Rail in the Wheatbelt: Why Freo should care

The determination of the WA state government and Transport Minister Troy Buswell to close over 720 kilometres of so-called Tier 3 railway lines in the state's Wheatbelt has put it on a collision course with grain farming communities and threatens to unleash a vast increase in heavy truck traffic and all the problems that go with it.

The lines threatened with closure transport over 92% of grain from the areas they serve to port. This ranges between 1.5 and 2 million tonnes every season. If this task is converted to road, it will generate between 57,000 and 86,000 extra truck movements per year.

This debacle has its origins in the privatisation WA's railways in 2000 by the Liberal Government of Richard Court, in which current Premier Colin Barnett was a minister.

Control of the state's "below the rail" assets; that is the tracks, signals and associated equipment, passed to WestNet Rail (now Brookton Rail) through a forty-nine year lease. Just as happened elsewhere, the company has made a tidy profit charging others to run trains over its tracks, but failed to reinvest in the infrastructure.

WestNet announced last year that would need a $93.5 million taxpayer handout to maintain the Tier 3 lines in operation. The government rejected the request and instead plans to spend over $100 million upgrading Wheatbelt roads to enable the grain to be carted by truck.

However this sum does not even come close to bringing all the affected country roads up to standard that would enable them to safely carry B-double trucks. Previous government reports have estimated that Wheatbelt roads already have a $800 million maintenance backlog. The real cost of coping with the extra trucks would simply be forced onto rural shires, and by extension rural communities.

The rail closure proposal was generated by the government's hand-picked Strategic Grain Network Review Committee. As well as underestimating the cost of upgrading rural roads, the report does not account for the greater lifespan of capital invested in rail compared to road (up to 35 years, compared to only 10 years for roadwork); let alone the loss of amenity, extra particulate pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and inevitable increase in road accident trauma.

The state government is proposing that farmers truck their grain to new "super loading" facilities at Brookton or Kellerberrin, and then pay to have it transferred to rail for the remainder of the journey to Kwinana south of Perth. To rub salt in the wounds, they want the grain cooperative CBH (and in effect farmers themselves) to pay for this infrastructure.

In reality, many farmers having already trucked their grain half way to port would find it cheaper and more convenient to continue all the way by road. Consequently the government plan would see an unknown proportion of these extra truck movements pouring over the Darling Range and onto Perth's road network.

To justify its policy the government falsely claims that rail is no longer competitive and that farmers want to shift to road. This is a lie. Even after privatisation and the deregulation of freight costs, which made road transport notionally cheaper in the more outlying regions affected by the proposed closures, over 92% of the grain is still carried by rail.

Farmers prefer rail because when a bumper harvest is in full swing they want their truck shuttling between the header in the field and their local grain bin; not stuck on the road for hours. Furthermore not all can afford to buy a B-double truck. Surely some also care about the large number number of road trains that would be squeezing past school buses on narrow country roads and rumbling though their towns.

The absurdity of the government plan is further revealed by the fact that CBH has indicated that it wants to invest in its own modern trains that would enable it offer grain haulage to farmers in the areas threatened by closure even cheaper than can be done be truck.

The refusal of WA National Party leader Brendan Grylls to break cabinet solidarity and distance himself from a plan that is so deeply unpopular in the bush has opened a deep fracture in the National Party's own heartland.

In the wake of the September 2008 state election the National Party backed a minority Liberal government in return for its acceptance of their "Royalties for the Regions" policy. One of the projects the fund was supposed to underwrite was upgrading the regional rail network. How can Grylls defend the interests of farming communities when WestNet is the biggest corporate doner to the National Party after mining magnate Clive Palmer?

Meanwhile the WA Local Government Association (WALGA) has disappointed Wheatbelt shires for essentially siding with the state government, declaring that it is only opposed to the railway closures until the roads are upgraded. WALGA President Troy Pickard is a member of the Liberal Party and touted as a future state candidate, so it's hard to imagine him leading a full blooded fight against the very government he may want to join.

In response a number of country shires have formed the Wheatbelt Rail Retention Alliance (WRRA) with the active support of Peter Newman (Professor of Sustainability at Curtin University) and a number of other organisations.

The first line closures have been deferred, with an admission by the government that its inadequate road upgrades have not yet been completed anyway. This give opponents of the plan some important time to spread the word and galvanise a response.

This is not just a rural issue. The plan would have disastrous implications for the greater Fremantle area, already suffering an uncontrolled growth in truck movements to the container port; by putting more trucks on city roads and further justifying and locking-in an entirely road based response to our freight transport needs.

Container volumes through the port are predicted to double by 2020, and yet the proportion carried by rail has dropped from a high of 17% to 11% in 2011 and falling. It's as if Troy Buswell wants to create the truck traffic to justify the Roe 8 extension and waste hundreds of millions of dollars of our money that would be better spent on rail freight and public transport initiatives

The recently formed Fremantle Road to Rail group has enthusiastically thrown its support behind the WRRA campaign. On 28 September the City of Fremantle became the twentieth local government to join the WRRA, and first urban council to do so.

Ultimately our rail network must be returned to public ownership. It's infrastructure that was built up by the people of WA for over a century and a half. It belongs to all of us. To abandon these regional lines would be a wasteful act of vandalism; with negative consequences for public health, the environment and community amenity in the city and the bush. Like the Coal Seam Gas issue has done on the eastern seaboard, the issue should unite farming and urban communities before it's too late.

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