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Strike force forms to stop rail disruptions in Hunter

Liz Wells, November 15, 2021

Activists temporarily closed the line on the bridge over the Hunter River South Arm between the mainland and Kooragang Island on Friday. Photo: Blockade Australia

THE passage of grain from north-west New South Wales to Newcastle has suffered interruptions in the past week due to a series of line closures on the ARTC network caused by Blockade Australia.

The group’s message tied to the closures has been coal as a contributor to climate change, but other commodities have been caught in the crossfire.

They include containerised grain, pulses and cotton going to Port Botany for export, and bulk new-crop wheat destined for Newcastle’s two grain terminals, GrainCorp’s Carrington and Qube’s Newcastle Agri Terminal.

In response to the intermittent rail closures, NSW Police today announced the formation of Strike Force Tuohy, which aims to keep the Hunter network open around the clock.

Wider impacts

The closures have occurred daily since last Monday, and have disrupted services on ARTC’s Hunter network for an average of 5 hours and 15 minutes each day.

Blockade Australia activists have stopped trains in several ways, including parking a vehicle on the tracks, suspending themselves from ropes or cables tied to or across tracks, and boarding coal wagons on stopped trains.

Some passenger services as well as grain and container trains have been impacted, but coal trains have been the major target.

Of the 13 incidents listed between November 4 and this morning, nine have impacted the line to Kooragang Island, home to one of the largest coal terminals in the world which can load up to five Cape-sized vessels at once.

Kooragang is also home to Cargill Australia’s oilseed crushing plant.

It is currently crushing canola grown in NSW, and the company advises its supply of seed coming in by rail has not been affected to date by the Blockade Australia actions.

Grain Central understands Blockade Australia’s actions have caused significant delays to some trains bringing new-crop wheat into Newcastle, and these have been compounded by some localised flooding at Sandgate near Newcastle.

“The specific timing and impact on our trains is being determined, as there are a few undetermined flood impacts to be assessed once the water drops, but we do know there is a large queue of coal trains,” GrainCorp said in a statement.

“We estimate the delay to our network would be no greater than 24 hours, and that’s a result of the flooding at Sandgate as well as the protests.”

This follows the reopening of the Moree-Narrabri line this month following its closure since mid-April to allow upgrades to take place for the Inland Rail project.

Aurizon hauls coal in the Hunter, and a company spokesperson said the company recognises that everyone has a right to express their opinion, but not when it is done illegally and comes at the expense of safety.

“We recognise these incidents impact our operations but our primary concern remains the safety of our employees, first responders and the protestors themselves.”

Police response

In a statement released today, NSW Police announced it has formed Strike Force Tuohy to prevent and disrupt illegal protests in the Hunter/Newcastle region.

It said Newcastle City Police District and Police Transport Command have been dealing with ongoing protest activity aimed at disrupting sections of the rail network since November 5, with commuter and coal trains again affected today.

Since November 5, police have arrested and charged 17 people with various trespass and rail disruption offences.

Officers attached to Strike Force Tuohy will be conducting proactive patrols and targeting anyone engaging in suspicious behaviour.

Officers from Police Rescue, Traffic and Highway Patrol Command, Public Order and Riot Squad and PolAir, as well as intelligence resources, will also assist as required.

Minister for Police and Emergency Services, David Elliott, said police have increased security and surveillance along the rail corridor to prevent further disruption to commuter and freight trains in the area.

“This government will not tolerate protestors undermining commuter activities and causing significant damage to these local industries which employ people from across the region,” Mr Elliott said.

Northern Region Commander and Assistant Commissioner Peter McKenna said police were targeting protestors as a priority.

“Illegally entering rail corridors and expecting trains that are over 1.5km in length to stop for people placing themselves in front of them is outrageous and incredibly dangerous behaviour.

“We will continue to use the full force of the law to locate and arrest any persons involved in this criminal activity.”

NSW Police said it would continue to work with ARTC and other members of the coal supply network to prevent further disruptions.

At high-risk access points, additional lighting has been installed and security, surveillance instigated.

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