Time to reactivate closed rail lines

Greens (WA) MLC for the South West, Diane Evers, has called on the State Government to address the inefficiencies of WA’s freight rail network, and carry out its pre-election promise to re-open Tier 3 lines.

The freight business had been divested by the Liberal Government in 2000, leasing the railway infrastructure to a private operator through a 49-year lease.

Ms Evers said that in 2014, the Economics and Industry Standing Committee of WA investigated the management of the rail freight network and came up with several damning findings.

“The inquiry found that although the revenue by the lessee must be taken into account in determining the economic or uneconomic status of less viable lines, the lease does not give the government any rights in the decisions to close some lines as being uneconomic,” she said.

“The owners of the below-rail business, currently known as Arc Infrastructure after several name changes, has deemed several rail lines to be uneconomical, placing them into a new category or a standard referred to as, ‘care and maintenance’, where only the most basic of care, such as weed control, is undertaken.

“The Tier 3 lines, which prior to their closure were used for grain freight, have been placed in this category.”

Ms Evers said the inactive Greenbushes-to-Bunbury line was also under care and maintenance.

“As lithium mining grows, the WA government will be expected to maintain and improve the alternative route via road. Opening this line would lessen the road burden considerably,” she said.

Ms Evers said the inquiry also found that throughout its role as the public authority responsible for managing the lease and ensuring the lessee was meeting its lease obligations, the Public Transport Authority has provided next to no supervision of the lessee’s right to quiet use and enjoyment of the below-rail infrastructure.

“This approach has proven to be completely ineffective in ensuring the condition of the lines,” she said.

“The conditions of the entire freight rail network remain below the standard that should be reasonably expected under the terms and intent of the lease.”

The inquiry made 35 findings and 22 recommendations for improvement, including the possibility of recommissioning closed lines and, if needed, pursuing all means to recover them.

But the ministerial response at the time of the committee report was short and seemingly perfunctory, with then transport minister Dean Nalder stating that “consistent with the lease, the government’s position is that the maintenance of all leased railway infrastructure is the responsibility of Brookfield Rail (or Arc as it is now known) and that investment in freight railways is primarily the responsibility of the private sector”.

Ms Evers said that in doing so, the previous government not only dismissed the recommendations of an inquiry led by one of its own members, but also lost a golden opportunity to rectify some of the many problems it created with its poorly-authored legislation.

“I call on the government to reconsider some of the recommendations made by the inquiry into rail line maintenance, which has now gained impetus because of the expanding lithium industry in the south, and to honour its pre-election pledge to reopen the Tier 3 lines, which have been in limbo for many years despite continued calls by grain growers for their reactivation,” she said.

“The government cannot continue to be held ransom to a private operator who enjoys the benefit of the doubt, largely due to being the fortuitous beneficiary of a badly-drafted agreement.

“There is clearly a duty of care on behalf of the lessee to ensure that all the rail lines in the freight network are kept in good working order, and regulation must be clearly legislated to achieve this goal.

“If the lessee cannot meet these conditions, then it should run the risk of forfeiting the lease agreement.”

SOME OF THE RECOMMENDATIONS

Recommendation 1

The Western Australian Government not allow any further lines to be placed into care and maintenance.

Recommendation 2

The Western Australian Government work with the lessee to include a trigger mechanism that will allow the recommissioning of lines already placed into care and maintenance.

Recommendation 9

The Western Australian Government revises the lease instrument to ensure that lines are not able to be suspended from use without consequence.

Recommendation 10

The definition of the term ‘care and maintenance’ should be amended to specify the obligations of the lessee and how lines placed into care and maintenance are to be maintained.

Recommendation 19

The Western Australian Government undertakes urgent negotiations with Brookfield Rail (now Arc) to allow access to Tier 3 lines.

Recommendation 20

In the absence of an agreement allowing access to Tier 3 lines, the Western Australian Government investigates and pursues all means to recover those lines.

Recommendation 21

The Minister for Regional Development clarify whether Royalties for Regions funding can be made available for upgrades to the freight rail network and, if so, what process is in place to allow access to that funding.