With a bin-bursting harvest to move, now is the time to reopen the Wheatbelt’s Tier 3 rail

Jane Fuchsbichler Countryman
A closed Tier 3 line in the Wheatbelt.
Camera IconA closed Tier 3 line in the Wheatbelt. Credit: Cally Dupe/Countryman

Looking through the headlines of the rural press during the last few months portrays an interesting picture for rural WA.

Bin-bursting yields, record deliveries to CBH, carry over grain, labour shortages, fires, work-related deaths in agriculture, mental health, and a shortage of truck drivers are just some of the key topics.

In short, WA grain farmers have achieved amazing results, producing a record 24m tonne crop — despite facing huge challenges.

Here are some interesting statistics:

  • Australian agriculture produced $81 billion farmgate output in 2021-22, forecast to reach $100 billion by 2030.
  • The agricultural supply chain is $155 billion a year — a 12 per cent share of Australia’s GDP.
  • Australian farm businesses manage this despite declining workers, falling from 120,000 in 1980 to less than 80,000 today.
  • The agricultural supply chain provides more than 1.6 million jobs (15 per cent of jobs nationwide)

A declining number of farmers are increasing production and export earnings. Well done, one and all.

But, and there is always a but, we can’t get our grain to port to meet demand and achieve higher prices.

Here are some more facts for you:

  • WA growers funded port facilities which can export 50 to 70 million tonnes of grain per year.
  • WA growers funded $175 million investment in CBH locomotives and wagons a decade ago.
  • WA growers have funded storage and handling facilities all over the Wheatbelt. ( Worth $1 billion in the past five years)
  • WA growers have funded rapid rail loading facilities on rail lines that are now closed.

The path to port is the choke point.

WA growers, through CBH, pay Arc Infrastructure — the rail lessee — an upfront, confidential flag fall for access to the operating rail lines.

WA growers, through CBH, had a rail contract to get grain to port with Watco until April 2022, which was paid out early ( for a confidential sum).

WA growers, through CBH, now have a rail contract to get grain to port with Aurizon (another confidential figure).

So why are so many grain locos and wagons parked up at Aurizon’s Forrestfield depot?

Growers are paying three unknown sums of money to three companies — Arc, Aurizon and Watco — and CBH to get grain to port and freight rates recently increased by 40 per cent.

CBH has now called upon overworked growers, post-harvest, to get their trucks out to help deliver the grain to port.

Growers have already delivered it once!

Long hours were worked to get a record harvest completed and exhaustion and mental health issues contribute to health and safety.

Now, the pressure is being put on growers, who have a limited period to gear up for seeding and who in some cases fought fires too.

In January, CBH promoted its first shipment of grain powered by a biofuel blend as a great example of its leadership in reducing carbon emissions in the supply chain.

CBH states that a low carbon emissions supply chain can attract a higher price from our customers.

Yet, at the same time, CBH is promoting the use of trucks over trains, saying the Tier 3 rail lines are not a priority.

For the record, road transport results in 16 times more carbon pollution than rail freight and 14 times more accident costs.

There will be carry over grain left in the system from the 2021/22 harvest.

Even the dry production year of 2020/21 resulted in massive demurrage costs, due to the inability to get grain to port.

This year’s supply chain problem is estimated to cost growers more than $1 billion in lost income, which will never enter the WA economy.

The 736km of Tier 3 grain freight rail lines have been the topic of debate since they were leased to an external party by the Liberal-National State Government in 2000.

During this time, billions of dollars have been invested, into rail in the metro area through Metronet. So obviously, rail is a good thing!

In 2006-2007, then WA Transport Minister Alannah MacTiernan proposed a rail rescue package. The problem will not go away.

There is some good news. In May 2020, the now WA Transport Minister Rita Saffioti announced an Engineering Report on Tier 3 rail lines.

Last year, the Infrastructure Australia (which is Federal) put the grain freight issue on their priority list.

Rural WA began to feel some optimism.

Finally, our crumbling road structures, high road toll statistics and lack of ability to get grain to port was on the radar.

How unbelievable is it now to have the CBH chair and CEO stating Tier 3 rail is not a priority and not viable?

CBH staff who travel to work at head office by train or bus, should be reminded that we taxpayers subsidise the metro transport system to the tune of $1.4 billion per year.

Metro rail is not viable. Neither are roads.

Re-opening Tier 3 rail and adding more rolling stock will improve ability to be internationally competitive, improve safety, remove the need to double and triple handle grain, and vastly reduce carbon pollution.

Our forefathers had vision, and WA’s rail lines, the Kwinana Grain Terminal and other port facilities set the grains industry up for future generations.

CBH board and management, I have a message for you.

It is time to listen to the grower shareholders’ motion moved at a rail meeting in Kulin in August 2020.

It’s a no brainer, now is the time to reopen Tier 3 rail, for future sustainability.

Jane Fuchsbichler is a Bruce Rock farmer and the Wheatbelt Railway Retention Alliance co-ordinator

Get the latest news from thewest.com.au in your inbox.

Sign up for our emails