Among all the political noise about city rail this election campaign there's been barely a whisper from key players about a set of tracks that carry a lot of weight in the country.

The silence is deafening in the Wheatbelt and the agricultural community where everybody is talking about the future of the grain freight lines known as Tier 3.

The lines are set to close at the end of October just as harvest - the most valuable annual event in Australian agriculture - hits top gear.

It might be a slow train coming - the lines are in such a state that operating speeds in some sections have dropped to 20km/h - but it will hit whoever is in Government with the force of an out-of-control truck. Thousands of trucks in fact, which are set to rumble along the Wheatbelt's crumbling highways and into the suburbs of Perth.

Transport Minister Troy Buswell has spent the election campaign talking about city rail, but his lips are sealed when it comes to the lease over the Tier 3 lines.

It is more than two weeks since CBH Group revealed an ambitious plan to keep the lines running by taking over the day-to-day operation from Government's leaseholder Brookfield Rail, which estimates it needs $93 million in public funding to keep the lines open.

Since that time Mr Buswell has not met CBH to discuss its plan, which requires upfront Government funding of $30 million in return for a CBH's commitment to pay for all maintenance of the lines for the next decade.

Both Mr Buswell and Brookfield, which holds a long-term lease over the entire rail freight network in the southern half of WA, have refused to speak to the media about the CBH plan.

Their silence contrasts with the findings of an explosive January 3 report by WA auditor general Colin Murphy, which are still echoing around the bush.

The report pointed to the Public Transport Authority's management of the lease going off the rails. Entitled Management of the Rail Freight Network Lease: 12 Years Down the Track, it found:

·Some conditions of the Rail Freight System Act had not been met.

·That parliament had only limited information about the lease.

·That for unknown reasons a $400 million investment commitment by the successful bidder was not included in the lease.

·That the PTA had not conducted a structured risk assessment of the lease and did not have a contract management plan in place.

The report raised the prospect of the rail network being returned to WA taxpayers in 2049 in the same condition it was in 2000 because of the PTA's narrow interpretation of the term "fit for purpose".

"Based on internal legal advice, PTA has interpreted the lease such that in most situations the only usable standards are the initial performance standards, set at year 2000 levels," Mr Murphy said.

"This is a substantial reduction of the broad 'fit for purpose' obligation, as it does not include the requirement to meet the needs of rail users or reflect changes in rail technology."

The auditor general's report also raised the future of the Tier 3 lines and questioned the wisdom the PTA paying Brookfield care and maintenance fees on disused lines without testing the market for an alternative viable operator.

"Placing the lines into care and maintenance while leaving them with the current lessee potentially obstructs new operators from entering the market," Mr Murphy said. "This also benefits the lessee by reducing the likelihood of competition while allowing the lessee to retain the right to the future economic benefit from disused rail line corridors.

"The uncertainty over whether market can provide an alternative viable operator can only be fully resolved by testing the market, which PTA has not formally done."

CBH claims it is a viable alternative operator with a $30 million leg-up from taxpayers. It wants the Government to take the Tier 3 lease off Brookfield.

The details of the lease remain a mystery because it has never been tabled in Parliament despite the PTA advising its minister on two occasions that it sees no barrier to tabling the document.

CBH has failed in its attempts to get access to the lease through freedom of information applications.

Critics of the CBH plan point out that it has no experience in operating or maintaining rail lines. CBH has said it will rely on the expertise of experienced US rail operator Watco, which successfully took over the running of CBH's rolling stock last year.

One rail industry veteran wondered whether CBH knew what it was getting into, saying even the $93 million Brookfield estimated was needed to re-sleeper the Tier 3 lines would be like "grading a gravel road that in the end will still be a gravel road".

CBH chief executive Andy Crane said its plans for Tier 3 were sound and had been reviewed by three separate consulting rail engineers.

CBH has changed its tune on Tier 3 since contributing to the Strategic Grain Network Review in 2009. Because of that review, the Government and industry reached a general agreement to focus on more heavily used Tier 1 and Tier 2 lines at the expense of Tier 3. Now it is all aboard for Tier 3 after the switch to Watco and a $175 million investment in new locomotives and wagons delivered a 7 per cent saving on freight rates to farmers.

In an election campaign where amounts in the billions have been promised for city rail infrastructure, only Labor leader Mark McGowan has made any financial commitment to keep the lines open - pledging $30 million over three years.

WA Nationals leader Brendon Grylls said he wanted CBH to put its cards on the table before making any commitment. CBH says its cards are on the table but there's still no financial commitment from the Nationals.

Mr Buswell appears to have washed his hands of the issue. The Tier 3 lines were to close in October but Mr Buswell allowed a 12-month reprieve last year. He has told CBH and Brookfield to sort it out among themselves.

That's not good enough, the powerful Wheatbelt Railway Retention Alliance says.

WRRA co-ordinator Jane Fuchsbichler said the CBH plan had merit but could not proceed with without action from the Government over the Brookfield lease.

Ms Fuchsbichler said Mr Buswell and Mr Grylls had wanted a clear commitment that CBH would use the lines. Now that CBH had made that commitment it was critical that the incoming Government took action to keep the lines open.

The WRRA, which has a membership including 27 local governments and influential farming lobbies, has a "no rail, no vote" policy, which may favour Labor and its $30 million pledge. In the seat of Central Wheatbelt, being vacated by Mr Grylls, that could have dire consequences for Nationals candidate Mia Davies and could ultimately favour Mr Buswell's Liberal colleague Stephen Strange because of Labor's decision on preferences.

WRRA's big concern is road safety. Its research, based on recent harvest volumes, forecasts 57,000 to 85,000 extra truck movements a year on the Wheatbelt's crumbling roads if Tier 3 lines close.

Ms Fuchsbichler said that should concern all politicians and residents of Perth suburbs. She said there were about 26,000 extra truck movements in and out of the city when key sections of the lines were out of action between November 2011 and June last year.

"There will always be debate about exactly where the trucks will go. But if the rail closes, the grain will go somewhere on roads and those roads will become much more dangerous," she said.

There will always be debate about exactly where the trucks will go. But if the rail closes, the grain will go somewhere on roads and those roads will become much more dangerous."

Wheatbelt Railway Retention Alliance co-ordinator Jane Fuchsbichler

The West Australian

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