Kembla derailment forces rerouting via Sydney

Liz Wells December 16, 2020

Wheat and wagon wreckage scattered on and beside the railway line near Port Kembla as a result of yesterday’s derailment. Photo: Lake Illawarra Police District

DISCUSSIONS held in the wake of Tuesday’s derailment near Port Kembla point to the likelihood of the line being partially reopened from 4 January.

This will involve one of the dual lines on the Moss Vale to Unanderra (MVA) rail path opening for a few hours overnight to carry grain trains heading down the Illawarra Escarpment to Port Kembla’s two grain terminals, and to Manildra Group’s Shoalhaven Starches plant.

The MVU line will close during daylight hours to allow clean-up crews to operate safely until the site is cleared and the second line can be reopened.

The move towards a partial reopening of the line has come after Tuesday’s derailment and subsequent talks with stakeholders to ensure those exporting out of Kembla can access the grain they need over coming weeks.

Disrupted path

Port Kembla is home to two grain terminals.

One is operated by GrainCorp, and is the highest-capacity grain port in eastern Australia.

It can load vessels at 5000 tonnes per hour, and has a major role to play in exporting one of the biggest wheat crops ever grown in New South Wales.

GrainCorp’s Kembla terminal has one 60,000t canola cargo loading now, and two wheat cargoes of 60,000t each to load by Christmas as part of its hectic shipping schedule which continues into mid-2021.

The other terminal is Qube’s Quattro, which is about to start loading a 37,400t wheat cargo to kick off its busy new-crop shipment program.

The MVU line is the main artery to export for grain grown in central and southern New South Wales, and also supplies Manildra Group’s Shoalhaven Starches plant.

At capacity, the line can carry up to 90,000t of grain per week.

Pacific National (PN), Qube and Southern Shorthaul Rail (SSR) were all transporting grain on the line prior to its closure yesterday, with PN the major user by far.

“At this stage, my concern is it could risk 20,000-30,000t of grain per week being moved from up-country to port,” PN agricultural manager Hugh Cox said.

Call on road, Sydney rail network

PN has been shifting grain for Manildra and two export customers, and road as well as diverted rail paths are expected to get them through the period of line closure.

“We are working closely with ARTC and Sydney Trains to make sure our trains for our customers can get to their destinations.

“Instead of going down the range from Moss Vale, we’ll have to go through Sydney.

“I’m concerned about one or two trains a day not being able to make it due to congestion on the network.”

PN trains typically haul around 2700t of grain each. The operator has been bringing up to four trains per day down the MVU line since last month, when the bumper harvest got going in the southern half of NSW.

The line has been carrying canola and wheat from as far afield as the Nyngan district north-west of Dubbo, and Henty near the Victorian border.

“If we’re having to put an extra 1000 trucks a week on the road, is that something the trucking industry can do?

“The concerning point is: What’s the price implication for farmers?

An alternative rail path from NSW grain-growing areas to Port Kembla, and to Manildra’s Shoalhaven Starches, exists through Enfield in Sydney.

“Qube will be running via Sydney until further notice,” a Qube spokesperson said.

“We already have scheduled train paths so there won’t be any disruption.”

GrainCorp is also working around the line closure.

“Supply chain disruptions are something that our business deals with on a regular basis – whether it’s related to weather or transportation,” GrainCorp general manager of trading Sean Barker said.

“While disappointing that the derailment will cause us some delays and impact our immediate plans to get rail tonnes to port, our teams have carried out contingency planning to maintain efficient delivery for our customers.”

Urban restrictions

Curfews tied to Sydney’s passenger network, and to noise limits overnight, as well as the Illawarra rail line’s steeper grade, will limit the number of grain trains this alternative route can service.

“From an industry point of view, we need to come together to work through this,” PN’s Mr Cox said.

“All parties need that access from Moss Vale to Enfield to Inner Harbour at Port Kembla.”

The cycle time for trains servicing grain hubs like Junee, Parkes and Temora is expected to increase by up to one third because of the extra time and distance to travel to Kembla and Shoalhaven via Enfield.

Under investigation

The cause of the derailment is under investigation by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) and the Office of the National Rail Safety Regulator (ONRSR).

Officers from both organisations arrived at the accident site yesterday and worked alongside emergency services.

ONRSR alone sent a team of five, comprising two rail-safety officers, a rolling-stock engineer, an investigator and a track engineer.

ONRSR will investigate whether there has been any breach of national rail-safety law above or below rail.

Rare occurrence

A grain-train derailment of this magnitude is rare in Australia.

The most recent incident to severely impact grain exports was in November 2012, when a coal train derailed and damaged a bridge near Boggabri in north-west NSW.

It closed the line for many weeks, and disrupted movements of containers carrying chickpeas and other high-value commodities, and grain shipped out of Newcastle, NSW’s only other bulk grain port.

ATSB statement

A transport safety investigation has been launched into the derailment of a wheat freight train at Dombarton, near Wollongong, at about 0445 on Tuesday.

The investigation will be led by New South Wales’ Office of Transport Safety Investigations (OTSI), which conducts rail incident investigations in NSW on behalf of the ATSB under the Transport Safety Investigation Act 2003.

The train is reported to have separated into three sections, with 39 of 41 wagons derailing. No injuries to train crew were reported.

Transport safety investigators from OTSI have deployed to the derailment site to begin the evidence-collection phase of the investigation, which will include inspecting track infrastructure and the train locomotives and wagons.

Investigators will also analyse available recorded data, review records, and interview involved parties including the train crew.

The ATSB will publish a report at the conclusion of the investigation.

However, should a critical safety issue be identified during the course of the investigation, the ATSB will immediately notify relevant parties so appropriate safety action can be taken.


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