A landmark bid to build the Pilbara's first genuine multi-user iron ore rail line involving QR National, Atlas Iron and Brockman Mining has slipped by up to six months, highlighting the difficulty of delivering big infrastructure projects in WA.
QR National chief executive Lance Hockridge confirmed the delay of its feasibility study in a wide-ranging interview with WestBusiness in Esperance where the rail boss unveiled a $125 million expansion of its South East operations.
"I would expect it (the study) would take us into the first half of next calendar year before either us alone or with our prospective customers are in a position to understand what the next steps are," he said.
Mr Hockridge also said the Queensland-based QR, which today will seek at its annual meeting to change its name to Aurizon to reflect its increasing push into other parts of Australia, including the Pilbara, was potentially interested in Fortescue Metals' rail network - but only if it gained control of the assets .
"It depends though what is on offer," Mr Hockridge said. "Our company is not purely an infrastructure investment vehicle. What seems to be being put forward is a minority equity investment. That is not us. If, however, there is something that is more in the nature of a solutions involvement then we have an open mind."
Fortescue has indicated it is unlikely to give up full control of the crucial infrastructure, but is open to equity investors to help reduce its debt pile if a deal does not affect its long-term operating costs.
Unveiled in April, the separate QR study into a Pilbara rail network designed to break the iron grip of miners such as Fortescue, BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto, was expected to be completed by next month, with construction finished as early as 2015.
However, rising costs, volatile iron ore prices, and uncertainty about the amount of ore the companies would be able to deliver on the line have hampered its progress.
Mr Hockridge said the open access rail regime was "a scale and volume proposition" that could not be rushed, given it was likely to last for at least 50 years. But he was positive it would eventually happen because of the "fundamentals" of the Asian century.
"From a national interest point of view there is a sense of having the right infrastructure but not over-investing in infrastructure," he said.
"At the end of the day, though, it is a matter for the customers.
"What we are trying to be is the catalyst around which a sensible outcome hopefully can form for a range, if not all, of the players."
Gina Rinehart's Hancock Prospecting made it clear last week that it remained committed to going it alone in developing a railway from its Roy Hill mine.Atlas, which trucks ore from its Pilbara mines to the Utah Point facility at Port Hedland, needs a rail solution to grow beyond 15mtpa, and has also been in separate talks with Hancock.
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