Solving the infrastructure GAP

Queensland has never had a problem with producing coal. 
It has a wealth of black gold waiting just below the surface, and miners have not been hesitant in exploiting it. 
And despite the wet weather issues and ongoing industrial action that many miners face in the region, mining is likely to go on in the Queensland coalfields for sometime, especially once Hancock Coal's Kevin's Corner and Alpha Coal project and Clive Palmer's China First (both near the town of Alpha) get off the ground. 
Coal will keep coming for decades. 
But getting it offshore, that has always been an issue. 
Infrastructure, or the lack thereof, has held back the development of many a project and even now some projects are shackled in, holding off on ramping up towards production as the coal essentially has no-where to go and no way of getting off site. 
No rail lines reaching into Queensland's coal heartland, or missing links that add hundreds of unnecessary kilometres on to transport have just been a matter of fact. 
It seemed likely it would stay this way – until of course the mining boom intervened.  
And for once a government decided to act proactively by building a rail line to support the upcoming boom, rather than reactively and potentially missing out, by giving the go ahead for a massive infrastructure revamp across the state to link its major mining regions with its coal ports. 
But first it had to identify where vital infrastructure was missing. 
While the state's Goon­yella, Blackwater, Newlands, and Moura Systems all covered large tracts of ground and linked many mines to ports, the Newlands System was essentially cut off from the rest, operating as a lone network. 
One of the key issues in rectifying this was creating this Northern 'Missing Link' which connected the massive Newlands System and the port of Abbot Point to the 924 kilometre long Goonyella System and its corresponding port of Hay Point out of Mackay. 
The other is the 'Central Queensland Integrated Rail Project' (CQIRP) that aims to link the virtually untapped Galilee and Surat basins, and their massive coal reserves, with the distant ports at Gladstone. 
While the aim of both rail lines has been the same, the outcomes and journey have been very different. 
 

Filling the GAP 

The Goonyella to Abbot Point (GAP) rail project's latest push began in 2008 as the first great mining boom of this century slumped to a halt amidst the global financial crisis. 
Despite this formal negotiations had begun to build the network, as well as additional duplication of rail lines. 
At the time Queensland Resources Council chief executive Michael Roche said "the GAP project represents a significant opportunity for Queensland to capitalise on the next surge in minerals and energy demand". 
However it wasn't until the Queensland premier Anna Bligh announced the government's recommitment to the project in late 2009, after two Bowen ­Basin coal miners had come to an agreement with QR National, that the ball really began rolling.  
The plan, valued at around $1.1 billion, aimed to bridge the 69 kilometre gap between the two rail lines and in turn lift rail haulage capacity dramatically. 
According to QR National chairman John Prescott, the project created "a capacity increase on the Newlands system of up to 50 million tonnes per year, as well as providing the platform for potential future expansions of 200 million tonnes and more". 
The Northern 'Missing Link' will feature three passing loops; ballast sidings; eleven bridges; and importantly it also addresses the safety problem of rail crossings – which have seen a number of dangerous and potentially fatal incidents over the past three years – by including two road over rail bridges. 
As part of the wider scope of GAP works, it included the Bogie River to Newlands project that had 14 kilometres of rail duplication, a passing loop, and 17 kilometres of track upgrades. 
There was also an Abbot Point to Bogie River project, which featured 27 kilometres of track upgrades, passing loops, and holding roads and balloon loops. 
Taking the capacity and safety considerations on board QR National then spent the next year drafting its plans and access conditions, to ensure that miners ranging from Rio and BHP through to juniors in the region would have admission to the network, as well as usage tariffs. 
The project officially began in May 2010, with construction progressing steadily.  
In 2011 the project reached a milestone, following a Newlands System shutdown. 
An eight day closure of the line saw ten kilometres of track laid, as well as 14 500 sleepers, 22 000 square metres of stone ballast, and around 17 000 tonnes of formation materials.    
QR National's network services CEO Michael Carter stated that "this was a major achievement for the project; we delivered a major round of works, involving hundreds of personnel completing more than 21 000 hours of work, with no injuries and no impact on capacity. 
"This brought us one step closer to having trains running in January 2012." 
Unfortunately, despite working ahead of schedule the project was nearly derailed by excessive rain in 2011, yet it opened on time. 
Prescott voiced his excitement over the development. 
"This line will now pro­vide an extra 70 million tonnes of rail capacity over the next three years, and will have the ability to move more than 300 million tonnes of coal per annum by 2015." 
Trains began running ahead of time, after the line opened on 19 December 2011. 
Soon after QR National began signing contracts with miners in the Bowen Basin. 
Rio Tinto quickly came on board, arranging for the line to haul around three million tonnes of coal from its Blair Athol and Clermont mines. 
Lake Vermont Resources, QCoal, Macarthur/Peabody, and the BHP Billiton Mitsubishi Alliance also came on board. 
However BHP was looking to have a rail line all of its own. 
 

Drawing a line in the sand 

BHP gave the Queensland Government notice of a rail corridor alignment to the port of Abbot Point in January after stock started rolling, stating that it was "study­ing the construction of its own dedicated rail line for it and its joint venture partner in the Bowen Basin". 
The miner said it would be part of its expansion in the region and would run to its proposed export terminal at Abbot Point. 
BHP's metallurgical coal chief, Hubie van Dalsen, said the company supports a common corridor for multiple rail proponents, which would include a dedicated BHP line. 
Van Dalsen explained that "some landowners previously expressed concerns about the effect of multiple proposed rail corridors on landholders; we listened to their concerns and acted on the advice of the Queensland Government in pursing a common corridor which would be used by other proponents". 
BHP has carried out studies on the land in the potential rail corridor, with van Dalsen adding that "local knowledge is providing a critical perspective on potential issues like stock crossing, flooding, and environmental issues in determining the proposed corridor". 
But despite this many landowners are still concerned. One grazier told the local paper, the Daily Mercury, that there are still worries about BHP's extra proposed rail corridor and that if the rail project isn't built properly it may destroy the land. 
"Landholders' biggest con­cern is the flooding," he said. 
"It will change the hydrology of the land", the grazier claimed, adding that "I think realistically [the rail proponents] will need dual tracks. 
"The proposals are that silly that in some places the proposed lines actually cross each other.  
"They actually cross twice." 
Mayor of the central Queensland region, Cedric Marshall, also voiced his concern over the path of the rail corridors  
BHP dismissed the apprehensions, saying it had already "negotiated access for study purposes with more than 85 per cent of landowners, taking a long term view in developing relationships". 
While worries over water and the paths the rail corridors take have raised graziers' fears, the likelihood of the rail corridor being removed in the near future is practically nil, while the operators of the network seek to work closer with the landowners. 
 

The new frontier 

While the approval and construction of the Northern 'Missing Link' was relatively straight forward, the story of the Central Queensland Integrated Rail Project is a little more twisted. 
The line is proposed as the Southern missing link and was designed to open the Surat and Galilee basins to the coal terminals of the eastern coast. 
Currently these under developed coalfields, which are further west from the coast than the historical Bowen Basin region, have very little infrastructure, which has curtailed development of mines the area. 
Galilee Basin coal seam gas explorer Comet Ridge's managing director has previously told Australian Mining that the major problem facing the area is a lack of roads, as "the Galilee is a new frontier in Australian mining". 
Even QR National says "the Galilee Basin is one of the largest remaining undeveloped coal resources in Queensland and is expected to become the largest coal producing region in the state". 
Two of Australia's most famous, or infamous, mining billionaires, Clive Palmer and Gina Rinehart, are also tied to major projects in the region. 
Palmer has his enormous China First coal project in the region, near the town. 
Gina Rinehart's Hancock Coal also has its Kevin's Corner and Alpha Coal (which is now predominately owned by GVK) located square in the middle of the Surat Basin. 
While these projects have decades of coal production ahead of them, both are facing the same issue – how to get it from pit to port. 
Palmer, in his usual bombastic style, has pushed to develop his own rail line from China First, as has Hancock Coal. 
QR National also sought to develop its own rail network which would integrate a number of different planned lines into a single corridor. 
In 2010 the Queensland Government officially gave the go-ahead for the construction of a $2 billion rail corridor to access the untapped Galilee and Surat regions, with Hancock gaining early approval and recognition of its rail corridor and infrastructure as 'significant' (with the mine receiving official approval for its development in late May). 
QRN soon after proposed the Central Queensland Integrated Rail Project (CQIRP) to service this area. 
It said its "proposal will seek to optimise existing rail infrastructure through upgrades to the Newlands coal system and thereby minimise the extent of new or 'greenfield' railway that must be constructed to link the central and south Galilee (and Surat) Basin to the coal chain.  
"Our proposal is likely to reduce the extent of new rail line by approximately 200 kilometres compared to other existing proposals," it added. 
In January this year the Queensland Co-Ordinator General declared that QR's project was 'significant', and thus the trouble began. 
 

The Southern network 'derailed' 

Immediately following the declaration Clive Palmer's China First launched an $8 billion lawsuit against the rail haulage company for alleged 'breaches of confidentiality and misleading conduct'. 
China First claimed that QR had misled the miner over the proposed rail line and that the Queensland Government had also granted the miner's network 'significant', with Palmer voicing on twitter that it was a conspiracy against his mine and the ruling ignored China First's significant status. 
Palmer's company had planned to build a 471 kilometre rail line from Alpha to Abbot Point, reportedly in conjunction with QR. 
"This is an outrage", the miner said, "as we had already been in commercial discussions and exchanges with QR National for co-operation in the joint development of rail and port facilities supporting the Galilee Basin. 
"We have advised the Co-Ordinator General of the improper use for which the subject's significant project declaration regarding QR National has been made and reserve our rights against him and the Queensland Government (which is a major shareholder in QRN)." 
China First stated that it intended to seek damages of $8 billion and seek an injunction against QR and other parties to stop them from dealing with QR in regards to the Galilee Basin and its corridor and associated port facilities. 
Unsurprisingly QR dis­missed all of Palmer's claims.  "QR National strongly rejects these baseless assertions," a company spokesperson said. 
Former Queensland trea­surer Andrew Fraser attacked Palmer's claims and also dismissed his claims of a conspiracy adding that "significant project status was given to a BHP rail proposal last year, QRN's chief customer and competitor; it's hardly a conspiracy". 
Despite the legal threats, QR National has continued with its Central Queensland Integrated Rail Project, ­undertaking environmental and engineering studies in early May. 
"These initial field investigations have commenced and are anticipated to continue until late 2012, when EIS documents are expected to be completed and released for public comment," QR National added. 
 

The future 

With stock already rolling on the GAP, and the CQIRP steaming along despite attacks, the Queensland coalfields are opening up to the mining boom. 
The only remaining question is – is this infrastructure race too late, or just in time?

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