By MICHAEL O’CALLAGHAN*
MUCH has been written about the unfinished Murray Basin Rail Project, most recently when it went without Victorian Government funding in the latest State Budget.
There are, as I am acutely aware, two sides to every story, so in the interests of a better understanding amongst the wider Sunraysia/Mallee community and in fairness to all, here is a brief outline of the Basin Rail project issues as they stand.
First a quick bit of background.
The Murray Basin rail network is a large network of train lines starting in north-west Victoria and leading to the State’s ports. It is owned and managed by the Victorian Government and a major reconfiguration of this rail network commenced in June 2017, but that work was abandoned about a year later when it was less than half completed.
What the Victorian Government is saying about its half-finished MBRP:
• ‘The Federal Government is to blame because it did not provide funding in the October budget to finish the project’.
My response to that is that the Federal Government cannot provide funding because it was effectively being asked to partake in a secretly revised MBRP that provides very little benefit with the second half of the original MBRP still not being completed.
• ‘Our freight and passenger rail networks have evolved significantly since the original business case was first developed in 2012’
First, this problem can be solved by dual gauging the applicable sections of track. Second, the final business case was released in August 2015 and good governance would ensure its key underlying assumptions and parameters are checked right up to the point when the Victorian Government signed major contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars in mid-2017 to commence the MBRP ‘proper’. It is misleading for the State to blame an old irrelevant document, prepared in 2012, as the excuse for not completing the MBRP as originally planned.
A timeline of events is relevant here:
Pre-June 2017 and the start of MBRP works: Freight trains from north-west Victoria always took a direct route to the major ports (with Maryborough direct to Geelong being most vital).
June 2018: Half-finished MBRP abandoned, Vic Government makes freight trains less viable.
Half the Murray Basin rail network is left stuck on an antiquated freight broad gauge rail line and the other half of the trains on standard gauge instead of being able use the vital Maryborough to Geelong corridor are being re-routed on a permanent detour via Ararat and Maroona adding an extra 260 kilometres and about 3.5 hours to each trip. This made some freight trains unviable and, in the medium to long-term, and with other Government decisions (read on), has the potential to make a majority of them unviable altogether.
May 2019: Deloitte Access Economics report; high freight costs compared to our international competitors ‘is hurting our bottom line’. Ignored by Vic. Government. Highest transport costs are grains at 27.5 per cent of gross income, fruit and vege-
tables at 21 per cent.
October 2019: Abandoned MBRP, 16 months on: State incentivises farmers, exporters to use trucks instead of rail. The Government’s solution has been to allow 36.5-metre or 120-foot long heavy trucks to travel along the Calder Highway from the top of the state through to the suburbs of Geelong and Melbourne. Farmers and exporters are being incentivised by the State to abandon rail to freight millions of tonnes of grain and horticulture produce and instead are being incentivised to use bigger trucks, which will result in more of them.
October 2020: Summary of State’s secretly revised MBRP finally released – falls well short of ensuring freight goes on rail. This was prepared without broad stakeholder engagement, the document confirms the Victorian Government’s intention to abandon the works on the Sea Lake and Manangatang lines and the vital Maryborough to Geelong corridor works abandoned (affecting trains using the Mildura line). This makes trains less viable and consequently unviable against the increasing number of bigger trucks
October 2020: Victorian Government destroys the opportunities the original MBRP was set to deliver. As an example, one flow-on project in north-west Victoria is primed to deliver 75 to 90 ongoing new jobs, a $11.3 million annual economic injection (primary), new manufacturing and put freight onto rail. That opportunity will be gone under the revised MBRP.
November 2020: Horticulture and other produce exported in shipping container (intermodal) requiring 19.3 million truck kilometres every year to get to Port (and increasing). The Victorian Government’s revised MBRP will not fix this.
December 2020: 2020/21 grain Harvest needs 84.2 million truck kilometres to get harvest to Victorian ports. The Victorian Government’s revised MBRP will barely put a ‘dent’ in this. Trucks are important to our economy, but in this case we should be optimising rail and definitely do not see ‘bigger trucks’ as being the right solution, not only for us in North West Victoria, but for all road users, the environment and all communities, from the top of the state through to Geelong and the inner suburbs of Melbourne.
For an equivalent cost of removing a couple of level crossings in Melbourne, and with the Federal Government having already indicated support, the Victorian Government must complete the Murray Basin Rail Project in full and as originally planned.
*Michael O’Callaghan is a Sunraysia-based freight consultant who has most recently been working with Ouyen Inc. on the Ouyen Intermodal Freight facility project that depends heavily on the MBRP being completed in its entirety.