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The rail access battle between Fortescue Metals Group Ltd and the mining giants will drag on for years, junior miners in Western Australia's Pilbara region say.
The Australian Competition Tribunal on Wednesday decided to allow third parties to use the Goldsworthy and Robe rail lines owned by BHP Billiton Ltd and Rio Tinto Ltd, respectively.
The tribunal did not, however, declare BHP's Mr Newman and Rio's Hamersley rail lines, which were regarded as more important, open to smaller miners.
Fortescue said it would appeal to the full bench of the Federal Court on the Mt Newman and Hamersley decisions and BHP Billiton indicated it could take the Goldsworthy matter down the same path.
"It more or less confirms what I'd always believed with regards to unwanted third party access to rail: it is basically a long and tortuous process," BC Iron Ltd managing director Mike Young told AAP on Thursday.
"Even if these companies were made to reluctantly grant access to the railways - if they weren't willing partners like FMG are with us - the delays that would be thrown up would be in the order of years."
This was because juniors had limited cash reserves until revenues started flowing from first production.
Rio did not indicate that it would appeal to the Federal Court in respect of the Robe line, which leads to its wholly owned Cape Lambert port.
Mr Young noted that access to the Robe rail line was a hollow victory without an accompanying port deal. The tribunal's declarations were a step forward, but the legal road ahead was "long and bumpy".
"Just because you have access to railway, doesn't mean you have access to port.
"All you'd do (without port access) is move your useless pile of dirt from where it is in the Pilbara to next to the ocean without getting it on a ship.
"Until you can get it on a ship, you don't realise the value of the asset."
Atlas Iron Ltd managing director David Flanagan noted the Goldsworthy line was near Atlas' Pardoo mine, but indicated that the company was not basing its plans on any presumption of access to the BHP-owned line.
Mr Flanagan also expected appeals would drag on, but was confident the lines would ultimately be freed up to third parties.
Atlas and BC Iron are the only junior miners to have negotiated infrastructure use deals with Fortescue.
Atlas recently freed itself from dependence on Fortescue, however, by absorbing Aurox Resources Ltd to secure new berth space being constructed at Utah Point.
Mr Young indicated that he was happy with BC's deal with Fortescue, which saw the junior miner relinquish half of its Nullagine project, about 310 kilometres from Port Hedland, in exchange for Fortescue providing road haulage and port services.
"Half of something is better than 100 per cent of nothing," he said.
© 2010 AAP
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