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A whistleblower wants Victoria’s anti-corruption commission to investigate allegations that public funds in a $440 million rail project were misused.
On a desolate railway crossing at Cocamba in Victoria's north-west, a lonely stretch of steel track comes to an abrupt end.
"They've only just put the line through the crossings, and that's as far as it's gone," said Brian Barry, who farms grain near the township of Manangatang.
The section of standardised rail track was meant to connect hundreds of kilometres of track from the Manangatang line to the Port of Melbourne, linking the agricultural area to the south as part of a $440 million freight upgrade.
Instead, the track leads nowhere, coming to a stop on either side of the road crossing.
"It's letting us know what it could and should be — it's like a monument to a failed project," Mr Barry said.
The Murray Basin rail upgrade was supposed to bring more than 1,000 kilometres of western Victoria's 100-year-old freight network into the 21st century.
Four rail corridors of track were to be converted from broad gauge (1,600 millimetres) to standard gauge (1,435 millimetres) to bring it in line with other freight networks, and make it easier to shift exports off the struggling regional road network.
But three years after work started, the money has run dry, with half the project — including hundreds of kilometres between Manangatang and Dunolly — still broad gauge.
The majority of grain leaving prime farming areas is going by road, as a result.
"We've got a real mishmash of tracks, and it’s actually worse than if the project had ever started," said Victorian Farmers Federation councillor, Christine Plant.
"For the train operators to have to run two sets of wagons, standardised and broad gauge, how long are they going to have to do that for?"
The rail gauge has been upgraded further north-west around Mildura, and the disused line between Ararat and Maryborough has been reopened in the south-west.
But freight operators say even those lines are riddled with limits on wagon weights and speed restrictions, with trains travelling as slow as 25 kilometres per hour.
Freight operator Pacific National claims the project has not delivered and says it is running a quarter of the trains predicted, and has told the State Government the troubled network is "incapable of transporting grain in the volumes required".
Allegation of 'poor design, construction'
The ABC has obtained a statement from a project insider lodged with the state's Independent Broad-based Anti-Corruption Commission (IBAC) that includes a series of allegations around why the project went so wrong.
The statement has accused the consortium behind the project of overcharging the Government for works done, and alleges it involved "poor-quality construction, poor design and costly project management".
Transport Minister Jacinta Allan said she was unaware a complaint had been lodged with IBAC.
"Well, look, if a matter has been referred to IBAC, and I'm not aware of that circumstance, then I simply can't comment," Ms Allan said.
But she said the Government did not deny there were "issues" with the project's delivery.
"Both by the contractors who were delivering that part of the project and also by V/Line," Ms Allan said.
"And that's why the remainder of the project is being delivered by Rail Projects Victoria, as they have the appropriate expertise, and we're working with them and indeed the Federal Government on revising the business case."
A spokesman for McConnell Dowell and Martinus Rail — the joint venture behind the project's construction — said the consortium was unaware the matter had been raised with IBAC and was therefore unable to comment.
'Out of sight, out of mind'Victoria's Auditor General is due to release a report into the project on Wednesday.
It was prompted by concerns from the Opposition about the redevelopment, and looked at whether the rail upgrade made the freight network more efficient.
GrainCorp, Australia's biggest grain handler, said up to $50 million set aside for new grain-loading infrastructure in Victoria had gone interstate.
"It's an absolutely missed opportunity," regional manager Peter Johnston said.
"It's been frustrating more than anything else, and I think that the uncertainty is probably what our greatest concern is.
"The freight network works, but not as efficiently as it should."
Mr Barry said the rail network on which his business relied had become an embarrassment.
"It's become a frustration just driving over it and looking at it — frustrating and embarrassing, actually.
"I think it's a case of out of sight, out of mind."
This article first appeared on www.abc.net.au
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