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.”

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.”

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.”

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.”