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Issue #1569      17 October 2012

Campaign to save WA Wheat Belt Railroad gathers momentum

On a balmy Monday night in Perth when most citizens were relaxing at home a group of over 60 activated citizens gathered at Lotteries West House in West Perth to hear what a strong cast of politicians and rural activists had to say about the proposed fate of a rural rail network in the state’s southwest.


Thornlie Grain Train to Kwinana.

There was a perfect storm of farming and business interests versus community and environmental needs building on this seemingly obscure and distant issue.

In 2009 the WA state Liberal government commissioned the Strategic Grain Network to report on the viability of the Grain Rail Network. The committee handed down its findings in December 2009 that led in early 2010 to the government announcing that it would close the Tier 3 Rail Network lines which the report had deemed as uneconomic.

This move galvanised opposition amongst farmers in the WA wheat belt area that would be affected by the closures of railways which were situated between York and Narrogin. The grain freight would instead be carted by truck along narrow country roads to highways that led to Perth and Kwinana (just south of Perth). This in turn mobilised opposition to the closure of rail in communities along the Great Eastern Highway between York and Perth and in the port communities of Kwinana and Fremantle.

The most vocal community group to form out of this was the Wheat-belt Rail Retention Alliance (WRRA) and its President Bill Cowan was the first speaker of the evening, which was organised by Sustainable Energy Now. A farmer from Narembeen, Bill Cowan said that the closure of the Tier 3 Rail Network would have a multiple effect on the communities and lives of people in the wheat belt community in which he lived.

The local shires would be affected by a requirement to build and maintain the roads as most roads in these wheat belt communities are the responsibility of local government shires. The cost to upgrade the roads to carry the increased traffic of semitrailer road trains laden with wheat would be beyond many wheat belt shires to carry out. The people living in the road district known as Wheat-Belt South already have their concerns about what would happen to road safety as it currently has the dubious distinction of having the highest road toll in Australia for the period 2001-2010 when 740 people were killed or seriously injured.

In WA on average every year, the state’s farmers produce over 12 million tonnes of grain of which 95 percent is exported and earns the state income. While the 2011-12 season was a bumper grain crop of 15 million tonnes and this year’s crop is projected to be around 9 million tonnes it would create chaos on rural roads to have the majority of the crop transported by semitrailers/road trains on our rural and city roads.

The locomotives and wagons which brought this valuable product to market were until the 1990s predominantly carted by the Western Australian Government Railways. When the Hilmer Report on National Competition Policy came out in 1993, it changed the way farmers could get their grain to market.

The current arrangements have a private contractor, Brookfield-Multiplex, running the “below rail” component of the Tier 3 Rail Network and Co-operative Bulk Handling (CBH) runs the “above rail” component or the trains and carriages. CBH is owned by unit holders who are predominantly the grain farmers themselves. CBH believed trains to be the best option to cart grain which is why this year they acquired 22 new state of the art diesel locomotives from the US and 574 similar quality wagons which Bill Cowan advised cost $175 million. In contrast the Barnett state government was prepared to only provide $100 million to local shires to upgrade the relevant wheat-belt roads to accommodate the new semitrailers. That figure would not nearly be enough to build the type of quality roads which are required and according to Cowan would barely last beyond the first year of use by heavy trucking.

A leaflet put out by the WRRA puts the cost to upgrade a road at $600,000 - $1,000,000 per kilometre for a maximum life of 15 years whereas the cost to upgrade rail is significantly less at $127,000 per kilometre for a minimum 35 year life span. Add to this that carting grain by truck uses 4.8 times more fuel than by rail while one narrow gauge freight train can carry as much as 59 road trains. The consequences for savings on costs and competiveness of our produce in the market place of using rail, noted Cowan, cannot be underestimated. Using trucks to haul grain instead of using trains would add $6-7 cost per tonne when carted from the south-western wheat fields to the port of Kwinana.

Dale Park, President of the WA Farmers Federation noted that the state government of Premier Colin Barnett had inflated rail costs and deflated road costs to help make the privatisation move appealing to the parliament, the people and farmers. It was a mindset that was continuing today with the way the contract to run the rail lines was continuing with the current contractor Brookfield Rail, he said. The government requires that Brookfield keep weeds from the line and ensure the line is kept operational but not maintain the line to ensure its long term viability. However, Brookfield charges CBH access fees to run its trains and CBH and farmers believe that the large sums they pay are not being spent to run the railway in the best possibly way but for Brookfield to make a profit. Park pointed out that parts of the freight rail system in the US, in wheat belt states of Arkansas and Kansas, were running at a profit. In fact a recent article in Time Magazine (July 9, 2012) pointed out that 40 percent of intercity freight is carted by train and that the US has the lowest freight costs in the world due in large part to a well funded maintenance program that ironically is predominantly funded by the private corporations that run the rail road companies.

Park also said that farmers were angry that their assets in the new trains acquired by CBH were underutilised as they were made to run at between 60-70 kilometres per hour but because Brookfield was running the railway into the ground. In some sections the trains could barely travel at 20 kilometres per hour.

The Liberal state Treasurer Troy Buswell had been invited to speak at the meeting as it was he that was the most vocal proponent of grain on trucks and who had made the comment in the media that there was simply not enough tonnage on the Tier 3 Rail to keep those lines open. Instead another Nationals MP Philip Gardner read from a statement prepared by Buswell which said that, “road trains are almost trains anyway”, which audibly raised the ire of the meeting. Gardner added that the transport of grain by trucks also, “gives the farmer flexibility.”

When it was pointed out to Gardner that CBH had shown its hand by buying trains and wagons this year Gardner could only reply that “CBH were keeping its options open”!

The final speaker was Greens MP for Fremantle Lynn McLaren who addressed some of the environmental and community health aspects of trucking as opposed to rail haulage of grain. Trucking grain also increased infrastructure costs and therefore the costs of running the state.

The spectre of Peak Oil had also not been factored into the decision to increasingly rely on trucks. There were diminishing amounts of oil reserves being developed in the world and this was pushing the price of oil ever upwards which would only be added to the cost of food production and distribution. We had therefore to use the little fuel we have more efficiently.

The rail vs trucking of grain evolving in Western Australia is turning out to be a multi-dimensional issue which is not just about saving a railway line as a cheaper option. it is also an environmental health issue, a climate change issue, a public versus private sector issue it is also about producing food efficiently for domestic and foreign markets.

With a state election coming up in March 2013, it is also galvanising voters in city as well as the country to save not only an efficient form of transport but also the viability and health of their communities.

Postscript

The state government has reversed its decision to close Tier 3 rail lines.

The lines were due to close at the end of the month but Troy Buswell now says they will remain open until at least October next year.

Mr Buswell’s told the ABC’s Country Hour that a decision was made after meeting the grain handler CBH and Brookfield Rail.

“This extra 12 months gives those two parties the time I hope to work towards a solution,” he said.

“A solution which will see Brookfield able to maintain the railway lines in an operational state and it will enable CBH to run their trains run on those lines.”  

Next article – Culture & Life – An inconvenient politician

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