Derailment shines light on track troubles

Brad ThompsonThe West Australian

A derailment on a 116-year-old grain freight line has raised the stakes for CBH and Brookfield Rail as they try to thrash out a deal to keep trains running for what shapes as a better than expected harvest.

Wheatbelt farmers in districts serviced by the Tier 3 lines have warned of thousands of extra truck movements on poorly maintained roads if CBH and Brookfield fail to reach an agreement.

The lines are due to close on October 31 just as the harvest, which CBH now estimates could reach almost 13 million tonnes, begins in earnest.

The condition of the lines is in the spotlight after a derailment on a section between Quairading and York where the track dates back to 1897. The derailment has left a dozen fully loaded wagons stranded since early last Tuesday.

Wet weather has hampered efforts to build a makeshift road for cranes and trucks to access the site where five wagons are derailed. The locomotive and 10 wagons were moved last Friday after being uncoupled.

Brookfield, which operates the lines under lease from the State Government, and CBH's rolling stock operator Watco are investigating the incident.

Local farmer Greg Richards said it appeared the ageing line had broken, but a Brookfield spokeswoman said it was too early to speculate on the cause.

Mr Richards warned of major road safety and logistics issues if the Tier 3 lines were closed for this harvest.

"It is a terrible situation if the lines are not working," he said. "It is just commonsense to cart grain on rail where possible.

"Some grain will always go on trucks but the roads out here just aren't made to cart all of the grain and road safety is a huge concern."

Mr Richards said a major turnaround in this year's crop on the back of heavy rain over the past three months had raised logistics issues.

The Tier 3 lines service the Kwinana port zone but there will also be high demand for grain road freight operators in the Albany and Esperance port zones on the back of bumper harvests.

"In June, we were just about gone but now - and I shouldn't speak too soon - we might be looking at our best ever crop," Mr Richards said.

"I just don't know how we are going to cart it."

Brookfield and CBH have been locked in talks about the future of the Tier 3 lines for more than six months. They hired a professional mediator to help resolve the standoff and are believed to have made some progress.

The negotiations involve a new commercial track access agreement for all CBH grain freight, not just the Tier 3 lines which were due to close last October but received a 12-month reprieve from Transport Minister Troy Buswell.

Mr Buswell has ruled out any more State Government funding for Tier 3, declaring the future of the lines a commercial matter for the grower-controlled co-operative and the Government lease holder.

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