freight

Resumption of Murray Basin Rail project a “national priority”: Rail freight businesses

The Freight on Rail Group has called upon the federal government to fund the resumption of the Murray Basin Rail Project.

The coalition of rail freight businesses, chaired by Dean Dalla Valle said that with the Victorian government committing $48.8m in funding, the Commonwealth needed to come to the table as well.

“This commitment from the Victorian government is welcome – as a nation we need to get this rail freight network humming again. Given we could see another bumper crop next year, industry encourages the Commonwealth to also commit extra funding to help get the network back on track,” said Dalla Valle.

Getting the project back on track would improve the productivity of the Victorian rail network, and with forecast bumper grain harvests, the need for investment is critical.

“Due to well-documented problems with rail infrastructure in the basin, I’ve heard almost 70 percent of export grain this season will be transported by truck to Victorian ports – this is an extremely poor outcome for society; and certainly not good for regional councils already struggling to repair and maintain large road networks,” said Dalla Valle.

Since stalling in 2019, the partially completed project has led to a decline in freight carried by rail in the region. Groups including farmers, grain haulers, and now freight rail businesses are highlighting the importance of an efficient freight network.

“Inefficient transport supply chains corrode the core fundamentals of state and national economic productivity; destroying jobs and increasing cost of living pressures for millions of Australians,” said Dalla Valle.

The opportunity to reinvigorate the Murray Basin rail network had positives on a number of fronts, said Dalla Valle, beyond agricultural productivity. Moving more freight by rail would make roads safer for passenger vehicle by reducing accidents and wear and tear on roads. Additionally, as rail freight is less emissions intensive than road freight, Australia could reduce transport emissions. According to a 2017 Deloitte Access Economics report, for every kilometre of freight transport, rail produces 16 times less carbon pollution than road freight, and 14 times less accident costs.

Rebuilding the network would also provide a boost for regional economies and the Australian supply chain.

“Just imagine all the Australian-made steel that will be used in upgrading and standardising the network with new track – additional support for this project should be of the highest national priority,” said Dalla Valle.

Mildura Line

Murray Basin Rail Project revision falls short of freight needs

With the executive summary of the revised business case for the Murray Basin Rail Project now released, farmers, grain haulers, and rail experts are renewing their call for the project to be delivered in full, as per the original scope.

The revised business case recommends that the Sea Lake and Manangatang lines remain broad gauge, while work should focus on improving the existing, separate gauge network.

GrainCorp rail commercial and contracts manager Alex Donnelly said that the proposed scope of works would return the network to a viable state.

“The proposed improvements are all quite sensible and are all going to be beneficial to the rail network in the long term. They are not going to provide the capacity and costs we’d like to see, but they are certainly improvements from the current heavily degraded state of the MBRP affected network,” said Donnelly.

Since work stalled in 2017 and 2018 and then halted in 2019, increasing volumes of grain from North West Victoria have had to be hauled by road. In 2019, when NSW and Queensland were in drought, the relatively good conditions in Victoria meant that grain grown along the Sea Lake and Managatang lines missed out on markets and higher bid prices in northern NSW, as the grain could not be moved via rail on the interstate standard gauge network.

“Those farmers on the Mananagatang and Sea Lake sites really missed out, because their grain could only flow south by rail to Geelong or Melbourne, or by truck into southern NSW homes – where the bids weren’t as strong,” said Donnelly.

Victorian Farmers Federation grains group president Ashley Fraser said that the proposed works would create two separate networks.

“A commitment was made to build the Murray Basin Rail Project five years ago, including the standardisation of the Sea Lake and Manangatang lines,” he said.

“Under this revised plan these lines will not be converted to standard gauge resulting in farmers and businesses along the broad-gauge Sea Lake and Manangatang lines effectively being cut off from the standard gauge Inland Rail network.

“Ultimately this means double handling of freight which results in added costs for farmers, especially in the important grain growing regions in Victoria’s north west.”

John Hearsch, Rail Futures Institute president, said the proposed scope of works would not be able to handle the projected increase in freight volumes.

“It’s probably sufficient for the short term but, as I see it, I don’t think it properly takes account of what needs to happen in a bumper grain harvest which is what we’re about to experience. The outcome of that will be pretty straightforward; we’ll have a lot more trucks on the road than we really should have.”

Hearsch also highlighted that if the works proposed in the revised business case go ahead, while there will be marginal improvements, the plans locks in inefficiencies, such as standard gauge trains on the Mildura line from Yelta and Murrayville having to travel further to get to the port of Geelong or Melbourne via the Maryborough to Ararat connection, rather than directly via Ballarat.

“I find that quite disappointing and it still means that notwithstanding some marginal improvement on the journey from Maryborough to Ararat, these trains are still having to run well over 100km extra distance, which takes extra time and involves extra cost. That looks like a semi-permanent feature of what this part of the rail network is going to look like.”

Other potential projects that depended upon the full completion of the original Murray Basin Rail Project are also looking to miss out in the revised plan. In Ouyen, a local community group that has been working to set up an intermodal terminal is furious that the revised scope will not include a standard gauge connection to Melbourne.

“The MBRP was to be a ‘once in a generation’ project for the ultimate benefit of all Victorians and we are hoping governments will sort through the current MBRP quagmire very soon, to ensure it gets completed as originally planned. The Victorian government’s announcement will result in the Ouyen train having to go on a five-hour detour via Ararat making it unsustainable,” said Ouyen Inc president Scott Anderson.

Having two separate gauges in Victoria would also place increased cost pressures on businesses, said Donnelly, and could lead to the broad-gauge network becoming a stranded asset.

“Rollingstock owners need to keep their aging broad-gauge gear alive and running, which gets more expensive every year as spares and parts become harder to source. The broad-gauge network misses out on the expensive new gear that cascades out of the big coal and interstate operations, while standard gauge sites will see the benefits of this equipment.”

One of the reasons cited in the business case summary for the change in scope to let the Ballarat corridor remain broad gauge was the potential disruption to passenger services. Hearsch said that with proper, integrated planning between Victorian government bodies, this could have been avoided.

“Of course, the freight upgrades should’ve been accounted for in the upgrades of the passenger network, that didn’t happen. The reason it didn’t happen, as I read it, is that the Ballarat line upgrade and the Murray Basin Rail Project, both of which affected Ballarat, those two projects didn’t talk to each other.”

With the Murray Basin Rail Project having been heavily criticised by the Victorian Auditor-General in a report early in 2020 for deficiencies in planning and project management, Donnelly said it was critical that the revised project is handled correctly.

“For this coming 20/21 harvest these improvements will probably not provide any benefit to rail capacity. It’s very unlikely that any of the significant components of the proposal could implemented in time to help the coming harvest export task,” said Donnelly.

“In fact, we hold strong concerns that the proposed works pose a risk to an already constrained rail network: construction closures and trackwork blocking lines will stop the trains from exporting grain and we are expecting rail to be running flat out all year long.

“Any major shutdown will reduce rail tonnes moved to port, which will transfer straight to road instead. We need very careful consultation, coordination, and planning by the department to mitigate the impacts on the industry.”

Fraser said that the original aim was the correct one and should be carried out.

“The original vision was for a modern, efficient regional rail freight network. While the execution to achieve this vision may have been flawed, the intention was right.”

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.”

Farmers, councils criticise lack of funding for MBRP

Victorian farmers were disappointed that in last week’s federal budget there was no more funding for the Murray Basin Rail Project.

While a business case has reportedly been prepared for the resumption of upgrade works to standardise freight rail lines in the north-west of the state, the funding initially committed has run out and Victorian Farmers Federation David Jochinke said the project needs to continue.

“For the Murray Basin Rail Project to miss out on funding is incredibly disappointing,” Jochinke said.

“The onus is now on the Victorian government to show leadership and commit to funding the project as promised as we enter its sixth year of construction.”

In an interview with ABC radio Ballarat, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development Michael McCormack said it was up to the Victorian government to release the business case before federal funding could be committed.

“[The Victorian government] needs to come up with that business case to release it so that there’s full transparency, full accountability. The federal government has already contributed more than $240 million and I’m happy to continue to work with the Victorian government.”

The Rail Freight Alliance, a grouping of councils across Victoria, said that both governments needed to work together to ensure the project is completed.

“The Mexican standoff between the federal and Victorian government is a convenient out for both governments, it doesn’t solve the problem and leaves the people of Victoria and the nation poorer for it,” the group said in a statement.

The Rail Freight Alliance said the Murray Basin Rail Project was an ideal project to get the state’s economy moving again.

“This project ticks all the boxes, it’s shovel ready, will boost jobs, attract private investment, support businesses to recover and grow, enhance Victoria’s growing exports and freight task. Now is the time to invest in this nation building project.”

Budget should target new projects and upgrades: ARA

New projects and upgrades to existing technology should be considered for funding as part of the federal budget, CEO of the Australasian Railway Association (ARA) Caroline Wilkie has said.

With the budget to be handed down on October 6 and early announcements already coming out, Wilkie said that rail was ready to contribute to Australia’s economic recovery.

“There is a significant pipeline of rail investment that could be fast tracked to generate more jobs and opportunity to support our economic recovery,” said Wilkie.

“This is work that will make a difference right now while leaving a lasting legacy for the cities and towns that benefit from new rail projects.”

A number of rail projects are awaiting federal funding to take the next step. The Melbourne Airport Rail Link will proceed once final funding from the federal government confirmed, as can the resumption of the Murray Basin Rail Project, with a business case sitting with Canberra.

In addition to new construction, funding for technology upgrades such as the Australian Rail Track Corporation’s Advanced Train Management System, would provide long term benefits. Infrastructure upgrades such as level crossing removals are another way the federal government’s funding to rail would conitrbute to wider economic outcomes.

“At a time where we desperately need more people in jobs and more certainty for those rebounding from the economic hardships of the pandemic, we need to see more projects started sooner to build the country back up again,” said Wilkie.

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development Michael McCormack has indicated that major infrastructure projects will be part of the 2020 budget, however no particular projects have been tipped yet. The federal government has indicated that money allocated to the states for infrastructure will be needed to be spent quickly and may be a condition of further funding.

Grain

Heavy use of Rainbow-Dimboola line makes the case for investment

After data showed that the Rainbow-Dimboola line had carried 33 return freight services and 66,000 tonnes of grain since it was reopened in April, the Victorian Farmers Federation (VFF) is calling on governments to upgrade regional freight lines.

VFF grains group president Ashley Fraser said that the grains industry in the Wimmera and Mallee regions had a high demand for rail freight.

“We know the demand is there, industry knows the demand is there and here is the government’s data demonstrating the demand is there. All that is required is a willingness to get on with the job,” said Fraser.

Freight demand in Victoria is expected to triple by 2051 and rail is seen as vital to take a greater share of this demand.

“The government should heed their own message in this case – improvements to Victoria’s regional rail freight network will take trucks off roads resulting in lower freight costs and better road maintenance and safety outcomes,” said Fraser.

So far, major upgrades to the network of freight lines which connect Victoria’s agricultural regions to its ports have stalled since the halting of the Murray Basin Rail Project. A bumper grain crop in 2020 and calls for infrastructure funding to boost COVID-19 affected economies are driving demands for the project to be restarted.

Funding for regional rail improvements was part of the Victorian government’s COVID-19 stimulus package, however focused on resleepering existing lines, rather than opening new lines or gauge conversions.

Fraser said that now was the time for the Victorian government to act and these projects would have the support of farmers.

“If the Victorian government build it, absolutely, the trains will come.”

V/Line

V/Line CEO stood down

Victorian Minister for Public Transport Ben Carroll has suspended V/Line CEO James Pinder.

Carroll made the decision due to advice from the Department of Transport that the Independent Broad-based Anti-Corruption Commission (IBAC) had launched an investigation.

“On the basis of that advice, I directed the V/Line Board to immediately suspend Mr Pinder, while IBAC carries out its investigation,” said Carroll in a statement.

Nick Foa, who is currently head of transport services at the Department of Transport will step into Pinder’s role.

According to reports, IBAC is investigating the Department of Transport but is not providing any further information.

V/Line previously came to the attention of IBAC in its investigation into TAFE qualifications for workers.

V/Line and the Department of Transport were also subject to criticism by the Victorian Auditor-General over their handling of the Murray Basin Rail Project, with the stalled project having “not met scope, time, cost or quality expectations”.

Martinus

The local solution: Martinus Rail’s story of growth to meet today’s rail pipeline

With an exclusive dedication to the rail industry, Martinus is bringing the approach of a family-owned business to major rail projects around Australia and New Zealand.

Speaking with Treaven Martinus, over a video call in June, the CEO of Martinus Rail is back to where it all began almost 15 years ago, an office in his home in Cronulla.

“I’ve been in the rail industry through my whole working career and in 2005 I ventured out to start a product supply business for the rail industry,” said Martinus.

The business that he founded supplied turnouts to the Australian rail industry, is now delivering the largest track construction project in Australia, the Carmichael Rail Network.

“After seven years developing the product supply business, we saw the opportunity to diversify the business and expand into rail infrastructure construction,” said Martinus.

Over the next eight years, Martinus grew organically into a full-service rail contractor and expanded its presence across Australia, New Zealand and now Chile.

The company’s initial growth was driven by carrying out periodical maintenance across NSW for Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC). In 2013, Martinus set out its strategic five-year plan.

“The end vision at that point in time was to be a full service rail contractor for NSW, but, what happened in those five years, and it’s been a constant story throughout, is plenty of challenges along the way as we’ve had to change our direction depending on what barriers got put in front of us.”

The first barrier was focusing on the concentrated NSW market. Despite being based in Sydney, to this day, only three per cent of Martinus’ work is done in its home state, instead the company has gone where the opportunities are.

“There’s been a barrier to entry for us in Sydney which has been our success as it’s pushed us to go where the opportunities are,” said Martinus. “We only focus on rail infrastructure construction, we don’t do anything outside the rail space, so we had to go where the opportunities were, first being the Hunter Valley, then Brisbane was the next step, Victoria after that, and then we kept just diversifying regionally.”

The series of projects that Martinus would work on would develop the company from a maintenance contractor to a project delivery contractor in its own right.

The main contributors to the company’s early success in the construction space were two young, enthusiastic, and energetic engineers who are now part of the senior leadership team at Martinus, chief operating officer Ryan Baden and senior pre-contracts manager Toby Briggs.

“It’s always been our people who helped us reach the impossible, exceeded client expectations and were instrumental in supporting the growth of the business – and that has been the only constant for us,” said Martinus.

Martinus soon developed a reputation for its people, particularly for their strong work ethic, safe delivery of projects, and shared love for all things rail.

In line with their strategic plan, Martinus set out to win more work and they did this by targeting four main projects which met their skill set and strategic direction of delivering larger projects.

“The four projects we wanted to go for were the Port Kembla coal terminal upgrade, a $15m project, over two years; the ARTC Gunnedah yard rationalisation, a $10m complete re-build of the yard, signalling and drainage; Aurizon’s long term stabling facility in Hexham, the $8m subcontract for the track construction and supply of the materials; and then Morton Bay rail line upgrade where Theiss were the head contractor on that $1bn project and there was a 30-kilometre track package of works.

“We went for all these four projects and we won all four, and that was a huge turning point for us,” said Martinus.

“From there our reputation continued to grow, as did our in-house capabilities and soon enough we became the delivery partner of choice.”

The scale of these projects required Martinus to grow rapidly, and here the company would develop a core principle, one great person equals three good people. Particularly for Martinus himself, ensuring that the company had the right people on board was critical.

“I have, myself, no background in rail construction/contracting apart from seeing it, which led to the actual successes we had because I had to recruit people who knew what they were doing and then give them the autonomy and authority to deliver.”

In addition, with the projects spread out in regional areas across NSW and Queensland and as more and more project came online, Martinus had to decentralise some internal processes.

“To encourage autonomy across our project delivery, we implemented a project controls framework to empower our project teams,” said Martinus. “The framework has a strong focus on safety and provides project support for each team and is flexible enough to be tailored to suit each project.”

Having delivered those four projects in what Martinus describes as a hectic 2013, the company could consolidate its position as a full-service rail construction contractor. Today, the company has experience across all aspects of rail construction, from light rail works in Sydney to heavy haul in the Pilbara, and crane rail construction projects at major ports to underground metro rail in New Zealand. With the infrastructure pie only expected to grow, Martinus has invested in its people, processes and equipment so that the company can self- perform on the projects that it is bidding for.

“To sustain the business growth in our home markets of Australia and New Zealand, we invested more than $60m in three key areas of the business: our people, plant and systems over three years. This also speaks to our motto: growth always, in all ways.”

Martinus’ strategic investment will go a long way in solidifying their position in the market, particularly when it comes to Martinus’ depth of capability when it comes to delivering complex large-scale projects.

“Our model is to secure both greenfield and brownfield works across Australia and New Zealand and then deliver those works with our team and extensive range of multi- gauge plant ranging from flashbutt welding machines to ballast trains and track laying machines,” said Martinus.

When it comes to investing in people, Martinus is also finding a way around the skills shortage that is often thought of as afflicting the rail sector.

“We look for passionate railway professionals who are driven to succeed. We provide the right support and training to nurture future industry leaders,” said Martinus.

In addition, Martinus found people from outside the rail sector whose skills were transferrable. These hires were not only from other construction areas but from the military and hospitality industry, and to ensure they stayed, the company has focused on creating a positive culture.

“Because we hired some of those leaders that were not from the rail industry, they were fresh into the rail industry, it actually opened up our pool of the great people that we wanted to hire,” said Martinus.

Combined, these investments ensure Martinus can provide an alternate method for delivering rail infrastructure solutions for their clients.

Martinus attributes their current pipeline of projects to the hard work and dedication of their people, including the Carmichael Rail Network in central Queensland and the Forrestfield-Airport Link in Perth.

Martinus is currently in the process of building the Carmichael Rail Network.

TACKLING FOUR CHALLENGES
In April 2020, Adani announced Martinus as a successful contractor for civil construction and rail works on the Carmichael Rail Network. The 200km narrow gauge rail line will link Adani’s Carmichael Mine to the existing Central Queensland Coal Network.

The $340m civil and track contracts have four unique challenges, said Martinus’ Chief Operating Officer Ryan Baden.

“The four big challenges are its remoteness, the start of the rail line is 200-kilometres from the coast, and then it goes another 200-kilometres south west from there. Second, is the complexity of the civil works which are currently underway. The third is ensuring we adhere to a significant number of strict environmental requirements and the fourth is the challenges around logistics.

“We’ve always undertaken civil construction in the rail corridor but compared to this they were minor civil construction. Now we’re delivering the port-side civil works, which is 86 kilometres of the earthworks formation with 10 multi-span superstructures – one that spans 50 metres, 87 culvert structures and three-million cubic meters of cut to fill.”

To meet these challenges, Martinus is turning back to the projects that have enabled the company to grow so rapidly.

“Our biggest success has been regional rail construction. Large regional rail projects fit our model, because to self-perform we hold a lot of white-collar and blue-collar expertise and plant that we have to keep busy,” said Baden. “We are expecting to have more than 600 workers on-site at the peak of construction.”

With regional rail projects, the scale and ongoing nature means that teams can be deployed for significant periods of time, rather than waiting for short-term possession-based work on metropolitan networks.

“The way we deliver regional projects is we have our core expertise that gets mobilised to the project and then we recruit, resource, and train from the region.”

Already, Martinus has 300 staff on site for the Carmichael Rail Network and the company has tapped into the local resource pool to engage workers and suppliers.

The approach is similar to the one taken by Martinus on previous projects, a large focus on community and industry engagement and set targets to employing, providing training opportunities and upskilling local people and engaging local suppliers.

Similarly, Martinus foresees an ongoing benefit from works on the Carmichael Rail Network.

“It will open up an area and there will be ongoing jobs in rail maintenance. There’ll be a larger fleet of rail wagons and coal wagons running around that will need to be serviced, it opens up the region to deliver more works,” said Baden.

“We are proud to support Adani’s commitment to regional job creation and partnering with local businesses.”

Martinus has invested in the people and equipment needed to deliver major projects.

LOCAL PRECISION
While Martinus is setting up camp in Central Queensland, its team are preparing in a very different way for another major project, the Forrestfield-Airport Link in Perth. The $1.86bn project is part of the West Australian government’s Metronet program and Martinus is working with the Salini Impregilo-NRW Joint Venture to undertake track and overhead wiring works.

The new line, which extends underneath the Perth airport and links up with the existing rail network at Bayswater combines greenfield and brownfield construction.

“It has large scale rail construction in the dual 8km tunnel where we’re delivering the slab track construction as well as the overhead wire and commissioning, including the brownfield connection at Bayswater Junction,” said Baden.

For a project of this complexity, comprehensive planning has to be undertaken. For the brownfield section, the style of operation goes to where the company first began.

“At the peak of works, we’ll have around 150 workers onsite. Not only will this help us deliver the project but it helps build our team and capabilities in WA, to ensure we are ready for new projects.

“Being solutions focused, we have to be mindful that our piece is a small piece in a very large project, and our team is flexible enough to be redeployed to help out another team or assist with other works,” said Baden.

“Some expertise are recruited locally but we have also brought in other expertise. The only way we’re going to have success is to build a self-sustaining business in WA,” said Baden. “It’s the same in every market, people want to be dealing with locals.”

“Every market that we’re in, we’re in for the long term. We plan to successfully continue our growth and stay true to why we did this in the first place.”

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.”

Where are rail’s “shovel-ready” projects?

Rail experts are calling for more plans to be developed to a “shovel-ready” stage, so that rail can take advantage of current infrastructure funding announcements.

With the federal government looking to states to nominate infrastructure projects that are ready to be rapidly implemented, a lack of ready to go projects is hampering rail’s ability to capitalise on current funding offers.

Rail Futures Institute President John Hearsch said that the industry needed to have projects prepared.

“While there’s lots of plans, having projects at a stage where they can be fairly rapidly implemented by and large doesn’t happen very much in the rail industry,” he said.

According to an industry survey carried out by the Australasian Railway Association (ARA), the most important action governments can make is to continue current projects. Caroline Wilkie, CEO of the ARA, welcomed the Morrison’s announcement that Inland Rail will be one of 15 fast-tracked projects.

In addition to the selected fast-track projects, Morrison has also dedicated $1.5bn to infrastructure funding. While road projects have been funded around the country, rail projects have largely missed out. Hearsch attributed the situation to the multiple bodies which have a responsibility for rail track infrastructure.

“It’s a reflection of the fact that the industry has become very disaggregated. Roads, broadly speaking, are either usually funded by the state or local government, whereas in the case of rail, you’ve got multiple track managers with differing agendas. Here in Victoria we’ve got three, MTM, V/Line, and ARTC.”

Wilkie noted the need to streamline approval processes to ensure rail projects are “shovel-ready”.

“Nationally consistent planning and procurement approaches are needed to get projects up and running faster. It is good to see governments looking at how we can make federal, state, and local approvals processes work more efficiently to support the COVID-19 recovery and we would like to see that focus continue beyond the current circumstances.”

While some projects are awaiting imminent final approval from the federal government, such as the updated Murray Basin Rail Project and Melbourne’s Airport Rail Link, ongoing discussions between the state and federal government have delayed the process. Wilkie said that work needs to begin for the next wave of rail projects.

“A strong project pipeline will help keep people working when the initial stimulus is over. Rail will play an important role, both in the short term and in the continuing recovery effort.”

With grain volumes increasing in Victoria, Hearsch nominated the need to reopening the Inglewood-Eaglehawk link as one “shovel-ready” project that would also improve road safety.

“By committing to a shovel-ready project that should take no more than 10 weeks to complete, there will be additional local jobs and business for regional Victorian suppliers hard-hit by the coronavirus recession,” said Hearsch.

“A big rise in the number of heavy trucks will have negative consequences for the wider community including accelerated damage to regional roads, dangerous driving conditions for motorists in rural and urban areas, increased air pollution and emissions and unnecessarily higher fuel consumption.”

At a cost of $25 million, the now dormant 41km line would remove bottlenecks south of Dunolly. Completion of the project in the short term would also not interfere with the long-term plan for the Murray Basin Rail Project.

“The Murray Basin Rail Project and the Inglewood-Eaglehawk line restoration are both means to a single end – moving as much freight as possible by rail – and through sound planning can be integrated compatibly,” said Hearsch.

As Wilkie noted, the benefits of rail go well beyond the project itself.

“Rail projects can reduce congestion and support sustainable outcomes to make our cities and communities function better and be more enjoyable to live in. Those benefits are sometimes hard to assess in a project approvals process, but they are the outcomes people want to see from infrastructure investment.

“Current stimulus projects should leave the legacy of better, smarter and more sustainable infrastructure long after they are completed and the rail industry can deliver that.”