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MILLIONS were invested in Victoria's now-faltering freight lines, writes CHRIS McLENNAN
It was 8.30am on a chilly, overcast Saturday just a few weeks ago.
An empty freight train was making steady progress towards the northern outpost of Mildura to collect a consignment of oranges for a critical export market.
The train was travelling slowly after a trip of 486km as it passed through the remote Bronzewing nature reserve, south of Ouyen.
Only a few years earlier the Federal and State Governments had poured an impressive $73 million into this freight-only line.
In a two-year project ending in 2009, more than 500km of line between Mildura and Geelong was upgraded.
Yet at 8.30, the Pacific National train exploded.
According to V/Line's initial investigation, the train just "came apart" about 15 wagons down from the locomotive.
Five wagons careered off into the sand.
Three hundred metres of track was ripped and torn.
A vital link to one of the state's biggest winter exports was severed.
A road had to be built into this environmentally sensitive area for the cranes to right the wagons, for the workcrews which came from three different depots to fix the mess.
A mighty effort meant the wrecked carriages were removed and the tracks repaired within 10 days.
What to do with the delicate China market?
This new market has been pain-stakingly developed to replace the US, a market building quickly but sensitive to transport frailties all the same.
Five hundred containers are heading direct to China this year, two years ago it was just five. Convoys of trucks were the immediate answer but this has done little to satisfy many people.
They believe the incident points to the poor state of the state's transport infrastructure.
While crews were busy near Ouyen, a loaded freight train derailed at Warracknabeal.
There was no damage to the train, only one bogie (wheel) had slipped off but it caused damage to sleepers over two kilometres of track due to the dragging of the wagon.
While the Government says it regularly inspects the tracks, freight operators point to the Ouyen derailment happening during winter rather than a heat-distorting summer as being a worrying sign of things to come.
The Victorian Government contributed $20 million and the Federal Government $53 million to rebuild 525km of track which takes 1.5 million tonnes of produce to the ports every year.
It was supposed to reduce travel times from 14 hours to less than 10 hours.
Mildura Development Corporation Chairman Chris Ellis said four years after it was completed, travel times are back out to more than 11 hours.
"It is not good fixing something up if you don't maintain it," he said.
"Speeds come down and down, yet derailments are too frequent."
Mr Ellis said politicians continually talked up Australia's opportunity to become Asia's food bowl yet failed to grasp the need to invest in infrastructure.
"We in Sunraysia are optimistic about the future of our commodities ... we are all ready to go," he said.
Australasian Railway Association chief executive officer Bryan Nye said governments stopped investing in rail 30 years ago and now it was playing catch up.
"Unfortunately, we haven't heard much about rail at all this federal election campaign, but we are still hopeful," he said.
Groups like the ARA want political parties to move Australia's transport network into the 21st century.
Ideally, they want politicians to embrace some nation-building projects like the inland freight rail up the east coast, either passing through Albury or Shepparton.
A fortnight ago, the Victorian Government released its transport wish-list that highlighted the need for access to the federal treasury to help pay for it all.
In the north, the dream is to connect Mildura with 215km of new track to Menindee near Broken Hill.
This would give the whole state access to the Sydney-Perth standard gauge railway.
It would be expensive, billions of dollars probably.
The whole rail line from Geelong to Mildura would need to standardised from broad gauge.
The Transcontinental rail link received several mentions in the Victorian transport plan.
It was said to be "a priority for consideration in the medium term" but there was no timeline.
Victoria's application to the Federal Government for $3 million to pay for a pre-feasibility study to identify Transcontinental routes has been knocked back by Infrastructure Australia.
Rail is an old, high-cost technology but remains the cheapest way to move around the nation.
Mr Ellis says: "We have to ask the question of whether we can afford to do nothing."
The ARA's Mr Nye said Australia's freight task was set to double over the next 20 years.
"Also, with Victoria being home to the nation's largest container port as well as making up almost a third of all food and fibre exports in the country, planning for freight is a crucial task for the State Government," Mr Nye said.
This article first appeared on www.weeklytimesnow.com.au
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