No news on $200m rail and road funding, months after it was announced

Headshot of Cally Dupe
Cally DupeCountryman
A closed Tier 3 line in the Wheatbelt.
Camera IconA closed Tier 3 line in the Wheatbelt. Credit: Cally Dupe/Countryman

Farmers plagued by shuttered rail lines and crumbling roads are anxiously waiting for the Federal and State Government to determine how to spend $200 million in rail and road funding, more than six months after the lion’s share was announced.

The cash boost for WA’s agricultural freight routes includes $160 million of Federal Government funding announced in May and $40 million of State Government funding announced in September.

Just $22 million of the total has been allocated so far, with a plan to upgrade four rail sidings at CBH bins at Moora, Cranbrook, Broomehill and Brookton revealed by WA Transport Minister Rita Saffioti in February.

The projects marked the biggest State Government investment in grain on rail since 2010, despite more than $5.7 billion being allocated to the Metronet project for 2021-22.

Ms Saffioti said the State Government was still “finalising the scope and design” of the four rail siding projects with Arc Infrastructure and CBH and hoped to break ground early next year.

“We know how important the agricultural sector is to the WA economy,” she said.

“Improved rail and road infrastructure supports productive and efficient agricultural movements from farm to port, which helps support the competitiveness of WA grain growers.”

Department of Transport representatives embarked on a two-week regional roadshow in July with the hope of nutting out how communities wanted the remaining $178 million spent on improving agricultural transport in WA.

Debate over how the cash should be used erupted in the weeks that followed with community groups arguing the money should be used to re-build closed Tier 3 railway lines to reduce the amount of grain hauled on public roads.

More than 250 people attended seven forums at Geraldton, Wagin, Merredin, Dalwallinu, Northam, Albany and Esperance.

Ms Saffioti said the Department of Transport also received 90 written submissions, and confirmed feedback from the forums and submissions would be used to “prioritise ongoing infrastructure investments” to support agricultural freight.

She said the State was working with the Commonwealth to allocate the remaining $178 million and would outline projects “shortly”.

“Consultation involved many representatives across the agricultural sector, from farmers, freight or trucking organisations, local government, community members, and regional chamber of commerce and industry groups,” Ms Saffioti said.

“The transport folio (Department of Transport, Public Transport Authority and Main Roads WA) is jointly finalising a list of infrastructure for the $200 million Agricultural Supply Chain Improvements package one, which will be approved by the State and Commonwealth.

“The package includes our $22 million commitment to upgrade four rail sidings at Moora, Brookton, Broomehill and Cranbrook.

“The rest of the package will cover a range of freight infrastructure projects, with a view to complement the existing investment programs, including the $187.5 million Wheatbelt Secondary Freight Network program.”

Ms Saffioti said the transport folio was “finalising” what projects the $178m would fund, including whether there was “any potential” to fund the reopening of WA’s Tier 3 rail lines.

WA’s ageing rail network is buckling under the pressure of the State’s flagged 20mt record harvest, with this year described by some growers as the “litmus test” for how it can cope with a crop size that has grown 200 per cent during the past 30 years.

About 60 per cent of WA’s annual harvest is moved to port by rail each year, and the rest by road.

To bolster the State Government’s $22m rail sidings investment, CBH Group also plans to tip in $80 million to build rapid rail loading infrastructure at the four sites to speed up how quickly grain can be loaded onto trains.

The upgrades are pegged to help growers get more tonnes to port during the “crucial first half of the year” before countries in the Black Sea region — Australia’s biggest competitors — harvest their annual crop.

The Federal Government’s $160 million was included in a $10 billion national spend on infrastructure improvements included in the Budget in May, just $1.3 billion of which was set aside for WA.

It has been loosely committed to upgrading routes identified through the State Government’s Revitalising Agricultural Region Freight Strategy released last year, which outlined priority and “shovel-ready” projects in WA.

Separately, the State Government is also preparing a stage two business case to submit to Infrastructure Australia to secure more funding for Agricultural Supply Chain Improvements after submitting a stage one business case late last year.

The stage one business case — called the stage one problem identification agricultural supply chain improvement business case — was added to Infrastructure Australia’s priority list in February.

Ms Saffioti said Infrastructure Australia had requested a stage two business case — called stage two options business case — which was expected to be completed by the State Government by the middle of next year.

She said it would assess a “suite of options” to make grain exports more internationally competitive.

“(It would) improve the supply chain moving grain from farm to port, including examining improvements to Tier 1, 2 and 3 lines,” she said.

Ms Saffioti declined to comment whether the State Government was still prioritising three Tier 3 lines identified last year, Quairading to York, Kulin to Narrogin, and Kondinin to West Merredin.

“Consideration is being given to Tier 3 lines as part of the Agricultural Supply Chain Improvements package one, based on economic, deliverability, social and economic criteria,” she said.

“Tier 3 rail line options will also be considered as part of further infrastructure investment packages to be negotiated with the Commonwealth.”

Ram, Tram and Bus Union WA secretary Craig McKinley said investment in rail was a “no brainer”.

“I have farmers calling me every day about this. They want an announcement that there will be a return of the closed rail lines,” he said.

“There are in excess of 150,000 truck journeys to Perth happening this harvest, because we can’t move enough grain on rail and farmers are running out of bin space.”

Mr McKinley called for the State and Federal Government to expedite its decision on how to spend the $178m.

“There is a push for our grains industry to beat the northern hemisphere to market, so there needs to be a spike in rail delivery during that time,” he said.

“At the moment we do not have capacity to do that. With the increase in technology on farms, we have to expect better harvests and yields and we have to expect more grain. This is not a problem that will go away.”

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