"BRING the Wheatbelt back into a story of prosperity" - those were the words of Australian Rail, Tram and Bus Industry Union (RTBU), Western Australian branch secretary Craig McKinley, who has been a key figure in the campaign to get the State's Tier 3 grain rail lines back up and a running.
Two hundred people packed into the Kulin's Freebairn Recreation Centre recently to hear from State and local government representatives and stakeholders and discuss what can be done to address the grain freight and water crisis crippling the region.
With the Tier 3 rail lines placed into care and maintenance in 2013 and 2014 by the State's freight rail network operator Arc Infrastructure, the State government commissioned an independent investigation of the economic and environmental impacts of Tier 3 line closures on the Western Australian economy and its future development in June this year.
With the engineering assessment, undertaken by Agonis Group, still being finalised, members of a lobby group campaigning for the reinstatement of the Tier 3 lines, led by Mr McKinley and comprised of farmers, local shire representatives and Wheatbelt Railway Retention Alliance (WRRA) members, spoke at the meeting.
Highlighting that cereal production in WA is worth more than $4 billion to the State's economy, Mr McKinley said this wealth had not been redistributed to the region.
"Driving through the Wheatbelt, one thing you notice is that everything is closed and everything tells a story of how it once was," Mr McKinley said.
"Merredin is going to lose its Target store - that is yet another nail in the coffin of the Wheatbelt story.
"You only have to pick up the West Australian (newspaper) to realise there are hundreds of millions of dollars being spent on a bigger freeway, a better Metronet - the Bayswater Station should be paved with gold.
"So there must be a frustration amongst the growers and the community of the Wheatbelt when once again they see that $200-$300 million is going to be spent on a ring road or something like that.
"Where is our slice of the pie?"
Mr McKinley said while he understood that Australia operated as a free market, big businesses, including Brookfield Arc, needed to have more social responsibility to the communities they conduct business in.
"I get the mathematics, but there is flesh and blood and people's livelihood behind the mathematics," Mr McKinley said.
With WA grain growers paying 500 per cent more in track access fees than their Eastern States' counterparts, Kulin Shire president Barry West said the average WA track access fee was $7.6 per tonne, based on a 200 kilometre run to port.
"In the Eastern States it is $1.40/t, so there is a huge discrepancy," Mr West said.
"This equates to $45-$50 million a year of grower funds leaving WA and it goes to an overseas company that we, as grain growers in WA, compete directly with on the world market."
Mr West said the closed Narrogin-Pinjarra grain rail line, which was the main artery to Kwinana for the entire area below the Great Eastern Highway, including the Wagin, Lake Grace, Katanning, Albany areas, needed to be reinstated to develop a far more efficient and direct delivery route.
"By cutting that line out to get to Perth, now it has to go up to Northam and then back again, which is really inefficient because of the track distance to port compared to road distance to port," he said.
If reinstated, Mr West said the rail lines could also be used to transport other commodities including kaolin, a white clay, from a nearby mine in Harrismith.
"They want to get 250,000-300,000t to Kwinana and that's going to ramp up to 1-2mt in the next five to 10 years," he said.
"One of our councillors has also been doing a bit of work on the amount of hay that comes out of this central area and there are about 250 containers per week going to port that could also go on rail."
Mr West said the costs of the closure of the Tier 3 rail lines to his local community had been significant.
"Kulin is closer to the port than Lake Grace and yet the freight rate is $7/t more," he said.
"This means that within that one shire alone, for 200,000t there is $1.4m that leaves our district.
"Those dollars should be spent within this shire, and that has a big effect on our small communities."
Mr West said it was the role of Federal, State and local governments to provide "things that aren't viable for private enterprise to do, such as power education, health, roads, rail and water".
"As a collective these services are essential to the fabric of society, whether it be city, large towns or rural - we all pay taxes too."
CBH Group's deputy chairwoman and director Natalie Browning and chief operations manager Ben Macnamara reiterated the grower group's stance on the possible reinstatement of the State's Tier 3 lines at the meeting - that it would "support grain on rail where it is economically viable to do so and is the least cost pathway to port for growers".
Ms Browning said for almost a decade CBH had gone to extensive lengths to fight for fair access to rail on behalf of WA growers by purchasing its own locomotive fleet to separate the above and below rail costs and challenging Brookfield Arc through a five-year arbitration process.
"We acknowledge that, to date, we have been unsuccessful in our efforts to return grain to Tier 3 rail lines in a way that is economically viable for our members," Ms Browning said.
"As a grower owned co-operative we are here today to listen to our growers and the speakers and are looking to gain a better understanding of where we are in this process."
Mr Macnamara said from a governance perspective, it was critical to seek equitable outcomes for all its members and deliverers.
"That's a really important point for us to consider when we're allocating costs," Mr Macnamara said.
He said the group's assessment of what was economically viable would be made on "normal investment metrics" and therefore the impact on grower freight rates.
"If the costs go down, the freight rates go down and if the cost rates go up, the freight rates will go up and that will have an impact on the number of tonnes that are drawn into those specific sites," Mr Macnamara said.
"We are well prepared to be able to respond in a timely manner if and when that information becomes available and willing to work proactively with other industry stakeholders as well."
WA Agriculture and Food Minister Alannah MacTiernan said one of the State government's focuses was on the Greenbushes to Picton line, due to the possibility of it also being able to transport lithium from Talison Lithium's Greenbushes project.
"We have done a range of studies into that line to see if we have the business case," Ms MacTiernan said.
She said the engineering assessment would also identify the costs to meet a range of different performance standards, including 16t and 19t axle loads, with the speed at which the trains can travel a factor in the operational costs of the rail lines.
Speaking to Farm Weekly earlier this week, Transport Minister Rita Saffioti said the engineering assessment was being finalised with the final report expected to be submitted to the minister's office "soon".
"The report will provide estimates of the costs to reinstate each specific section of Tier 3 line," Ms Saffioti said.
"It will not assess the cost of upgrading or establishing grain handling facilities.
"Once the engineering assessment is complete the State government intends to prepare a business case to submit to Infrastructure Australia to lay the groundwork for potential future funding partnerships with the Federal government."