrastructure like Inland Rail. I’ve also really enjoyed coming to Moree and getting to know this town.

TOP IMAGE: Keith inspecting Gurley Creek Bridge

BOTTOM IMAGE: NSW TrainLink’s XPLORER service crossing newly installed culverts at Little Bumble Creek in November 2021

NSW TrainLink's XPLORER service crossing newly installed culverts at Little Bumble Creek in November 2021

September 13, 2023