There must be an election approaching as the state government is scrambling to cover off on any areas of potential criticism with the latest one being regional transport.
After three years of ignoring the state of our wheatbelt roads or the status of Tier 3 rail the Minister for Transport has thrown a bone to farmers by raising the bait of reopening the 509km of lines closed since 2014.
The Ministers announcement that she has commissioned an engineering assessment on the cost of reinstating the lines is welcome but the timing smacks of playing politics rather than policy planning.
The review was kicked off by pressure from the Rail, Tram and Bus Union which had been meeting with a small group of farmers from the Wheatbelt Rail Retention Alliance.
No doubt some farmers with long memories will be asking why growers would want to get into bed with the rail union particularly if the goal is to reduce the cost of their grain transport.
Some may even remember the long and bitter fights over the inefficiencies of the militant rail unions of past, the closed shop deals, the over staffing, the rampart inefficiencies of the midlands workshop and going back to the 50s and 60s the cosy deal with the government to force farmers to use rail over road.
And what about the position of the current ministers around the cabinet table. Are they likely to back the farmers or the unions when it comes to the hidden detail of any plan to reopen Tier 3.
For instance we have the current Minister for Agriculture who was the former Minister for Transport back in the Gallop government days who was once very keen to support calls from some in the wood chip industry to reinstate the Greenbushes to Bunbury rail line.
In fact so keen was the government for rail to be used over road on 100km of the South West Highway that plans were made to enforce the move from road to rail by forcing trucks that were loading less than halfway to Bunbury to double back to Greenbushes to load onto the rail to ensure the line was used. Then there was the cost recovery that the government was examining to cover the cost of the rail upgrade.
The woodchip industry was only saved by the 2008 election win by the Barnett government as they had been clearly out played and out manoeuvred by clever politicians who could see the political gains of tapping public support of getting big trucks off the road and onto rail at the expense of industry.
No doubt the government today will deny any such plans existed but they had the woodchip industry seriously concerned. As they say be careful what you ask for and who you get into bed with. It pays to know what the price is upfront before you close the door.
Asking for an engineering study on Tier 3 is fine, what is missing is ensuring the terms of reference includes all the key aspects of the missing pieces to build the case for state and federal funding to upgrade the line at no additional cost to growers.
Having the government announce the review without sitting down with the industry and CBH and local councils to work up the Terms of Reference is the first signal that we should proceed with caution. What we really need to be included in the review is the real cost of road vs rail and what growers really need to improve the efficiency and safety of our freight movements.
As farmers well know governments can make any report say anything if they select the right consultants and draft the right terms of reference. One thing the report won’t delve into is what are farmers expected to contribute and what the trade off with road funding will be should any funding ever be offered. Hopefully the government wont be negotiating behind closed doors with the unions on such questions.
But we can’t just be critical of the current governments approach to Tier 3 as at least they are doing something.
The Liberal/National government of the Court years sold the line and pocketed the cash. The Nationals during the mining boom of the Barnett years 2008 -17 spent $7 billion on R for R funding and put not a cent into Tier 3 despite Brendan Grylls coming from Corrigin/Bullaring.
If the current government is serious about Tier 3 they need to put the money on the table that they are willing to part with, noting that the cost of any upgrade to basic running standards is likely to be $500k – $1m and between $1m-$1.5m to Tier 2. So $100m should be a minimum starting figure which no doubt can to be matched by the Feds which will get at least 100 – 200km km up and running.
But before any of that happens they need to explain what conditions they will attach, will they be forcing grain off road and onto rail as the previous labor government attempted to do with the woodchips, and or hitting the industry with extra costs to cost recover the funding or will they be cutting back on their already underfunded road maintenance to rural highways.
Farmers should beware the risk of backing a government which has to date shown no interest in Tier 3 and is now cleverly playing off farmer against farmer, road vs rail while they have been busy ripping billions from the Royalties for Regions road budget to fund their urban rail network.
Both sides of politics need to put forward their grain freight funding commitments and the detail of who pays for what well before the next election.