Revised MBRP business case drops standardisation of Sea Lake and Manangatang lines

The Victorian government has released the revised business case for the Murray Basin Rail Project and dropped the project’s initial goal of standardising the region’s freight network.

The long-awaited business case outlines the way forward for the troubled project, which halted in mid-2019 due to a lack of funds.

With stage one delivered and stage 2 partially delivered, the Murrayville and Yelta lines were standardised and the Maryborough to Ararat line reopened as standard gauge. The Sea Lake and Manangatang lines remained broad gauge, and the revised business case proposes to continue this split.

Victorian Minister for Transport Infrastructure Jacinta Allan said that the Victorian government was disappointed that funding for the project was not included in the 2020 federal budget, and was the only project on the state government’s wishlist of projects to not receive funding.

“This project is too important to play politics with – we want the Commonwealth to come forward with their support so we can get more freight on trains and more trucks off regional roads.”

To complete the revised scope of works, the Victorian government has announced they will commit $48.8 million and are asking the federal government to contribute $195.2m.

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development Michael McCormack said that the federal government had already contributed $240m to the project and that project errors were the responsibility of the Victorian government.

“It is important to remember that the Victorian Labor government was responsible for delivering this project and actively chose to lay 100-year-old steel as part of its ‘upgrade,” he said.

“I look forward to hearing the views of industry and communities on the proposal and document released yesterday by the Victorian government.

The report notes that the time and cost of delivering the project to its original scope has now increased and there is greater potential for conflict with passenger services in the standardisation of the Gheringhap to Ballarat section and the Ballarat corridor.

The Rail Freight Alliance (RFA), a grouping of councils pushing for more freight to be handled by rail, said in a statement that the revised business case amounted to fixing problems caused by the initial works.

“What it appears Minister Allan has announced today is repairs to the shoddy and substandard work that has hampered this project from the inception. Rerailing the section of line between Maryborough and Ararat that was done as part of the project in 2017 with some sections of century old rail and putting back some staging areas that were removed as part of the MBRP only a few years ago.”

Works to be immediately completed under the revised business case include re-railing 88km on the Ararat to Maryborough line, where old rail was re-used, signalling works at Ararat Junction and Maryborough Yard. Further works include passing loops, instituting electronic train ordering, resleepering, and improvements to sidings.

Minister for Ports and Freight Melissa Horne said that if funded, the project would increase export volumes.

“These works will boost our freight network’s capacity and efficiency to get more Victorian products exported. We just need the Commonwealth to come to the table with their support.”

MBRP should be delivered as originally planned: VFF

The Victorian Farmers Federation (VFF) has called for the Murray Basin Rail Project (MBRP) to be delivered as originally promised.

VFF Grains Group President Ashley Fraser said that the delivery of upgrades to regional rail lines in the north-west of the state would be a critical for the region to come out of coronavirus (COVID-19).

“Rural Victoria is crying out for major infrastructure projects to stimulate the economy and provide much needed local jobs. This is a nation-building project and a no-brainer to give the green light,” he said.

“This project is also key to unlocking the agricultural potential and prosperity of North West Victoria and Sunraysia and will help Victorian agriculture and the grains industry lead the nation’s economic recovery.”

The MBRP has been stalled since funds ran out and a dispute between V/Line and the contractor increased costs. Stage one of the project is complete, however stage two is only partially complete, with further stages unclear.

A new business case has been submitted by the Victorian government to the federal government for funding, however a decision is yet to be made.

Fraser said that farmers and industry needed the Sea Lake and Manangatang lines to be standardised.

“We supported the project as it was slated in 2014 and we support it today, but that support is for the full project as promised, including the standardisation of the Sea Lake and Manangatang lines.”

The two lines are currently remnants of Victoria’s broad gauge network, which requires freight to be swapped from broad gauge to standard gauge to get past Maryborough and access the ports of Melbourne, Geelong, and Portland. Standardising these lines would also future-proof Victoria’s rail network, said Fraser.

“Failure to standardise the Sea Lake and Manangatang lines would effectively isolate them from the rest of the Victorian and interstate network, including the Inland Rail, which goes against the benefits of the entire project,” said Fraser.

“The Murray Basin Rail Project was always about growing capacity, improving efficiency and providing better access from Victoria’s key grain and horticulture growing regions to major ports. We must not lose sight of this and now is the time is now to do the job properly.”