COAL shipments from the North West are set to grind to a halt on Friday, costing the mining industry dearly, if train drivers walk off the job as planned.
The region’s biggest coalminer says a proposed rail staff strike planned to start on Friday could cause significant damage.
It will be the second major disruption to Whitehaven Coal’s rail transport link to the port of Newcastle in the past two months.
Whitehaven is responding to threats of industrial action made against its coal hauler, Pacific National, by the Rail, Tram and Bus Union (RTBU) after wage negotiations with the company broke down.
The union informed Pacific National, one of the country’s biggest coal haulage operators, of its intention to stage a one-day strike beginning noon Friday.
Late yesterday afternoon, it is understood the union extended the strike from 24 to 48 hours.
One industry expert estimated a 24-hour shutdown could prevent 300,000 tonnes of the state’s coal from reaching port – costing more than $25 million to the economy.
Just weeks before a Christmas shipment of the company’s coal was en route to Newcastle when six fully-laden coal wagons on a Pacific National train derailed at the Coxs Creek bridge crossing near Boggabri on November 28.
The bridge was damaged and required extensive repairs before freight trains returned to service. The cause of the derailment has not yet been disclosed.
The 22-day closure of the north western line caused a backlog of tonnes of coal, from four mines in the region, along with agricultural commodities which are transported out of Narrabri.
While a two day strike is by no means as damaging as the pre-Christmas closure of the rail line, Whitehaven says it has cause for concern.
Whitehaven managing director Tony Haggarty said the proposed action had the potential to cause significant harm and, accordingly, the company had requested the union to withdraw its strike notice.
“Whitehaven has advised the Rail, Tram and Bus Union that it considers the potential impact that this, or future industrial action, may have on its operations is extremely serious,” Mr Haggarty said.
He warned the union that Whitehaven reserved all its rights to make any necessary application to the Fair Work Commission.
Mr Haggarty said it wasn’t appropriate to comment on the negotiations between the RTBU or Pacific National, or on the details of any application it could make to the commission.
Negotiations between the rail operator and union had broken down after a year-long pay dispute over wages.
It is understood the RTBU wanted an increase of about 7 per cent while Pacific National offered 4 per cent, before walking out of negotiations last week.