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A long-running stand-off between Australia's biggest grain handler CBH and global infrastructure giant Brookfield over the use of WA's rail freight network has ended after a breakthrough in negotiations between the two sides.
But there are doubts about whether the long-awaited agreement will allow the reopening of several so-called Tier 3 rail lines shuttered in 2014 under the then Barnett government.
The fate of the lines has become a hot-button issue for thousands of people living in affected areas amid claims their closure has increased road safety risks by forcing more grain to be transported by truck.
Almost 10 years after CBH and Brookfield subsidiary Arc Infrastructure fell out over the cost of using the rail system, the two companies will today announce a long-term deal over access.
The agreement is believed to be worth up to $400 million over seven years and will cover lines across WA's grain belt, from Geraldton in the north to Esperance in the south east.
Neither company would comment yesterday but Arc executive director Murray Cook on Friday told the ABC that a breakthrough was "imminent".
Arc lease deal controversialThe expected announcement brings to an end a sometimes bitter dispute between the companies, which resorted to arbitration in 2016 when negotiations failed to resolve how much CBH should have to pay to use the network.
CBH claimed Arc had demanded "unreasonable" price rises, while the Canadian-owned rail operator said the costs of maintaining and upgrading ageing lines were significant and needed to be passed on.
Arc has exclusive control of the rail freight network courtesy of a controversial lease struck with the former Court Liberal government in 2000.
But the contract has drawn fire after Arc was allowed to close a number of Tier 3 lines five years ago without being required to hand back the routes for an alternative operator to run.
Last week, State Transport Minister Rita Saffioti suggested the privatisation had been badly handled and had left the current Government with little power to broker an agreement or force more grain onto rail.
Ms Saffioti also took aim at the regulatory arrangements governing access to the freight network, saying the stand-off between CBH and Arc had taken "too long" to resolve.
"I'd like to see more grain on rail if we can but that's up to the parties involved," Ms Saffioti said.
"I'm keen for it to come to a conclusion and that both CBH and Arc can move on and actually make sure that we can get our grain to port as efficiently as possible.
"Making sure we have a competitive wheat industry, a competitive farming industry, is really important for WA and for the success of our farmers."
Farmers call for grain by railQuairading farmer Greg Richards, a former head of the Wheatbelt Railway Retention Alliance, said he would be bitterly disappointed if a deal between CBH and Arc failed to reinstate at least some of the shuttered Tier 3 lines.
Mr Richards, whose line was closed in the 2014 changes, said carting grain by rail was a "no-brainer" because of the economies of scale involved but also because it was safer than using trucks.
"I just don't think we're trying hard enough, that the powers that be are trying hard enough," Mr Richards said.
He the increase in the number of truck movements required to transport grain since the Tier 3 lines were closed had taken a significant toll on roads in affected areas.
The situation required governments at all levels to increase funding for road maintenance, which he argued amounted to "wasting good money after bad".
"It's staggering," Mr Richards said.
This article first appeared on www.abc.net.au
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