30/04/2009 - 00:00

Rail network fights to keep grain

30/04/2009 - 00:00

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THE current condition and future use of the rural rail system across Western Australia as part of the state's grain freight network continues to generate debate, as stakeholders seek a commitment from the government to support the ageing infrastructure.

Rail network fights to keep grain

THE current condition and future use of the rural rail system across Western Australia as part of the state's grain freight network continues to generate debate, as stakeholders seek a commitment from the government to support the ageing infrastructure.

Discussions between the government and stakeholders using the country rail network for the transportation of grain, amongst other commodities, are not new.

The rail network in WA has been in place for more than a century and during that time there have been many deliberations and various modifications to try and keep the system up to scratch.

The majority of grain exports in WA are transported across vast distances via rail, often directly to port.

Last month, WA shipped a record 1.54 million tonnes of grain, a figure far greater than all other states combined.

Last week, the operator of the rail network, WestNet Rail, launched a community education campaign to keep grain on rail rather than on WA roads.

WestNet Rail, with the support of Cooperative Bulk Handling and Australian Railroad Group, said the 'Grain on Rail' initiative will keep hundreds of trucks off regional and metropolitan roads.

WA Farmers Federation and the Western Australian Local Government Association also signalled their support of the campaign, which will consist of a series of advertisements and a website.

In contrast, the Pastoralists and Graziers Association opposed the campaign, calling for a bigger investment in upgrading rural roads.

WestNet, CBH and ARG are now seeking commitments from the state and federal government to invest in the network.

WestNet Rail general manager Paul Larsen said $400 million, shared equally between state and federal government and industry, specifically CBH, invested over a five year period, would secure the network for the next period of its lifespan.

"$200 million is hoped to be spent on re-sleepering rail lines, $50 million on feeder roads and $150 million on rapid rail loading cells at CBH facilities," Mr Larsen said.

"The community needs to be better informed about the value of its grain freight network, and problems that would be created if millions of tonnes of grain is forced off rail and on to roads."

Transport Minister Simon O'Brien said the state's interests were enhanced if the majority of grain freight moves on rail as opposed to road.

But, he has ruled out any funding commitment at present, instead reiterating the network is currently fit for purpose.

"It's an issue that's waxed and waned for decades," Mr O'Brien told WA Business News.

"Not to say the state is not interested in investing in infrastructure, like rail networks or future rail networks, but we certainly haven't determined to do so and we certainly won't be doing so on the basis of an ad campaign.

"I understand in March the rail operators and CBH moved a record amount of grain.

"When that happens, that doesn't say to me that there is something wrong with the rail network."

Mr O'Brien thinks it's extraordinary for a rail network operator to talk about shutting part of their network and putting it on road.

"What they're doing though is they're saber-rattling to say that the freight task is to be moved on to road," Mr O'Brien said.

"That's not the first time they've done that."

Mr O'Brien also highlighted that under the current lease arrangements WestNet has responsibility for maintaining the rail network and the $400 million plan was not new, stemming from a five-year-old proposal.

"If it was such a fabulous proposal you wonder why the previous government didn't go anywhere with it during the boom years," he said.

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