WA Wheatbelt communities hopeful for investment into mothballed railway lines | Ralph-Lauren

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A disagreement is brewing over how and where to spend hundreds of millions of dollars allocated to making agricultural transport in Western Australia safer and more efficient.

Regional Community groups want the majority of a federal and state transport fund to be spent re-building remote railway lines in order to reduce the amount of grain hauled on public roads. 

The WA Department of Transport is yet to decide how to spend approximately $200 million of federal and state funds allocated to stage one of the WA Agricultural Supply Chain Improvements (ASCI). 

The ASCI program aims to make freight transport in WA’s agricultural regions more productive, efficient and safe.

There is no shortage of potential road, rail and port projects to spend money on. 

The state’s main grain handler the Co-operative Bulk Handling (CBH) has been working with the state to identify and prioritise more than 130 transport projects for several years. 

With the state’s grain yield increasing over time, acting chief executive officer Ben Macnamara said the co-op’s focus was on getting grain from regional WA to port as fast as possible. 

“At the moment we can get roughly 1.6 million tonnes per month. If we look forward to 2030 we are targeting 2.2 million tonnes per month in the first half of the year,” Mr Macnamara said. 

A long bitumen road in WA's wheatbelt.
The closure of tier three grain freight rail lines has increased the number of trucks on WA Wheatbelt roads.(

Supplied

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Community support to re-build tier three

The Western Australian regional rail network is used to transport bulk commodities including grain and minerals. 

Routes are categorised into three tiers depending on traffic volumes and conditions.

In 2000, the network was leased to a private company for 49 years.

ARC Infrastructure (formerly Brookfield Rail) currently owns the lease.

In 2014, the company closed the tier three rail lines that were used primarily used to transport grain from some of the state’s most remote CBH storage facilities.  

Since that time, regional communities including the Wheatbelt Rail Retention Alliance have called for the lines to be rebuilt due to increasing numbers of trucks on public roads.

Community lobbying efforts were rewarded last year when the state government released an independent engineering assessment into the estimated cost of restoring each section of the Wheatbelt’s tier three rail network, creating a glimmer of hope that money could be spent on the lines in the future. 

Wheatbelt Rail Retention Alliance coordinator Jane Fuchsbichler was cautiously optimistic tier three would see some investment. 

“We’ve been going backwards with our infrastructure in the Wheatbelt while the Eastern States is getting $14.7 billion put into inland rail, and we know there is a lot of rail infrastructure gone into the metropolitan area. So I think it’s fair and reasonable that the Wheatbelt gets a little share,” she said.

Rail Tram and Bus Union WA Branch state secretary Craig McKinley believed $160 million of federal funds was intended specifically for tier three. 

“There are some tier threes, which will never go back into service. We get that. But there are some that certainly should be in service, mainly in the central Wheatbelt,” Mr McKinley said. 

He was concerned CBH wanted to spend funds on what he described as routine maintenance that he said should be ARC’s responsibility. 

“Having been involved in the rail industry for over 30 years I can tell you now those spot upgrades won’t bring an extra teaspoon of grain to port,” Mr McKinley said.

“Because so many things have to be perfectly correct for those upgrades to make any difference the only way you’re going to get more grain to port is you’ve got to cover geography, you’ve got to build the railway lines out into the bush,” he said. 

However, CBH acting chief executive Ben Macnamara said the co-op had identified priorities by assessing all possible upgrade projects, including tier three, using the same criteria.

“We’re also taking into consideration those other aspects critically around the social aspects because we are also focused on road safety,” he said.

“We have many staff and employees who drive in opposite directions to some of these large trucks as well so we are acutely aware of the socioeconomic impacts.”

The York to Quairding Line is in such bad repair it could be shut down in the future
The speed limit on the line is 40kph an hour. To go any faster would be unsafe.(

Supplied: Skye Shannon

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Minister for Transport Rita Safiotti said the first projects to be completed would be four new rail sidings at Cranbrook, Broomhill, Brookton and Moora, but where and how to spend the rest of the money was still to be decided.

“We are looking at geographical regions where you might, for example, be investing in some road, some rail, and some port,” Ms Safiotti said.  

“So it is trying to get a combination of expenditure to try to improve the efficiency and lower the cost of moving freight.” 

Regional forums will take place in Geraldton, Wagin, Merredin, Dalwallinu, Northam, Albany and Esperance details are available here



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