Grain farmers have been railroaded by CBH Group

Greg RichardsCountryman
One of the last trains to use the Tier 3 narrow gauge track between Narambeen and Merredin. Pic Mogens Johansen, The West Australian. 27 June, 2014.
Camera IconOne of the last trains to use the Tier 3 narrow gauge track between Narambeen and Merredin. Pic Mogens Johansen, The West Australian. 27 June, 2014. Credit: WA News

An open letter to CBH.

Tonnages provided by CBH prior to a Wheatbelt Railway Retention Alliance meeting with then WA Transport Minister Troy Buswell in June 2011 revealed the five-year average on Tier 3 rail as 1.42 million tonnes.

The Wheatbelt Railway Retention Alliance has worked closely with CBH in the past, initially in a joint effort to keep Tier 3 rail operational and latterly to reopen Tier 3 rail lines.

During the last 18 months, Wheatbelt Railway Retention Alliance members have met with CBH directors and management.

This occurred in September last year, again in Corrigin earlier this year, and with management and CBH chair Simon Stead in June this year.

On each occasion, the CBH attitude towards investment into Tier 3 rail was very negative.

This is a turnaround compared to the previous positive attitude working with Wheatbelt Railway Retention Alliance and WAFarmers.

At a meeting in Kulin last year, 240 growers moved a motion in favour of investment into Tier 3 lines.

This motion from CBH shareholders does not appear to have been taken seriously by CBH.

In September last year, the State Government announced that a business case would determine the “priority Tier 3 rail lines”.

Has CBH determined which are the “priority” Tier 3 rail lines?

Fourth-generation farmer Greg Richards thinks Australia is the lucky country, and wouldn't farm anywhere else.
Camera IconFourth-generation farmer Greg Richards thinks Australia is the lucky country, and wouldn't farm anywhere else. Credit: Cameron Myles Busselton Dunsborough Times

At a WAFarmers grains council zoom meeting, CBH again stated Tier 3 lines were not a priority.

The figures quoted at that meeting were that only an average of 800,000 tonnes was carried on Tier 3 rail lines prior to closure.

I have a few questions for CBH.

1. Why are the figures being quoted by CBH acting chief executive Ben Macnamara, chief external relations officer Brianna Peake and government and industry relations head David Paton different and significantly lower than the figures provided by CBH for our meeting with Troy Buswell in June 2011?

2. Why — as shown in an article in February 2013 — has CBH completely changed its position on Tier 3 rail? Especially in light of the fact that the grain freight task has increased, with an anticipated 60 per cent increase in production. I believe the case for rail is now stronger with the price of fuel increasing and carbon pollution in the political spotlight.

4. Why should WA growers, communities, local government and the State Government tolerate continual and ongoing road damage and maintenance costs, road safety impact, increased fuel consumption and freight costs, slower delivery to port, and double handling to empty Tier 3 bins, instead of a flow to port via Tier 3 rail lines?

5. Why is CBH considering investment into the Beacon line as a priority, when this line carries on average around 106,000 tonnes? Does CBH consider Tier 3 lines which carry more than double that, not viable?

The Quairading, Kondinin, Merredin/Corrigin/Narrogin, Nyabing and Kulin carried far greater tonnages than the Beacon Tier 2 line.

6. Why is CBH considering major investment into Avon Transfer Station, while saying it is not viable to use the Merredin Transfer station? The increased tonnages at Avon has been caused by closure of Tier 3 lines.

7. Have all current CBH directors visited the Merredin Transfer Station, which was handling 6000 tonnes per day prior to closure of Tier 3 rail, and do they understand the situation in the Tier 3 area?

8. At the Merredin Business Case Regional Forums in August, I again asked Mr Macnamara to meet with growers at Quairading. He again refused to meet with a large group of growers, as he had previously refused to do earlier in the year, when he insisted that he would only meet with three or four growers.

CBH is a grower-owned co-operative. Information and open communication with their growers is part of the CBH constitution. The difficulties in getting traction and good communication with CBH during the past 18 months is extremely disappointing.

Is CBH hampering investment into the Wheatbelt grains industry and communities?

This is potentially the biggest injection of funds into the Wheatbelt and grains industry for 100 years.

Infrastructure Australia funding is aimed at a post COVID-boost for rural communities and a boost to the economy. CBH prioritising funding into Tier 1 and Tier 2 rail lines, instead of Tier 3 rail.

Tier 1 and Tier 2 lines are the responsibility of the lessee Arc to maintain, and have received taxpayer funding following the 2009 Strategic Grain Network Review. It is not appropriate for the taxpayer to further fund lines covered by the lease agreement and arbitration agreement.

It is relieving Arc of their responsibility to maintain these lines and cost shifting to the taxpayer and growers.

We have a one-off opportunity to see infrastructure investment which will put sustainable infrastructure in place to serve the wheatbelt well into the future,

Is this a breach of directors’ fiduciary duties?

Again we insist that CBH support Government investment into reopening Tier 3 rail lines.

I have asked CBH to respond to the above issues by November 12.

Greg Richards is chair of the Wheatbelt Railway Retention Alliance and a Quairading farmer.

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