Rail lease shrouded in mystery

Brad ThompsonThe West Australian

Wickepin shire president Steve Martin knows more than most about the grain freight debate raging in the Wheatbelt.

He was the local government representative on the Strategic Grain Network Committee in 2009 and knows rail freight, road freight arguments inside out.

Mr Martin also shares the fears of many shire presidents and ratepayers about the road safety and financial consequences of closing the ageing rail freight network known as Tier 3.

He is concerned about the huge cost of supporting grain freight infrastructure being shifted from Brookfield Rail, CBH and the State Government to shires.

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"I want to see more trucks on the road this year because it means we have a lot more grain. But in the long term, it is clear we are going to be left with a task that the Government, a private company and a co-operative did," Mr Martin said.

"There has been some road funding but that will run out, there is no maintenance funding. It will come back to the ratepayers, the condition of our local roads and the State highways that go through our shires."

The SGNC, made up of industry representatives and chaired by Professor Fred Affleck, found there was no sound business case for upgrading the Tier 3 lines. The lines have been on death row since then. Their latest reprieve came this week when Brookfield and CBH struck a deal to keep key sections open until June 30 to help cope with a bumper harvest.

The SGNC's finding was based on the understanding that the State would upgrade roads to help cope with tens of thousands of extra truck movements.

The State has already spent about 80 per cent of the $118 million it allocated. Some of the roads it upgraded are crumbling and the harvest hasn't even started in the Tier 3 regions

Mr Martin said local government's preferred position in 2009 was grain on rail with a rider that if the lines closed, the State funded road upgrades and funded maintenance.

"I'm certain they haven't adequately funded the upgrades and I don't see any maintenance funding," he said.

The maintenance of the rail lines is also a hot topic, with CBH, many farmers and shire presidents demanding to see details of the contract that gives Brookfield the exclusive right to operate the State-owned rail network.

WA Nationals MP Shane Love said yesterday that he was pressing Transport Minister Troy Buswell to make the contract public.

Mr Love became concerned after warnings the rail closures might spread to the Tier 2 Miling-Bolgart line.

The lease details remain a mystery despite Public Transport Authority advice to its minister that it sees no barrier to tabling the document in Parliament.

Narembeen grain grower Rhonda Cole, who stepped down as shire president last week, said she suspected the State had something to hide.

"The State Government owns the asset and if they wrote a contract that doesn't include a maintenance clause, then who did they intend to do the maintenance? Or is it that they are just allowing the lines to fall into disrepair completely and they're comfortable with that," Mrs Cole said.

"Are we not being told the truth or is somebody ducking for cover?"

Mrs Cole said there were no State roads in the Narembeen shire. That left ratepayers to carry the costs associated with extra truck movements.

"When you put the trucks together with school buses and the mobile grey nomad population it becomes nightmarish," she said.

Kulin farmer and the town's bush races committee chairman Graeme Robertson said the rail line was essential and the close-knit community would fight to keep it open.

"We can't build roads good enough to carry the tonnage," Mr Robertson said. "We look at roads like the Brookton Highway and with 12 months of continuous truck traffic it's virtually buggered and gets tram lines on it."

Are we not being told the truth or is somebody ducking for cover? " Narembeen grain grower Rhonda Cole

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