Logistics

Maroona-Portland rail line a winner in federal budget

Emma Alsop, May 22, 2024

Maroona to Portland upgrades would increase speed and competitiveness of grain exports to port. Photo: Port of Portland

INDUSTRY has welcomed last week’s Federal Government budget announcement committing $150 million to upgrade Victoria’s Maroona to Portland rail line.

It is hoped upgrades to the line will make grain exports out of Portland more competitive, and decrease truck movements.

Australian Rail Track Corporation leases the line from the Victorian Government, and it has not been substantially upgraded since the early 2000s.

The 172km stretch of standard-gauge line links western Victoria to the national rail network and the Port of Portland, while a considerable amount of the Victorian network runs on broad-gauge lines.

Maroona to Portland currently runs only grain trains, but the nascent mineral sands industry could use the network to transport an additional 900,000 tonnes to port each year.

In an interview last week, Federal Minister for Infrastructure Catherine King said the Maroona-Portland rail upgrade project had been “on the cards for a long time”.

Ms King said replacing the rail sleepers, “which are in some areas just absolute dust, will bring the Port of Portland into the national freight network in a way that it has not been before”.

“Given that Portland is such a big deep-water port, it’s a really important part of infrastructure and…providing that rail connectivity (has) been called for for a long time.”

Improved efficiencies

Currently, the line operates at a maximum of 19t axle load (TAL), with a reduced speed of 40kmh in place since 2019.

The load limits and speeds are not consistent with the wider network, which is 23TAL and 80kmh.

The reduced speed limit has added two hours to the route, as well as requiring a third locomotive to keep momentum over uphill gradients on the line.

Just south of Maroona is the junction of the Geelong-Ararat line and the Portland branch line at right. Photo: Ross Thomson, Victorian Railway Stations

In addition to resolving these issues, the upgrades is expected to increase the speeds and TAL to match the network, which could remove almost 70,000 grain truck trips per year.

Rail Freight Alliance chief executive officer Reid Mather welcomed the funding commitment.

“In a really tight-fisted budget, it is exceptionally pleasing that they have put this forward,” Mr Mather said.

“I think they have put it forward because it is the right thing to do.”

Mr Mather said the “increased grain traffic on the line” in recent times would benefit from increased TAL and speeds.

He said the conversion of the Midura line to standard gauge in 2018 enabled more grain to travel from the Wimmera and Mallee to Portland.

“Given that the Mildura line has been standardised there’s been a lot more traffic goes out to Portland on that line.

Despite these volumes, Mr Mather said, the “catalyst” for the works was the promise of large and consistent volumes from proposed mineral sands projects.

He said with fluctuating volumes due to changing weather and harvest sizes, grain transport alone was unlikely to drive investment in the line.

“Mineral sands will give you consistent traffic and ARTC will get a revenue stream from that.”

Port of Portland chief executive officer Greg Burgoyne said the upgrades would bring more resilience to the freight network, as well as make exports from Portland more efficient.

“This upgrade will help build the resilience needed and importantly integrate the Maroona to Portland line with the rest of the ARTC network”, Mr Burgoyne said.

“It is a great result for the region and brings certainty to a range of different industries who rely on an efficient and reliable supply chain to get their products to export markets.”

Bulk grain benefits

GrainCorp, Riordan Grain Services and Port of Portland currently operate grain services at at Portland.

GrainCorp’s terminal has a fixed loader, while Riordan operates a mobile ship loader that it transports between Portland and Geelong.

Of the bulk handlers, GrainCorp is the only one that utilises the rail network, and accounts for the largest share of bulk exports out of Portland.

In a submission to the ACCC’s review of the Regulatory Framework of ARTC’s Interstate Network, GrainCorp said the speed and TAL limits on the Maroona to Portland line resulted in “higher crewing costs per train cycle and lower above-rail asset utilisation”.

“It has added significant cost for rail users while also reducing efficiencies, and this has been detrimental to industry participants exporting grain from GrainCorp’s Portland Terminal,” the submission said.

“There is no competitive alternative for a rail user exporting grain out of Portland – the cost impost of these inefficiency decisions flows directly to grain value, which is borne by the grain grower.

“The additional supply chain costs ultimately lower the competitiveness of Victorian grain in inter-state and international markets.”

Horsham Rural City Council mayor Robyn Gulline said before it fell into disrepair, the line was a busy corridor for the movement of Wimmera grain to the Port of Portland.

“Upgrading this key section of the Ararat-Portland line will enable more competitive freight options for grain and mineral sands to be transported to the port of Portland,” Ms Gulline said.

Business case not yet published

In 2022, the previous Federal Government committed $2.2M to undertake a business case for upgrading the rail line from Maroona to Portland.

ARTC completed the report, which remains with the government.

Mr Mather said the business case was yet to be published; however, considering the recent investment, the report would most likely support the project.

Our understanding was that it was a very positive business case in the return on investment.”

In February, ARTC chief executive officer and managing director Wayne Johnson told Senate Estimates that the business case “was submitted” but the process wasn’t “concluded in terms of full assessment”.

He also confirmed that the document was with the Federal Government.

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Comments

  1. al fisher, May 23, 2024

    Good to see the upgrade on the rail line, grain is such an important export, and the Portland Line is a good alternative for the Geelong and Melbourne Ports. Further freight should be encouraged to use rail as to road transport, also there is a huge Tourist potential to bring Heritage Trains back along this line As did the Seymour Group did last year. The old station area alread in North Portland would be ideal for such operations and there is already a hard surface exchange there for freight and at Hamilton station for conatiner traffic as well as Killara siding.

  2. Gary Field, May 22, 2024

    It must be remembered that the lessee was responsible for the neglect and downgrading of the rail line, the same lessee has now been funded by the Federal Government (its only shareholder) to upgrade the rail line, yet I am to read of any guarantee that this situation won’t occur in the future.
    Grain is heavily dependent on the seasons and the current mineral sands processing plant at Hamilton has been mothballed since 2017; currently mineral sands are taken by road to Broken Hill, so with no idea what the business case promises, the future is questionable.
    Had ARTC maintained the rail line as they are contractually required to perform under the lease, the $150 million could have been used towards the conversion and upgrade of the Heywood-Mt Gambier line, adding a sustainable freight stream to secure the future of the Maroona line to the Port of Portland.

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