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IT WAS, as one wag suggested, one of the odder moments in the Australian Competition Tribunal.
As redoubtable Queen's counsel Alan Archibald launched into BHP Billiton's arguments why Fortescue Metals should not be allowed to use BHP's railways in the Pilbara, a neatly dressed woman interrupted the Melbourne proceedings and asked to be heard.
Her problems stemmed, sadly, from an altogether different cause in a different jurisdiction but she insisted repeatedly that the leaden dispute between Fortescue, BHP, Rio Tinto and the National Competition Council was her case and that she wanted to examine all their documents.
There was some indulgence from tribunal president Justice Ray Finkelstein, who tried to convince her that the case was about trains, not insurance or bogus companies, and when she asked who were all the people at the bar table, the judge replied, ''They're my friends''.
But when the woman retorted that the tribunal was corrupt, it was time to adjourn. It took more than 80 minutes before six officers of the Victoria Police forcibly removed her from the Federal Court building.
Access to courts is one issue, access to railways is quite another. The latter issue will vex the tribunal until at least Christmas as it considers the important question of whether or not BHP and Rio should be forced to open their multibillion-dollar rail lines in the Pilbara to rival iron ore producers.
Mr Archibald told the tribunal that BHP's rail lines, linking mines at Mount Whaleback, Jimblebar and Yandi with the port facilities at Port Hedland in Western Australia, were totally integrated and efficient supply chains, and that there was only limited flexibility in the system to allow for unexpected delays at any point.
He argued that adding an outsider, such as Fortescue, to the existing system would reduce the flexibility ''buffer'' and increase the risk of delays all along the mine-rail-ports system.
BHP has told the tribunal that if the rail lines were declared open to other parties and BHP was forced to run to a strict, externally dictated timetable, the volume of ore it could send down the rail lines to Port Hedland might be as much as 20 per cent less than optimum output from the mine sites.
Mr Archibald argued that, despite Fortescue's insistence, there were no substantial iron ore mines that might warrant declaring third-party access to BHP's Newman or Goldsworthy rail tracks.
He suggested that instead of using BHP's Newman line, ore output from Fortescue's Mindy Mindy project and Brockman Resources' Marillana project, both near Yandi, could be trucked around the Fortescue River marshes and north to Fortescue's Cloud Break mine for haulage along Fortescue's Chichester rail line.
BHP has also argued that if a smaller miner triggered a delay on the train system, BHP would find it difficult to recoup its costs.
As well, the global miner is concerned that if the rail lines were declared open and officially regulated by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, BHP inevitably would encounter delays - handicapping its timetable for future iron ore investment.
The Competition Tribunal is considering four applications about rail access in the Pilbara. Fortescue wants the tribunal to open BHP's Newman line. In May 2006, former treasurer Peter Costello did not adopt the NCC's recommendation to declare this line.
But Mr Costello's successor, Wayne Swan, followed the NCC advice and granted third-party access to BHP's Goldsworthy line and Rio's Hamersley and Robe lines.
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