Freight corridor through Ballarat could cut emissions and make country roads safer, rail advocates say

Driving along a rural road in northwest Victoria, Brett Hosking can’t help but notice the 10cm drop at the edge of the tarmac.

The Quambatook grain farmer said people in rural communities with huge trucks “jumping down their main street” were keenly aware of what a “lack of investment in rail” had done to their roads.

“We know that every time we take out a 2,000 tonne train, we replace it with about 20 trucks – and those are big trucks, B-doubles,” he said.

Mr Hosking wondered if townspeople had made the same connection to “the stops they see on the Tullamarine or the Western Freeway” as they tried to get to work.

“I’m not sure if they realize it yet, but we certainly see the impact on our road network,” he said.

Industry figures say the failure to complete the original Murray Basin railway project has forced material handlers to put more trucks on the roads.(PA: Julian Smith)

A long detour

When the Victorian government announced it would fund the $416 million Murray Basin rail project in 2015, the plan was to standardize the entire freight network in north-west Victoria.

But after the project ran out of money in 2019, it was reframed and some components – such as a $130 million follow-on project to open a dual-track freight corridor through Ballarat – were shelved.

This meant that standard gauge freight trains heading northwest towards Melbourne or Geelong had to continue to make a 128 kilometer detour from Maryborough to Ararat.

“It adds a lot of costs [and] adding a lot of time to transit,” said John Hearsch, president of the independent think tank Rail Futures Institute.

Victorian Transport Minister Jacinta Allan, Prime Minister Daniel Andrew and Lance Brown of GrainCorp next to the rail freight line.
Victoria Transport Minister Jacinta Allan, Premier Daniel Andrews and Lance Brown of GrainCorp.(ABC Mildura-Swan Hill: Deb O’Callaghan)

Mr Hosking, chairman of leading national body GrainGrowers, said the Ballarat Corridor was “absolutely an integral part” of the project, which had instead created “a more disconnected and convoluted network than the one we started with”.

Bulk handler GrainCorp said project delays and that Victoria has two separate rail gauges, affect the continued viability of moving grain by rail in the state.

GrainCorp’s corporate affairs director, Jess Simons, said rising rail costs, reduced rail reliability, reduced track capacity and time-based pricing had “made freight the preferred method of transporting grain to port”.

“This, in turn, generates problems including higher emissions of carbon and other pollutants and increased traffic congestion, accidents and road wear and tear,” she said.

railway track crossing a road and leading to a station building
Rail advocates say freight would be more efficient if the Victorian government invested in a standard gauge corridor through Ballarat.(ABC Ballarat: Christopher Testa)

Why Ballarat is critical

The Victorian Government’s decision to abandon the planned twin-track corridor through Ballarat was based on a review of the business case for the project.

The review suggested the works would be too expensive, unlikely to deliver the expected benefits to the freight industry and could limit passenger rail services through Ballarat.

But Mr. Hearsch, former chief operating officer of V/Line, said: ‘We did look into that, and we don’t think it’s correct.’

“There is no fundamental reason why we cannot run standard gauge freight trains through Ballarat when there is a 40 minute passenger train frequency during the day,” he said. he declares.

Mr Hearsch said it would require multi-million dollar infrastructure works in Ballarat and “fairly precise timing and control of train movements”.

a man in a blue suit jacket and white shirt standing in front of a city street
Ben Lever of the Ballarat branch of the Public Transport Users Association believes rail freight deserves more attention.(ABC Ballarat: Christopher Testa)

Ben Lever, the organizer of the Ballarat branch of the Public Transport Users Association, wants the frequency of passenger trains in the city to be increased to 30 minutes.

But he said even that should not prevent the city from being used as a freight rail corridor.

railway lines pass under a bluestone bridge
The old Armstrong Street Bridge in Ballarat Central crosses the city’s railway line.(ABC Ballarat: Christopher Testa)

“We really want to hold the government accountable and make sure they come back with a really solid strategic vision of what this freight network can look like and fund it to make it happen.”

So is it on the right track?

The Victorian government has said ongoing Murray Basin network improvements will be completed by mid-year and remove around 20,000 truck journeys from the road.

This work included new crossing loops and sidings and track improvements on the Maryborough-Ararat line, which trains must use instead of passing through Ballarat.

Mr. Hearsch said that while this would create a marginal improvement, it would not fundamentally address the real goals of the original project.

Cracked roadside with asphalt penetrating gravel road shoulder
Rail advocates say reducing the transport sector’s reliance on trucks will reduce road wear and tear.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

Mr. Hosking said limits on how quickly grain could be sent to port in the current state of the network meant the state was not reaping the full benefits of record grain prices.

“It could help our schools, our football clubs, our churches, all that stuff,” he said.

GrainCorp also said the rail network needs “a commitment to maintenance that extends beyond seasonal funding grants.”

A legacy of poor rail maintenance damaged the Murray Basin project before it even began. The budget explosion attributed in part to the fact that the state of the network was worse than expected when the project was developed.

Mr Hearsch said the result had been “unacceptable”.

“If you’re driving on regional roads and you’re having trouble with trucks or potholes caused by trucks, thinking about rail freight is one way to solve those problems,” he said.