Grain rail pledge way off track

Brad Thompson ANALYSISThe West Australian

It is not quite seven months since the Liberal Party paid to splash this advertisement, right, across the front of rural newspapers.

It was two days before the State election on March 9 and the clear message to farmers was that Premier Colin Barnett would keep the grain freight lines known as Tier 3 operating.

The promise carried the proviso "viable" and now the State Government is trying to hide behind that term, described by WAFarmers president Dale Park as a "weasel word".

Mr Barnett refused this week to answer a yes-or-no question on whether he would honour the promise. It might not be viable for the credibility of the Liberal Party in the bush not to honour it.

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CBH, which carts grain on the lines, and Brookfield Rail, which leases the lines from the Government, regard them as viable.

Brookfield has said to remain viable it will cost more than $90 million to re-sleeper the lines.

That's nothing new. Brookfield made that assessment three years ago and the Liberal Party was aware of the costing when it made the pre-election pledge alongside a picture of Mr Barnett and Wheatbelt candidates.

It was also aware that under the terms of the Brookfield contract, the Government is responsible for major capital expenditure on the lines and has the call on whether to carry out work.

To its credit, the Government has kept the lines open up until now and in November 2010 Cabinet approved a $188 million package of rail improvements, including extensive re-sleeping of the Tier 1 and Tier 2 lines which carry about 90 per cent of the grain currently moved on rail.

The spending reflected the findings of the Strategic Grain Network Committee. Its report, which CBH signed off on, found there was no sound business case for upgrading the Tier 3 lines, which would close.

The game changed when CBH purchased new locomotives and wagons and hired US-firm Watco to operate them. The move has pushed down rail freight rates for farmers and made keeping Tier 3 lines open a priority for CBH.

The Government points out that it had committed to road upgrades in areas serviced by the Tier 3 lines in keeping with the committee's report. Those road upgrades are continuing but they have proved woefully inadequate. WA's peak local government body has described the situation as financially unsustainable for Wheatbelt shires which do not have the money to repair the wear and tear on roads.

Brookfield announced this week it was closing the York to Quairading and Merredin to Trayning lines from October 31. The Shire of Quairading estimates 215,000 tonnes of grain will be harvested in the district this season and predicts there will be an extra 8500 road train movements to clear the bulk receival facilities on the closed rail line.

That adds up to a lot of road trains, a lot of wear and tear on roads and a lot of risk for Wheatbelt communities and road users, especially with the axe hovering over the remaining Tier 3 lines.

Brookfield and CBH remain locked in talks on a deal to keep the lines open but are understood to be poles apart. Brookfield has warned several million dollars of repairs are needed just to keep the lines open for this harvest, a cost it said would ultimately be passed on to farmers.

Supporters of grain on rail argue there is a strong moral and economic case for the Government to invest in keeping the Tier 3 lines open.

Grain is WA's most valuable agricultural industry but farmers need adequate transport infrastructure to remain internationally competitive while the cost of road repairs threatens to spiral out of control for the State and local governments.

It is impossible to put a price on road safety and the Government has been put on notice it will be held to account for any increase in the rate of accidents on Wheatbelt roads if Tier 3 closes.

It adds up to Mr Barnett getting back on track with his party's pre-election promise.

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