Confusion over Sea Lake, Manangatang standardisation

Government fails to clarify claims on rail standardisation

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CONCRETE SLEEPERS: Non-convertible sleepers, at the junction of the Calder Highway and Green Lake Road.

CONCRETE SLEEPERS: Non-convertible sleepers, at the junction of the Calder Highway and Green Lake Road.

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Government refuses to clarify whether or not standardisation of Sea Lake and Manangatang rail lines is going ahead.

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The state government sought to clarify claims it's walking away from standardising the Sea Lake and Manangatang rail lines, promised as part of the original Murray Basin Rail Project upgrade.

Transport Infrastructure Minister Jacinta Allan has reportedly told ABC's western, Mildura and central Victorian rural radio report that the two lines will not be standardised, "in the life of this government."

On two ocassions in the last week, government spokeswomen have told Stock & Land the revised MBRP business case advised against standardisation.

The government has reiterated works were underway to improve the MBRP, with a major sleeper replacement program taking place.

"A recent review of the business case found that the benefits of standardisation can be achieved through enhancements to the current broad and standard gauge networks which the revised package of works do," the spokeswoman said.

Asked directly, she refused to confirm or deny the government would not be standardising the Sea Lake and Manangatang lines.

Previously, the government said the revised business case found "further standardisation would require close to $1 billion in extra investment, extensive construction in the Ballarat corridor and disruptions to Ballarat line passenger services."

A government spokeswoman said standardisation was unlikely to deliver expected key benefits to the freight industry, now and into the future.

The responses follow mounting anger the state government has dumped the full standardisation of the troubled MBRP after it was revealed concrete sleepers are being used on the upgrade of the Sea Lake line.

The state opposition said the government had finally admitted it was prepared to kill off the once-in-a-generation MBRP, for the sake of petty politics.

The opposition said all that was required to revive the project, which was derailed in 2019 after years of incompetence and mismanagement, was a $5 million contribution from the Victorian government.

But it said Labor would squander the opportunity for full standardisation of the network with Transport Infrastructure minister Jacinta Allan telling the ABC "at a future time, future governments can consider the standardisation".

Opposition agriculture spokesman Peter Walsh said north-west Victorians would never forgive the government for abandoning the project.

"If the government had put as much effort into completing this project as it has systematically destroying it, farmers would have a fully-standardised network," Mr Walsh said.

"Instead, we're left with a freight rail network in disarray, with trains running on century old track and taking longer to get to port than when the project started.

"The Federal and Liberal Nationals government put more than $200 million on the table to fix Labor's mess, with just $5 million needed from the Victorian government to get planning underway for future stages.

"Jacinta Allan's arrogance is all that stands in the way of transforming the productivity and profitability of our growers and transport stakeholders in north-west Victoria."

In March last year, the Victorian Auditor-General's Office found cost blowouts had left the Basin Rail barely half finished - despite 86.7 per cent of the project's budget ($381.5 million) having been spent.

Read more:

Concerns grow that standardisation of the MBRP is being abandoned

Federal government comes to the party on Murray Basin Rail

The original scope of the $440 million project, which is half-finished, was the conversion of the entire north-west Victorian rail network, from broad to standard gauge.

Read more:

The genesis of the Murray Basin Rail Project

Devastating blow

Manangatang grain grower Christine Plant said the decision on what appeared to be abandoning standardisation, was devastating for the industry and rural Victoria.

"Our roads will not cope with that additional thousands and thousands of trucks required to freight export grain to port," Ms Plant said.

"Do townspeople living along the Calder and Sunraysia Highways understand how many trucks will be pouring through their towns and the effect these extra trucks will have on our roads?

"The Andrews state government is the Andrews Melbourne government and has abandoned rural Victoria."

Ms Plant said the government was governing only for the urban population, where most of the votes were.

"The fact that billions of dollars are being spent on level crossing removal, rail tunnels and key roads in the metro area but the govt cannot find the funds required to complete the MBRP is evidence of that."

Victorian Farmers Federation Grains Group president Ash Fraser said Ms Allan had claimed standardisation would be "something for future governments to consider.'

"They have actually walked away from it," Mr Fraser said.

"There is a whole bigger picture that has to be looked at here, and that's the short-sightedness of the government.

"Melbourne is fed by rural Victoria when you don't spend money on the rail; you force more trucks on the road, which degrades an already crumbling road network further.

"It puts more pressure on fuel security, with the Altona refinery closing."

He said it didn't make sense not to scope future standardisation of the two lines.

"The federal government gave $195million and to my understanding was that the additional $5 million was be matched by the state government, to do scoping work to see what could be done."

It appeared the state government was being short-sighted, or incapable of doing the work.

"If they are incapable of doing it, that is a much bigger thing.

"That's a kick in the teeth, for all of regional Victoria - it says we don't care about you."

Cargill Corporate Affairs director Peter McBride said the current maintenance on the lines was welcome, but the company was disappointed they would not be standardised.

"Having two gauges on the Victorian rail network creates a range of inefficiencies which will increase rail haulage costs and result in more grain on road in the future," Mr McBride said.

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