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.”