An Infrastructure Victoria reporthas found there is value in completing the Murray Basin Rail Project, to its original scope.
Infrastructure Victoria has called for any new long-term plan for freight rail in the state to consider incorporating sections of the original Murray Basin Rail Project, dropped from the revised business case.
The revised case includes the replacement of an 88-kilometre section of track, completed between Maryborough and Ararat in 2017 using poor-quality, century-old "legacy" rail.
Sidings at Maryborough, Donald, and Merbein, removed as part of the first project, will be rebuilt, along with additional improvements, such as passing loops to reduce congestion.
But the revised plan did not include conversion of broad gauge sections on the Sea Lake and Manangatang lines to standard gauge.
An Infrastructure Victoria report Victoria's Infrastructure Strategy 2021-2051, has found some of the works, left out of the revised plan, should be reconsidered.
Infrastructure Victoria Research and Economics director Llewellyn Reynders said there was a need for a long-term plan, for freight rail.
"We need a plan that can consider some of the components that didn't proceed under the revised MBRP and so that the network is properly maintained.
"We had quite a lot of feedback on people's views on that project and how it unfolded.
"We certainly think there are opportunities to do better in the future."
The Infrastructure Victoria report contained comments from residents from five regions, expressing disappointment over the failure to finish the project, as originally planned.
Wimmera Southern Mallee stakeholders highlighted the failure to upgrade the line from the region to Portland.
Central Highlands' stakeholders advocated for rail freight improvements, including standardising freight lines such as Maryborough to Ballarat, Ballarat to Geelong and the Ballarat to Ararat line.
In the Loddon Campaspe region, many stakeholders expressed major concerns with the reduced scope of the MBRP.
Mr Reynders said the report was based on extensive consultation with regional stakeholders.
"We wanted this strategy to get the appropriate emphasis on regional Victoria and ensure the strategy was working for the whole state," Mr Reyners said.
Freight had a "central importance" in supporting regional agriculture, extractive industries and manufacturing.
"They all depend heavily on an efficient, functional freight network, to get their products to market to compete in Victoria, nationally and internationally," he said.
Lack of a long-term plan presented a barrier to industry investing in accompanying infrastructure, in getting their product onto rail.
While he said he couldn't comment on the specifics of past projects, for Infrastructure Victoria it was about having a long-term plan as to how rail freight would "unfold" in the future.
Infrastructure Victoria proposed that the regional freight network development and asset management plan should:
- Determine the long-term rail gauge in different network sections, the sequence of projects, and ways to prepare for cost-effective gauge conversion
- Identify opportunities to realise efficiencies, particularly at ports
- Set maintenance standards and overcome constraints, such as critical track sections with lower loading limits
- Consider options for new intermodal terminals, and support connections between rail terminals and the main rail line
- Consider the interactions and access arrangements with passenger services and network plans.
The Victorian government should then commence feasibility and business case work on the next major rail freight project.
In doing so, it should improve governance, project and contract management, practices in project planning, scoping and cost estimation, and stakeholder engagement.
Infrastructure Victoria recommended the government should develop and publish the plan to provide certainty and confidence to investors and producers.
A government spokesperson said Victoria was delivering an unprecedented investment in infrastructure, across the state, spending billions of dollars on maintaining and upgrading regional road and rail freight networks.
"On top of the unprecedented investment in rail freight, Victoria is also establishing a long-term plan for the regional freight network taking into account the future needs of the network to 2050," the spokesperson said.