Sparks fly at CBH grower meetings

Cally Dupe, Kellie Balaam and Jenne BrammerCountryman
One of the last trains to use the Tier 3 track between Narambeen and Merredin.
Camera IconOne of the last trains to use the Tier 3 track between Narambeen and Merredin. Credit: Mogens Johansen

Tensions ran high at two of three CBH grower meetings last week, as farmers confronted the bulk handler over news the shuttered Tier 3 lines would not be reopened.

CBH heavyweights headed up groups of several CBH staff at grower meetings in Bruce Rock, Kulin and Miling on November 7, November 8, and November 11 respectively.

Between 20 and 45 grain farmers turned up to the three meetings, with CBH sending a strong contingent of senior executives including chief executive Jimmy Wilson, chairman Wally Newman, operations general manager Ben Macnamara, grower and external relations general manager Brianna Peake and general counsel Richard Codling.

Each meeting focused on the meaning of the recently announced, seven-year access deal allowing CBH to use Arc Infrastructure’s rail network to 2026.

The seven-year agreement is understood to be worth more than $400 million and ends a nearly 10-year debate, which resorted to arbitration in 2016 when negotiations failed to resolve how much CBH should have to pay to use the rail network.

Arc holds an exclusive lease over the State-owned rail freight network and CBH leases parts of the line to cart grain from its upcountry sites to port.

Under the deal, the 509km of the shuttered Tier 3 lines — which closed in 2014 — will not reopen, which CBH said was because high capital costs determined in arbitration meant opening the lines was currently uneconomic.

Tensions ran high at some points during the Bruce Rock and Kulin meetings, with growers questioning why Tier 3 was not a viable option.

The Miling meeting, described as “upbeat” by Shire of Moora president Ken Seymour, focused on the West Toodyay to Miling line.

Kulin farmer Barry West, also the Shire of Kulin president, said his local bin operated at less than total capacity because farmers were carting to sites with lower freight rates.

He estimated per kilometre, trucking grain cost about 9.6¢ a tonne, compared with 8¢ a tonne for narrow gauge rail and 6.5¢ a tonne for standard gauge rail.

“That gives the guys on standard gauge a big freight advantage,” Mr West said.

CBH chief executive Jimmy Wilson last week said CBH would consider reopening the Tier 3 railway lines if it was “gifted” them by the State Government and Arc.

“That option would only be available if we had access to those lines and there wasn’t any sunset dates like we have with 2026 (under the current agreement),” he said.

Bruce Rock farmer Stephen Strange said he and others wanted to find out “how serious CBH was about taking on the Tier 3 lines”.

“We didn’t come away from the meeting thinking that there was a lot of commitment there,” he said.

Kulin farmer Harry Hodgson said he was frustrated that the arbitrated outcome could not find a solution to reopen Tier 3.

“The (Tier 3) closure affects my town, it affects the roads and basically the whole community,” he said.

“We need grain on rail.”

Hyden farmer Colin Nicholl attended the Kulin meeting and said local farmers agreed the lines should be leased to CBH.

“The vast majority believed that if Arc are not prepared to let those lines be used at a reasonable price then they should be handed back to the government,” he said.

“CBH were very coy about their long-term intentions. But they gave impression that if they could get access to those lines at a rate that would compete with road then they would. Giving them to CBH is better than letting them lay there and rot.”

It was a much happier meeting at Miling, where relieved growers gathered to hear about the future of the West Toodyay to Miling line.

Local farmers’ concerns about the line’s future were amplified when two trains derailed near Miling this year.

The final portion of the line, from Piawaning to Miling, is still closed, 41/2 months after a CBH locomotive carting 30 wagons and 1400 tonnes of barley derailed.

Arc this week said the line would reopen but would not say when.

Mr Seymour, who farms at Miling, said the arbitration outcome was a relief to local farmers, who now held hope their local bin would be upgraded.

“Hats off to CBH for having the gumption to go to arbitration,” he said.

Arc — previously Brookfield Rail — holds a 49-year lease on WA’s entire rail network after the then State Government leased the lines to the company in 2000.

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