Freight trains, previously stopped from running on sections of the Dunolly-Birchip and Echuca-Deniliquin lines between midday and eight and 10pm during high temperatures, can now operate at 30 kilometres an hour.
V/Line chief executive James Pinder said the move followed site inspections and track works.
“V/Line is ensuring everything possible is being done to meet the needs of farmers and freight operators in getting this year’s grain crop to ports, while ensuring safety on the rail network,” Mr Pinder said.
V/Line was also meeting weekly with freight operators to keep them advised of developments.
V/Line and rail operators globally apply speed restrictions during hot weather to reduce the risk of derailments caused when steel rails expand in higher temperatures.
Speed restrictions were applied in January last year after a derailment near Ouyen, with V/Line stopping operations when temperatures reached 30 degrees. The limit was lifted, this summer, to 33 degrees.
The main grain carrier, Pacific National, said the heat had limited the supply chain’s capacity.
A spokesman said since the start of the harvest, Pacific National, had run near record volumes to Melbourne, Geelong and Portland. “Victorian volumes in December were two and a half times greater than the previous year,” the spokesman said. “With harvesting still in progress, 2017 is shaping up as a record year for grain on Victorian rail.”
He said while the majority of services ran overnight, which helped reduce exposure to restrictions, some rail volumes had been lost to road, where harvest timings required immediate transport.
“The safety of our people, customers and the community is our highest priority so we support this approach until V/line have had a chance to fully assess the impacts of heat on its network.,” the spokesman said.
Rail Freight Alliance executive officer Reid Mather said he was hopeful the upgrading of the Murray Basin line would result in more reliable services. The alliance is made up of Victorian rural, and regional and metropolitan councils.
Mr Mather said the alliance’s executive had been in discussions with Public Transport Minister Jacinta Allen and V/Line, after freight trains were cancelled, late last year.
He said councils were critical of V/Line and the government, who did not appear to have planned for the rail closures. “The time to do something would have been 12 months ago, not at the time of harvest,” Mr Mather said. “It appears the decision seems to have been made in isolation, and really no-one had a plan for it – it was announced and that was it.
Mr Mather said the alliance would be pressing for the full $440 million federal and state government funding, earmarked for the upgrade of the Murray Basin rail, to be spent. “We would be looking for the Maroona to Portland line to be upgraded to a 21 tonne axle loading as we need competition at all three ports (Portland, Geelong and Melbourne).
“If you have a significantly disadvantaged port, you have taken away options and the competition that brings. “All lines must be 21 ton axle loading, but we accept the lower axle loadings on the Murrayville line,” Mr Mather said.
He said the alliance would also like to see the section track between Ballarat and Maryborough standardised, with a dedicated passenger service. “The current proposal to dual gauge will slow both passenger and freight movements and is an expensive solution,” Mr Mather said.
He said the speed restrictions demonstrated a long-term under investment in rail, by successive governments.
Victorian Farmers Federation (VFF) grains group president Brett Hosking said the restrictions indicated the critical nature of the Murray Basin rail upgrade. ‘We need to make sure the tenderers meet their deadlines, and even exceed them – this summer has proven how critical the project is,” Mr Hosking said.
The upgrade must ensure the tracks could handle much higher temperatures.
“The last thing we want is an exhorbitant number of trucks on the road, because the rail system can’t cope.”