Train cutback derails harvest

Haidee VandenbergheCountryman

Growers can expect to foot the bill for a harvest fast turning into a logistical nightmare as CBH battles with poor rail performance.

With bins bursting at the seams and ships standing off at sea waiting for grain to accumulate at port, CBH claims poor service from rail provider QR National has left the bulk handler playing catch up when it comes to outloading grain.

CBH grain operations manager Max Johnson said there simply were not enough trains to move the grain.

"Back in 2003 when we had the last big harvest, we had 13 sets (of trains) and this year we've got 10," he said.

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"So we've got three less rail sets and we've got to move almost as much grain."

QR National, which last year lost out on the contract to cart the handler's grain, has told CBH that the fewer rail sets was due to shortages in train drivers and crew sickness.

Earlier in the year, QR National opted to redeploy locomotives and hoppers to the eastern states after winning the bid to move Glencore's grain in New South Wales but claimed it would not affect the grain freight task in WA.

CBH is not happy about the situation.

"We've got a number of sites we need to keep alive during harvest, which means we need to move grain by road or rail," Mr Johnson said.

"Without those trains there, effectively that means the growers are going to overfill those sites and we just haven't got the logistics to get in behind it and move the grain.

"We are actually moving grain sideways and backwards by road because we can't get rail."

Already 70,000 tonnes of grain, which should have been carted by train, have been moved by road trains or put into temporary storage.

"We've probably moved another 30-40,000 tonnes of grain away from rail sites when we can't get rail," Mr Johnson said.

"We've built probably another 100,000 tonnes of emergency storage simply because we haven't got the ability to move it by rail.

"That's a significant cost to the business and therefore the grower."

Without December's significant rain events, CBH said McLevie, Kalannie, Miling, Moora, Calingiri, Cunderdin, Tammin and Wyalkatchem receival sites would have all reached capacity and been forced to close.

"Two weeks of wet weather allowed us to get trains in there either on standard gauge or with road trains when no growers were delivering," Mr Johnson said.

"We basically received two million tonnes over two weeks, whereas the previous week we received 2.8 million tonnes.

"That lull in receivals allowed us to get trucks and trains in front of the growers again."

Forced to move around grain backing up in storage, CBH accumulations at ports are falling behind, leaving ships to lie off at sea while grain arrives at the docks.

"We've been flat out over the past six weeks just trying to keep sites alive with grain types rather than worrying about getting as much grain to the port as possible for accumulation to fill vessels," Mr Johnson said.

In early December two ships were left at anchor for up to 10 days while CBH tried to get enough feed barley to Kwinana.

"There are demurrage issues," Mr Johnson said. "Ultimately the grower will pay for that because the marketer will then post a lesser price in the pool price, if he pools it.

"Now we still can't get the grain in because of poor rail performance and we can't supplement that with road because there are no road trains available."

Ironically, after the State Government gave Tier 3 lines scheduled to close a last minute reprieve to stay open for harvest, there now are not enough trains for those lines to be used.

Although line operator Brookfields, formerly Westnet Rail, recently announced required maintenance on Tier 3 lines had been completed, ultimately it means little for this harvest's freight task.

Even if the Tier 3 lines were being used this harvest, they would do little to ease the grain build-up because their dilapidated state and speed restrictions means QR National would need scores of extra train drivers to use them.

The whole situation has CBH demanding answers for what will ultimately hit growers' hip pockets.

"The failing rail track is actually consuming a lot of QR National's drivers," Mr Johnson said.

"We understand it must be hard to retain drivers in the current environment but in the end QR National needs to supply a service to the customer and we're feeling a little aggrieved that crew sickness and lack of drivers is something they should be trying to resolve a lot better than they are. That's just the relationship we've got with QR National and that's frustrating."

Mr Johnson said the situation should serve as a warning to government on the necessity of keeping the rail network up to standard.

"We certainly need the authorities to give the level of investment in the track that brings it back up to speed and we need a rail operator that will meet our requirements," he said.

QR National was contacted for comment.

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