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A multi-million-dollar project aimed at improving rail freight movement between farming communities in the north-west of the state and Victorian ports gets more funding after running out of cash a year ago.
The $440m Murray Basin Rail Project began in 2016 but stalled in 2019 with half the upgrade incomplete.
The Commonwealth previously committed more than $240m to the project, which is aimed at improving rail freight movement between farming communities in the north-west of the state and Victorian ports.
The new funding announced today will support works laid out in a revised plan the Victorian Government released in October.
"It's frustrating that we've had to come to the table to put money into repair work that should have been done properly in the first place," Federal Nationals MP for Mallee Anne Webster said.
Dr Webster, whose electorate includes much of the Murray Basin rail network, said there was "a great deal of frustration" because the revised plan excluded some stages of the original project.
"What this revised business case is proposing is not the end of the road," she said.
"We need to see the entire freight system updated and standardised."
Freight operators have previously voiced concerns the rail network isn't capable of transporting grain in the volumes required.(Supplied: Graeme White)Remedying issuesThe Federal Government said the new funding would allow for some aspects of the original works to be fixed, including the re-railing of the line between Ararat and Maryborough.
An upgrade to the 88-kilometre section of the track was completed in 2017, but used poor-quality legacy rail.
How much of the new funds would be used to fix that issue has not been revealed.
The State's revised business plan, however, does not include the standardisation of broad gauge lines running to the Mallee grain growing areas of Sea Lake and Manangatang, despite that being part of the original project.
Instead the Commonwealth has called for the Victorian Government to match its $5m commitment towards planning a path to standardising the entire network to cover those works.
"Some say that we've actually caved to the Victorian [Government's] demand and that's far from where I would see it to be," Dr Webster said.
"It should not be a slap in the face for our farmers — it should be, 'Let's just take the next step.'
"I talked with stakeholders last night preparing for this announcement, because I knew some would be very disappointed."
Shipping containers are loaded on and off trains at Manangatang.(ABC Mildura-Swan Hill: Kellie Hollingworth)Money can't 'magic' away challengesThe State Minister for Transport Infrastructure, Jacinta Allan, did not commit to matching the Commonwealth's $5m for planning further upgrades today.
"[The Federal Government] is keen to push on and see the standardisation of Sea Lake and Manangatang [lines] and I understand that," she said.
"I need to go back through various cabinet and budget processes before I can make any commitment to fund further business case works.
"But $5m won't buy the business case needed to look at the challenges in the rest of the network."
Proponents say Australia is in desperate need of an inland railway to ease the number of trucks on our roads and create a more efficient freight system for the next 100 years.
Ms Allan welcomed the rest of the funding, which she said would allow for works outlined in the revised plan to start before the next grain season while remaining challenges were considered.
"I think it's important false expectations aren't raised here because that would be deeply unfair to those communities," she said.
"No amount of money on planning and business case work can magic away that real challenge we now have because of the way the freight and passenger [networks] have changed in the last decade."
Ms Allan said if the Sea Lake and Manangatang lines were standardised, it would create a bottleneck at Ballarat.
A report by Victoria's Auditor-General in March 2020 slammed the State's handling of the project.
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Communities 'isolated'Representing local councils, Rail Freight Alliance chief executive Reid Mather said failing to standardise the entire network would be detrimental to Mallee farmers.
"If this is the end of the project, we've stranded communities within the catchment," he said.
"To virtually isolate sections of Victoria … from global markets is reprehensible."
Mr Mather said the project was a long way short of what was originally expected to be completed in 2018.
He said the new funding would complete the second stage of what was originally a five stage project.
"Now what we've got is, if you complete stage two, you've built in an extra 130 kilometres of travel and travel time between the trip's journey and the ports," he said.
"We haven't improved things dramatically."
Mr Mather said the full Murray Basin Rail Project was vital if the State was going to be globally competitive.
"This has a huge impact on Victoria and it just appears it's all a bit too hard to work out the different rail gauges between broad gauge, which is a passenger line, and standard gauge, which is essentially the freight network, to be able to have those two intersect," he said.
'A festering sore'Manangatang grain grower and President of the town's Victorian Farmers Federation branch, Brian Barry Jr, described the stalled project as "a festering sore".
He said failing to standardise the Manangatang and Sea Lake lines had locked farmers out of interstate trade and forced more trucks onto the road.
"We've been marooned and landlocked and [people are] not using the [rail] system at the moment because they can't afford to," he said.
"It's costing too much money."
Mr Barry estimated farmers were spending 20 to 30 per cent of the value of their product simply getting their grain to port.
"Since they've done the first stage of the program, it has actually forced our grain to have to travel further by rail to get across to the broad gauge network, to get it into Melbourne and Geelong," he said.
He criticized the Victorian Government's failure to finish the full project, while other major infrastructure works, such as the Melbourne Metro Tunnel, continued amid cost blowouts.
This article first appeared on www.abc.net.au
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