Advocates have welcomed news that the federal government is following up on their calls to upgrade the rail freight line from Maroona to Portland.

This morning Wannon MP Dan Tehan announced that the Commonwealth would give the Australian Rail Track Corporation $2.2 million over 18 weeks to review the size and benefits of the upgrade.

Stakeholders such as the Rail Futures Institute want the line to be upgraded so South West trains can stay competitive with trucks, which also carry grain and other goods to the port of Portland.

RFI chairman John Hearsch said the line had not been significantly improved since it was leased from the Australian Rail Track Corporation in the early 2000s.

“It was designed to bring full-size grain trains to Portland at 80 miles per hour, but as the line deteriorated due to lack of maintenance, the speed was gradually reduced by ARTC and is now 40 km/h,” he said.

Mr Hearsch said the RFI wanted to see the line upgraded to be comparable to the Geelong line.

He estimated that it would cost between $100 million and $120 million to completely cover the tracks with concrete.

sands of time

Port of Portland chief executive Greg Tremewen agreed that the 40km/h speed limit on the Maroona rail line should be reinstated to 80km/h.

“It takes about six hours right now to travel the 173 miles from Maroona to Portland one way, so you can imagine it’s very inefficient,” he said.

The Port of Portland previously commissioned a preliminary report on upgrading the line from 19 to 23 tonnes axle load, which would bring it up to par with the line from Maroona to the Port of Geelong.

“[An upgrade] Probably puts us on an equal footing with Geelong, but that’s not the driving force,” Mr Tremewen said.

The government funding comes as debate continues around the role of rail freight in a major Wimmera mining project.

Next Monday, councilors in the rural town of Horsham are expected to approve a memorandum of understanding with WIM Resources, which plans to build a 24-hour mine north of Horsham to extract rare mineral sands for export.

It is estimated that there are over 300 million tonnes of ore with minerals such as zircon and titanium in the deposit. Over 30 years, the mine is expected to generate $5.7 billion for Victoria.

The memorandum of understanding, if signed, will commit both WIM Resources and the council to exploring rail as a mode of transporting materials to the port.

Portland Harbor is visible from downtown.(ABC South West Victoria: Emily Bissland)

Currently, WIM Resources is proposing to use road freight, which would increase the number of trucks passing through the already busy Horsham CBD and down the Henty Highway.

Meanwhile, Iluka Resources Ltd is proposing to develop another mineral sands project southwest of Horsham, and Astron a project at Donald, 50 kilometers east of the town.

A spokesman for Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce said the cost of the business case was appropriate and represented good value for money.

Mr Hearsch said RFI expected the business case to justify his group’s calls to upgrade the line in a hurry.

“If anything, we’re a bit disappointed that they want to spend time making the business case,” he said.

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