Mining giant planning on trucking coal while Northern rail line remains shut

MINING giant Whitehaven is planning interim measures to transport coal from its Narrabri mining operation, with the northern rail line to remain closed indefinitely.

A full investigation has been instigated into why six wagons from a fully laden coal train derailed while crossing Coxs Creek Bridge, 800m from Boggabri, last Wednesday, spilling hundreds of tonnes of coal at the site and extensively damaging the 150-metre bridge.

Whitehaven Coal Limited yesterday said it would be seeking temporary approval from local and state road authorities to truck coal from the Narrabri mine to the rail loader at the company’s coal-handling and preparation plant on the Kamilaroi Highway at Gunnedah until the line reopened.

“Like all rail users affected, Whitehaven is reviewing all options available to minimise the impact of the closure on its operations,” Whitehaven managing director Tony Haggarty said. 

The company does not have approval for coal to be transported by road. Mr Haggarty said the process would involve traffic and road assessments.

“Trucking is only being considered as an interim measure and any approval would be short-term,” he said.

Gunnedah mayor Owen Hasler said Gunnedah Shire Council was notified of the proposal on Monday.

Although Cr Hasler said he didn’t want to see an increase in truck activity on Gunnedah’s roads for any significant length of time, he was aware of the immediacy of the problem.

“It will be the responsibility of the Roads and Maritime Service and the Department of Planning to give that approval to Whitehaven,” Cr Hasler said.

“I understand the rail line closure has been estimated at anywhere from three weeks to three months.”

An estimated 80,000 tonnes of coal a week is transported from the Narrabri mine via rail to the Port of Newcastle, with the same output requiring hundreds of trucks per day to transport the coal, depending on capacity.

Cr Hasler said the dual-laned Kamilaroi Highway was designed to handle the increased traffic, but the council also had the safety of other road users to think about.

“This is an example of how extractive industries can put extra pressure on the resources of communities like Gunnedah,” he said.

Cr Hasler said the council’s planning and environmental services director, Michael Silver, had raised a number of issues with the proposal, including the need to establish a management plan to co-ordinate haulage times, to mitigate the impact on other road users.

“Should the approval be granted, there would be restrictions placed on the hours of operation and the number of trucks allowed to ‘convoy’ at the same time,” Cr Hasler said.

Mr Haggarty said the Gunnedah coal-handling and preparation plant did not have the capacity to handle all of the coal produced at the Narrabri mine, but short-term trucking would allow production at the mine to continue.

“Other actions, including rescheduling of required longwall maintenance at Narrabri, the reconfiguration of stockpile facilities, maximising coal deliveries and optimising shipping schedules are also being put in place,” he said.

Mr Haggarty said the company had been told by the Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC) that the rail line was unlikely to be repaired within the next 12 to 15 days.

No date has been forecast by ARTC for completion of repairs to the track and the bridge.

A Whitehaven spokesman said no job losses at the Narrabri mine were being contemplated at this stage.

The owner of the Boggabri open-cut coal mine, Idemitsu Australia Resources, which also transports via rail, was more guarded about its plans.

It issued a statement yesterday saying production at the mine was continuing, but that the company would wait until further information was provided by the ARTC until it assessed the impact of the derailment on its operations.

Meanwhile, Countrylink passengers have also been affected by the closure, with Xplorer rail services to Moree and Sydney terminated at Werris Creek, leaving coaches to ferry the passengers to their destinations.

Investigations continue into derailment

INVESTIGATORS from the Office of Transport Safety Investigations and the Independent Transport Safety Regulator completed their inspections at the site of the incident last week and have launched a full investigation into the derailment, under the Rail Safety Act.

Cranes removed the final coal wagons from the site on Monday.

Structural assessments would now be conducted before track repairs of Coxs Creek Bridge began, an Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC) spokesman said yesterday.

“The ARTC will be assessing what temporary and permanent solutions are required to ensure the structural integrity of the bridge, with an aim to return services as soon as safe and practical,” the spokesman said.

“This assessment will also help to establish an estimated time for repairs, but, given the scale of the damage and the preliminary works still to take place, there remains no forecast for returning the track to service.”

The spokesperson said that maintenance including ballast resurfacing, ballast cleaning, rail grinding and track reconditioning was conducted on the entire Hunter Valley network, including the Northern line, from November 20 - 24, four days before the incident occurred. 

“ARTC has a regular maintenance and inspection program across the Hunter Valley network. The shutdowns are planned fairly regularly and in advance, about 4 times a year,” the spokesperson said.

The spokesperson said that passenger rail lines were inspected twice a week across the Hunter Valley and thousands of other inspections were undertaken annually on network infrastructure.

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