Vcitoria’s regional rail system is in the news again … and arguably not for the right reasons.

Earlier this week the Federal and Victorian Governments were spruiking a major sleeper replacement project now under way on the critical grain line between Korong and Sea Lake.

Deputy Prime Minister and Federal Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development Michael McCormack, and Victoria’s Minister for Transport Infrastructure, Jacinta Allan were crowing that almost 70,000 new sleepers were now being installed on the line in a project that would “keep freight moving efficiently for generations to come.”

That was good news, and it was widely welcomed.

The enthusiasm for the project was echoed by Victorian Minister for Ports and Freight, Melissa Horne; Member for Mallee, Dr Anne Webster, and Federal Member for Wannon, Dan Tehan.

But by Wednesday some of those who welcomed the project at first were having second thoughts when it was claimed that the sleeper replacement was being done with concrete sleeps instead of wooden ones.

The difference is that wooden sleepers can be reconfigured to cater for a change in rail gauge, a major pillar of the Murray Basin Rail Project.

Any concrete sleepers laid now will have to be replaced when the rail gauge is changed in the future, vastly increasing the cost of any fugure works.

By Wednesday this week, Dr Webster was not sure wooden sleepers were being used, and that, she said, was an issue.

“Reports I have received today (Wednesday) indicate that the Victorian Government is using concrete sleepers that are only compatible with broad gauge rail,” Dr Webster said.

“The installation of these broad gauge sleepers will mean that any future work to fully standardise the Murray Basin Rail Network will require all new replacement sleepers compatible with standard gauge.
“Should these reports prove to be true, this is a critical error by the Victorian Government, and is another damning indictment on their capacity to deliver this vital infrastructure project.”

She wasn’t the only one expressing concern.

Northern Victoria MP Tania Maxwell said in a statement: “This is a hugely important project and has to be done properly. A half-measured approach threatens important future projects, such as the Ouyen Intermodal, and will continue to push freight onto road instead of rail.”

The ‘Weekly too received information from reliable sources that concrete sleepers were being used … and was provided with photographic evidence (see photo).

Dr Webster continued: “On top of $195 million to revive the stalled project, the Federal Government committed an additional $5 million to allow for a plan for the full standardisation of the network. The Federal Government requested that the State Government match this additional commitment, which is yet to take place.
“The move to install sleepers incompatible with standard gauge shows that the Andrews Government is either not capable of delivering this project efficiently, or that they are deliberately trying to prevent the full standardisation of the network. Frankly, I can’t decide which is worse.”

“Without full standardisation, the very real risk is that the Manangatang and Sea Lake lines will end up as the only broad gauge lines left in Australia.
“Farmers, rail stakeholders, and community members have all told me that me that full standardisation of the network is essential for our regional industries and communities. The Andrews Government is not listening to their concerns, and clearly hasn’t learnt from their past mistakes on this project.”
“That they could stuff up this project yet again is beyond belief. I’m calling on the Victorian Government to stop putting in sleepers that will limit future development of these critical rail lines, and to commit to the full standardisation of the network.”
“Without full standardisation, the Victorian Government is committing to more trucks on country roads, and fewer opportunities for farmers, businesses, and emerging industries in Mallee.”

The ‘Weekly was also contacted by a reliable source that told us train crews had reported that concrete sleepers have been discharged by the track ready for insertion between Sea Lake and Berriwillock, and a mix of concrete and timber between Berriwillock and Wycheproof.

For clarity, gauge convertible concrete sleepers of the type suitable for grain lines have never been used or approved for use by V/Line and as such, none have ever been manufactured.

Therefore, short term, only timber sleepers should be used on these lines pending a more sensible and sustainable track maintenance policy being adopted, the ‘Weekly was told.

Our contact went on to say: “As we understand it, the agreement with the Commonwealth requires that only gauge convertible sleepers must be used. In any event, it is unconscionable that non-gauge convertible sleepers be used on lines that will remain as candidates for standardisation even though this work cannot be funded at present.
“The use of these concrete sleepers, all of which would have to be removed and replaced as part of any future standardisation project, also has the effect of dramatically inflating the future cost of such work. It is as though a deliberate strategy has been developed to make future gauge standardisation so expensive that permanent retention of broad gauge becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”