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.”

Murray Basin Rail Project has run out of steam

The $440 million Murray Basin Rail Project needs urgent assistance to help complete the half-finished upgrades, according to the Rail Freight Alliance (RFA).

It’s been more than six months since the Victorian Government acknowledged the project had run out of funding. An Auditor General’s report is due next month to conduct a thorough review and investigation of the upgrade.

The RFA is calling on the state government to quickly fund the rest of the Murray Basin Rail Project.

Reid Mather, RFA chief executive officer said he is exceptionally disappointed at the current status of the project that is still yet to meet the scope of stage 2 that was due for completion in 2018.

Mather says the entire project will have to start from scratch and revisit stage 1 and 2.

“There is now a big slab of rail lines in Victoria that are exceptionally wrong due to underwhelming upgrades,” he said.

The completion of stage one, which began five years ago, included carrying out essential maintenance works across 3,400m of rail and roughly 130,000 sleepers in the Mildura freight line between Yelta and Maryborough.

The entire project is intended to convert parts of the Victorian freight rail network’s historical broad gauge to the standard gauge used in most other parts of Australia to enable tracks to have a higher axle loads for more efficient intrastate freight transfer.

However Mather claims that operators are saying that the network is slower than ever before.

Mather said Mildura to Melbourne was previously a 12 hour direct route before the upgrade project. In stage one, 30km of stabling was removed which now requires trains to route around Ararat and Geelong – now 17 hours a journey from Mildura to Melbourne.

“It is unacceptable. There is now a reduced capacity and uncertainty,” Mather said. 

Rail Projects Victoria is reported to be the organisation to carry out the review.

A Department of Transport spokesman told the Ararat Advertiser that the review would determine the most cost-effective outcomes of any future spending and make recommendations on the way forward.

“The Murray Basin Rail Project is delivering better, more efficient freight services for Victoria and continues to be a key project for the Victorian and Australian governments,” the DoT spokesman told the Ararat Advertiser.

“The project has already seen freight trains return to the Mildura and Murrayville to Ouyen lines with standard gauge access, and to the Maryborough to Ararat line, which has been reopened after 15 years,

“We know how vital this project is for our regional communities and the Victorian Government is working with the Federal Government to review the Murray Basin Rail Project business case, to jointly determine the best way forward.”

The state government last year announced the remaining $23m of the $440m federal and state money set aside for the project would go on urgent repairs to the Manangatang line and a new business case.

A spokeswoman for Transport Infrastructure Minister Jacinta Allan said a business case would be handed to the federal authorities by early to mid-2020.

Mather said the window for getting federal budget funding, to complete the project, was rapidly closing and requires urgent attention from state and federal officials.

“Works were meant to be completed by 2018 and certainly won’t be starting this year. The current network is in grid lock and it’s time to get the bones right,” Mather said.

“It’s all in the [government’s] hands.”

Victorian Intermodal freight hub seeking a developer and operator

Development Victoria (DV) is seeking a developer and operator of the Ballarat intermodal freight hub terminal.

The Victorian Government is requesting expressions of interest to develop the intermodal freight hub on the Ballarat to Ararat railway line which is part of the Ballarat West Employment Zone (BWEZ).

Development Victoria said the BWEZ will allow freight and logistics enterprises to have exceptional access to road, rail, and aviation infrastructure. The freight network will link Melbourne, regional and rural Victoria, Adelaide and the ports of Melbourne, Geelong, and Portland.

It is proposed that the successful respondent will take on design and delivery risk, demand and operational cost risk, manage the commercial return based on these risks and the services provided.

Operational arrangements are likely to be effected through a lease agreement with VicTrack.

Federal government funding of $9.1 million was provided in the 2014 federal Budget for the development of the facility. Potential additional funding from the State via DV will be made available if required.

There is some flexibility around the physical configuration of the Facility to allow for rail siding (either linear or loop), and it is expected that the successful respondent will have operational access to the connected rail stub and associated signalling which will be delivered by the State up to the eastern boundary of the Facility connecting from the main-line.

The civil works for Stages 1 and 1B of BWEZ are complete with a large percentage of land having been sold. 

The head of Rail Freight Alliance has publicly said Victoria will only benefit from the proposed intermodal freight hub once the Murray Basin Rail Project is complete.

The Murray Basin Rail Project (MBRP) is improving key freight centres in Victoria and encouraging competition and private investment in the rail freight network.

MBRP stated that an increased axle loading will allow higher volumes of product to be safely freighted across the network, allowing trains to carry up to 500,000 more tonnes of grain each year.

The first stage was completed in 2016 and freight trains have returned to the Mildura line and to the reopened Maryborough to Ararat line. V/Line crews are working to finalise and bed in the track to complete stage 2 of 3 for the project.

Catherine King, federal member of Ballarat and shadow minister infrastructure, transport and regional development said the BWEZ facility is located alongside existing road and rail infrastructure, enabling the freight hub to connect with more locations.

“A truck will be able to come in straight off the Western Highway and either head in to a manufacturer or connect up with the rail line and deliver products further afield,” she said.

“The prospect of future infrastructure upgrades to the adjoining Ballarat Airport site will open up even more opportunities across the Ballarat region, but this will only come with support from governments at a state and federal level.”

Respondant registration closes on March 3 and EOI submission must be made by March 13, closing at 3pm.