Farmers vow to fight on

Lara LadymanCountryman

WA’s ageing grain haulage network was thrown a $178 million lifeline last week, that will result in significant upgrades to the rail freight system.

With previously committed State Government and Commonwealth funding, it brings the total grain freight network investment to $352 million over four years.

This includes $187.9 million to re-sleeper Tier 1 and Tier 2 lines and another $118.3 million to improve Wheatbelt roads, including rail sidings as well as other monies to maintain WA’s grain freight competitiveness.

Premier Colin Barnett, Transport Minister Simon O’Brien and Agriculture Minister Terry Redman delivered the news.

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“This package will underwrite the project to upgrade the State’s network of rail lines and roads used to transport grain from Wheatbelt farms for export, while ensuring the majority of grain freight remains on rail, ” Mr O’Brien said.

But after years of uncertainty, 700km of rail lines have been dealt a fatal blow, with the WA Government’s decision not to inject the $90 million needed to keep Tier 3 tracks viable.

Residents and rural shires are also crying foul, claiming the money for roads falls well short.

Mt Walker farmer Bill Cowan has vowed his town will not be giving up its fight to save its Tier 3 lines, following the State Government’s rail rescue package announcement.

And Mr Cowan wants the true costs of upgrading country roads recognised.

“It’s probably what I expected, ” Mr Cowan said. “It’s great that the money is there for Tier 1 and 2 — that’s very important. But if there’s no money for Tier 3 lines, that’s very disappointing and very short-sighted.”

Mr Cowan criticised the Government’s claim it would not be closing lines. “If it’s not going to use them, it is virtually closing them, so I don’t know why it would put them in care and maintenance.”

Mr Cowan said the funding for road upgrades in the wake of Tier 3 track closures was significantly underestimated.

He said it was inevitable that carting charges would increase if the competition from rail was reduced.

Councils are worried they will be forced to pick up the rest as more grain is trucked on country roads, with the associated risk to motorists, including caravans and school buses.

Narembeen shire chief executive Frank Peczka welcomed the announcement, but was bitterly disappointed there was nothing for Tier 3 lines, which will result in their closure.

He argued the money to upgrade roads in the shire was a drop in the ocean.

In response to repeated requests about what was required should Tier 3 lines such as the one from Kondinin to Merredin close, Mr Peczka said the town had identified five roads that were not up to the task.

However, he said only the road from Narembeen to Kondinin got a look in as part of the package.

“The Merredin to Kondinin rail line needs $23 million. We estimate $15 million is needed for upgrading our roads to Main Roads standards, ” he said.

Minister O’Brien said the package money came off the back of recommendations from the Strategic Grain Network Committee.

And while he chose his remarks carefully, the Minister all but conceded that Tier 3 tracks would close, but not until roads had been upgraded.

“No lines will close, however, some non-economic lines will be put into care and maintenance, ” Mr O’Brien said.

Care and maintenance from WestNet Rail’s point of view means no trains. “It means looking after the corridor, ” WestNet chief executive Paul Larsen said.

Mr Larsen joined CBH chairman Neil Wandel, saying they were glad to get the money to secure 1400km of the WA network.

Mr Peczka said the full impact of this week’s decision would be felt in a good year, with a big crop.

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