Industrial unrest adds to harvest concerns

Claire TyrrellCountryman
The West logo

Industrial action is forcing thousands of tonnes of grain off rail and onto the roads as CBH scrambles to prepare for the biggest harvest since 2008.

QR National train driver strikes in Geraldton last week led to 11,000 tonnes of grain destined for rail being diverted to road.

CBH rail manager Andrew Mencshelyi said the strikes were a massive concern coming into harvest.

"We've been seeing industrial action from QR national drivers right across the State, and most recently in the Geraldton zone," he said.

"Geraldton is expecting a record year, so we are moving a lot of last season's grain now.

"We are concerned about the performance of QR National moving into this harvest."

Because of the strike, close to 140 trucks moved the equivalent of five train loads from Mingenew and Perenjori into Geraldton last week.

QR National workers across WA have fought for better pay and conditions intermittently since May this year, causing continued frustration for commodity handlers.

QR National, the parent company of rail operator Australian Railroad Group, moved about 60 per cent of the State's grain last season.

Mr Mencshelyi said CBH had alternatives in place for harvest, but rail freight was the preferred option.

"We do have contingencies for getting grain into the port, if this continues into the harvest period," Mr Mencshelyi said.

CBH general manager of operations Colin Tutt has called for a meeting with QR National's bulk manager Darrin Rawson-Harris.

A date is yet to be set, but CBH said it was keen to meet with QR National in the "very near future".

A QR National spokeswoman said the company was amid negotiations with its employees and the Rail, Tram and Bus Union (RTBU).

"QR National is disappointed that some of the WA depots have taken industrial action, given we are currently in the middle of a negotiation process with employees' bargaining representatives," she said.

"We continue to bargain in good faith and have provided employees with a 4 per cent pay increase in July to ensure they are not disadvantaged while negotiations continued.

The spokeswoman said QR National broached an outcome with its workers earlier this year, but it was thwarted by the RTBU.

"We listened to our employees and put forward a proposal which would have delivered strong wage outcomes for locomotive drivers in WA," she said. "This proposal was rejected by the RTBU.

"We are committed to genuine negotiation that will deliver an agreement that is acceptable to employees and for our WA business. We will continue to work with our customers on their grain transport needs."

Geraldton is expecting a three million tonne crop this year, which would break the 2009 record of 2.6 million tonnes of grain.

Last season, 50 per cent of the crop in the Geraldton zone was carted by rail, which made up about 650,000 tonnes.

The grain handler's contract with QR National expires in May 2012, when US-based carrier Watco will take on CBH's grain freight.

"We are worried about the performance of QR National for the remaining nine months of their contract," Mr Tutt said.


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