MIXED REACTION: One of Australia's biggest recievers and storers of grain says it's disappointed with the Murray Basin Rail Project revised business case.

MIXED REACTION: One of Australia's biggest recievers and storers of grain says it's disappointed with the Murray Basin Rail Project revised business case.

National oversight needed for rail freight

GrainCorp calls for four state oversight of rail freight task

Infrastructure
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Revised Murray Basin Rail business case a lost opportunity, say lobby groups.

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One of Australia's leading recievers and storers of grain is proposing federal authorities outline a long-term, multi-state vision for rail freight.

GrainCorp's CropConnect Product manager Peter Johnston said the federal government should follow the example set for heavy vehicle regulation and implement a coordinated approach to rail freight, across the eastern seaboard and South Australia.

Mr Johston said in NSW John Holland managed rail, and every time the company did maintenance, it improved the network.

"They are looking forward to the future," Mr Johnston said.

"There is money in the Future Fund, and these are the types of projects that should be invested in - it is a nation-building, capacity building project.

"There almost needs to be federal oversight of the whole freight network, no different to the way we have a National Heavy Vehicle Regulator now,."

Mr Johnston said while it took many years to implement, the NHVR ensured consistent standards now applied across the country.

"I don't think we just need money, we need an eastern seaboard - including South Australia - vision of what rail freight should look like," he said.

Business case

The claims come after the state government released a seven-page summary of the revised Murray Basin Rail Project business case, developed to find a way to finish the stalled $440 million scheme.

Work on the project stopped about 18 months ago, when the state government ran out of money, halfway through its completion.

Read more: Is now the time to rid Australia of state borders?

Mr Johnston said GrainCorp would face the most significant impact of all operators, if the Sea Lake and Manangatang lines were not standardised, as recommended in the revised Murray Basin Rail Project business case.

At least 600,000 tonnes of grain was expected to be carried on the Sea Lake and Manangatang lines, this harvest season.

"It's disappointing - the whole industry is looking for a solution that works for the entire sector, that improves the efficiency of rail and gives better returns to growers," he said.

GrainCorp could gain access to standard gauge locomotives and rolling stock more cheaply than for broad gauge infrastructure.

"We can amortise those assets across a bigger catchment area, which means the cost per tonne is lower," he said.

"We will have a small number of sites we will have to invest in, that won't be as efficient as the standard gauge sites.

"That cost then flows onto the grower, the pricing that will be at the broad gauge sites will not be as good, for the farmer, as it will be on standard gauge."

He said it was a flawed argument to say standardising the lines would not give sufficient economic return.

"I would ask the (Transport Infrastructure minister Jacinta Allan) what type of return do you get out of Melbourne Metro Rail?" Mr Johnston said.

"Can you show me the business case, around regional rail, and Metro rail, and passengers, that shows a positive cash flow?

"It's like saying Melbourne is swelling to a population of five million people, but we won't upgrade our rail and road infrastructure."

Mr Johnston said each year harvest yields were increasing, on average, by three per cent a year, through better farming and seed genetics.

"It's going to keep increasing, the task will not get smaller."

Lack of communication

It comes at a time when lobby group the Rail Futures Institute has pointed out the problems with the half-finished MBRP could have been avoided, if there had been better communication within the Department of Transport.

President John Hearsch said the revised business case locked in inefficiencies, by running trains from Yelta to Murrayville, through a Maryborough to Ararat connection, rather than going directly through Ballarat.

That meant an additional 100kilometres of travel time, incurring extra costs.

The revised business case cited the potential disruption to passenger services, between Melbourne and Ballarat, as one reason to retain broad gauge on the Ballarat corridor.

Mr Hearsch said it appeared the upgrades to the passenger network between Melbourne and Ballarat did not take into account the needs of the MBRP.

"Because they have only done stages one and two of the MBRP, the government, in its wisdom has decided to effectively rule a line under that, so we are left with this rather crazy situation," Mr Hearsch said.

"Up until that point, the Ballarat line upgrade project and MBRP project had gone along on separate tracks, and (staff) were clearly not talking to each other.

"I think they are talking to each other now."

Freight and passenger rail were dealt with by separate areas of the DoT; Rail Projects Victoria was managing the passenger upgrade, and the MBRP was primarily delegated to V/Line.

"But not only did the MBRP completely ignore the issues of going through Ballarat, but it also ignored the need for extra segregation of capacity into Geelong.

"There is still a lack of capacity for standard gauge into Geelong."

He said another problem was that there was nowhere for trains to pass each other, in the 160 kilometres between Koorong Vale and Warrenheip, on the Melbourne side of Ballarat.

The RFI continued to advocate for the recommissioning of the Eaglehawk to Inglewood line, to give broad gauge trains and additional route, through Bendigo.

Another issue was that there was limited availability of broad gauge locomotives and rolling stock, which was also ageing.

Accountability started with the minister and flowed down to the department.

"The department is meant to be the driver of these projects," Mr Hearsch said.

"I think it's fair to say the freight part of the department, perhaps up until recently, has been quite inadequately represented.

"It hasn't been a match for the passenger people, there have been huge amounts of money being set aside for these passenger lines."

Freight Victoria was now starting to make its needs known, but it had been an uphill battle.

"The government has an apparent policy of wanting to put more freight on rail, and clearly the balance has to be adjusted somewhat if that is to be achieved,' he said.

"It's probably not helped by the fact we have a breakup of ministerial responsibility, the minister for ports and freight is Melissa Horne, and you would have to say she is a pretty junior minister.

"She has to represent the needs of the freight and logistics industry, which is probably not an easy thing to do."

Fixing old problems

Another lobby group, the Rail Freight Alliance, a grouping of local government authorities, said the revised business case amounted to fixing problems caused by the initial works.

"What it appears Ms Allan has announced is repairs to the shoddy and substandard work that has hampered this project from the inception," chief executive officer Reid Mather said.

The project had seen a decrease in rail freight capacity, from the region.

More of the freight task was being delivered by road, and freight costs from the region have increased because of the current state of the MBRP, Mr Mather said.

"We do not give the federal government a free pass either," he said.

"If the federal government were genuinely committed, they could allocate funding to the MBRP contingent on the state government completing it to its original scope."

And the head of the government's own Rail Freight Working Group said he believed the federal government would come up with the money to finish the works, outlined in the revised business case.

But Peter Tuohey said work was unlikely to start until the end of 2021, given the bumper harvest predicted for the north-west.

He said the options in the revised business case would allow a two-tonne increase in axle loads and reduce the cycle time by two hours.

He said members of the Rail Freight Working Group agreed federal Transport minister Michael McCormack needed "to open the cheque book."

"I think they will, but I don't think i don't know when the money is going to become available," he said.

State money welcomed

Freight on Rail Group of Australia chair Dean Dalla Valle welcomed the Victorian government's commitment to inject an extra $48.8 million towards upgrading the rail network.

"The Murray Basin is one of the major food and fibre bowls of Australia - its agricultural and regional industries help generate tens of thousands of jobs both directly and indirectly, including employment at the ports of Melbourne, Geelong and Portland," he said.

Governments which upgraded and strengthened their critical supply lines would emerge stronger in the new COVID world.

"Inefficient transport supply chains corrode the core fundamentals of state and national economic productivity; destroying jobs and increasing cost of living pressures for millions of Australians," he said.

Mr Dalla Valle said being able to haul goods and commodities by rail from paddock efficiently, pit and plant to ports improves road safety, reduced truck 'wear and tear' on local and state roads, and lowered traffic congestion and vehicle emissions.

"Due to well-documented problems with rail infrastructure in the basin, I've heard 70 per cent of export grain this season will be transported by truck to Victorian ports.

"This is an extremely poor outcome for society; and certainly not good for regional councils already struggling to repair and maintain large road networks," he said.

"Given we could see another bumper crop next year, industry encourages the Commonwealth to also commit extra funding to help get the network back on track," he said.

Mr Dalla Valle said Australian farmers, exporters and importers operated in cut-throat international markets, meaning efficient and cost-effective rail freight operations were vital to help the nation remain globally competitive.

"Rail freight networks tend to be out of sight of most Australians - but that doesn't mean critical rail freight infrastructure should be taken for granted to the point of neglect," he said.

Mr Dalla Valle said the Murray Basin Rail Project also presented a perfect opportunity for governments to create new jobs and support local manufacturing.

"Just imagine all the Australian-made steel that will be used in upgrading and standardising the network with new track - additional support for this project should be of the highest national priority," he added.

The story National oversight needed for rail freight first appeared on Stock & Land.

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