By GRANT MAYNARD

VICTORIA needs a 21st Century-standard rail network to underpin the proposed intermodal freight facility at Ouyen, and to reduce the number, and size, of the heavy trucks now using the Calder Highway.

And it needs it now.

That’s the bottom line according to chair of the Victoria Rail Freight Alliance*, Cr Glenn Milne.

Galvanised to comment by two recent Mildura Weekly stories, Cr Milne said both the Ouyen intermodal freight facility project, and a solution to concerns about the number of heavy trucks using the Calder between Mildura and Melbourne relied on the same answer – a modern rail link between the two cities.

“The Basin Rail Project needs to be completed, and fast,” he said.

For those not familiar with the $440million Murray Basin Rail Project (to give it its full title) it will:

• Upgrade the lines in the Murray Basin from broad gauge to standard gauge.

• Restore and upgrade the existing standard gauge line between Ararat and Maryborough.

• Upgrade the lines in the Murray Basin from 19 tonne per axle to 21 tonnes per axle.

• Upgrade the broad-gauge line from Geelong (Gheringhap) to Ballarat (Warrenheip) to dual gauge.

• Upgrade the Ouyen to Murrayville line from broad gauge to standard gauge with axle loading of 19 tonnes per axle.

Importantly, proponents say, the restoration of the line between Ararat and Maryborough will connect the Port of Portland to the Murray Basin, via standardised tracks. This link will allow mineral sands to be to be transported to Hamilton from Manangatang, eliminating a long road connection that sees trucks transporting mineral sands to the standard gauge line at Hopetoun.

The project’s touted benefits include:
• Lower rail freight costs will see trains taking a larger share of the freight task in the Murray Basin. Exporters from the Murray Basin will see strong modal competition between road and rail, with more choice for freight users.

• Upgrading the lines to a 21-tonne axle loading will provide an immediate 15 percent productivity efficiency improvement that will increase train loads by 300 to 400 tonnes . Average grain train payloads will increase to 2500 tonnes per train.

• Farmers in the Murray Basin will gain access to a deep-sea port at Portland, delivering them the efficiencies that more heavily-laden bulk carriers offer. Ships berthing at Portland can be loaded with more grain than ships berthing at Geelong.

• The ports of Geelong and Portland will more actively compete for bulk export freight from the Murray Basin.

• Rail operators from all over Australia will actively compete to provide rail services, in particular to the grain marketers and intermodal operators.

• There will be more private sector investment as bulk handlers build new loading facilities to take advantage of the efficiencies delivered by the project.

• The upgrade and standardisation of the Ouyen to Murrayville rail line – which would have otherwise become gauge isolated – will enable grain from this corridor to be carried by rail to Victoria’s ports rather than travelling by road to competing ports in South Australia.

You would have had to have been living under a rock for the past 12 months not to have heard work on the project has stalled amid allegations that the Victorian State Government has blown the budget and it has now put the project on hold indefinitely.

In June last year when news of the project cost blow-out broke, Victorian Nationals leader and Shadow Minister for Regional Victoria and Decentralisation, Peter Walsh, said: “The Andrews Labor Government has turned a transformational, once-in-a-generation rural infrastructure project into a wasteful mess of cost blow-outs, missed deadlines and appalling contract management.

“Under Jacinta Allan’s watch, there’s been a $100million blow-out on the Mildura line stage; the Maryborough-Ararat works have been hampered by the use of second-hand rail line, broken welds and slow speeds; and now Stage 3 is indefinitely on hold because the Andrews Government claims it’s run out of money!

“Daniel Andrews (Premier) and Jacinta Allan (Minister for Transport Infrastructure) are pouring money into metro transport infrastructure cost blowouts – they have been able to find billions for cost blowouts on level crossing removals in Melbourne – but they treat Regional Victorians like second class citizens.”

Cr Milne described the monumental mismanagement of the project as concerning and disheartening.

“It should have been completed by now and, if it was, we probably wouldn’t be having this discussion,” he added.

“At the moment a 19th Century standard rail network would be preferable to what we have,” he half-joked.

“But what we do need is a 21st Century standard rail system that will support development into the future.

“This is 2020 after all. We should have an excellent rail system.”

Cr Milne said rail freight efficiency is the key.

If rail can deliver freight in a timely fashion, at a competitive price, it will be a winner, he said.

And, if rail can match road freight times — six to seven hours between Mildura and Melbourne — it will offer those forwarding freight to southern ports a viable alternative to road transport.

That, he said, may also make a rail passenger service viable too.

“If people can get to Melbourne by train in the same time it takes to drive, or quicker, we may be able to coax people back onto the rails,” Cr Milne said.

It has now been about six months since there was any real news on the project. The State Government has been very quiet and Cr Milne says that is simply not good enough.

“We need to know the State Government is committed to seeing this project through…and we need to know now!”

* The Rail Freight Alliance comprises Victorian rural, and regional and metropolitan Local Government Councils. The Alliance represents the Local Government sector in Victoria and adjoining States in freight logistics interests connecting Victoria nationally and internationally.The Alliance was first formed in 1997 due to growing frustration with the lack of rail connectivity both within Victoria and with the neighbouring States and the lack of investment in Victoria’s antiquated 19th century rail freight system.