THE QUEENSLAND and Federal governments are currently spending $800 million on the Gateway Arterial (Brisbane), $700 million on two roundabouts on the Sunshine Coast and already dedicated $300 million to the Cross River Rail (Brisbane), but cannot find between $10 and $15 million over the next three to five years to upgrade one of the most strategically-important thoroughfares linking North Queensland with the southern states.
Additionally, the Federal Government has approved funding for upgrades to the Richmond to Winton Road, under the $100 million Northern Australia Beef Roads Program.
The recent introduction of traffic counters to the much-relied-upon road between Torrens Creek and Barcaldine suggest that someone, at long last, is starting to count the number of heavy wheels travelling from the north to southern states where the demand for food is become vitally important due to increasing population.
There is a two-year-old report produced by the Queensland Transport and Logistics Council titled ‘A Focus on Freight on Queensland’s Inland Highway’ (January 2015) sitting within the Department of Transport and Main Roads in Brisbane that has deliberately left-out any reference to the Torrens Creek to Barcaldine Road.
The committee was implemented when Annastacia Palaszczuk was Queensland’s Transport Minister, and the Newman Opposition was making countless promises, many of which didn’t eventuate in its first and only term of government.
QIH routes include the Castlereagh, Carnarvon, Dawson, Gregory and Flinders Highways and the Gregory Developmental Road.
The QTLC’s stated objective is to “better understand supply chains in Queensland, the drivers of change, and the policy and infrastructure requirements to support future growth.”
Already they’ve created an oxymoron!
Surprisingly, the QTLC has failed to recognise that the Torrens Creek to Barcaldine Road is a major military route for a new version of tank transporter travelling between Lavarack Barracks in Townsville and Puckapunyal in Victoria that clearly drives home the fact that it is a strategic road. The recent failed attempt by the Defence Department to secure pastoral land near Charters Towers was linked to tank exercises being held in the north instead of Victoria.
Additionally, a major economic boost for the Central West and North Queensland agriculture and towns could be achieved by upgrading the Torrens Creek to Barcaldine road.
Over the last decade, with little road upgrading, truck traffic on the vital link road between the growing North Queensland horticulture industries and the growing populations of southern Australia has increased up to ten times.
This is peak season, and with the welcome early rains, the road is becoming a mess because it hasn’t been upgraded.
As the banana (eight per cent of Australia’s fresh food sales), mangoes and avocadoes (with longer seasons) and the potential for major horticulture developments west of the Atherton Tableland, Murray Valley (Ingham) and the Gilbert and Pentland areas, the Torrens Creek Road is the most direct and economical north/south link as Australia’s population from Brisbane south increases by a third of a million mouths to feed each year.
An example of how important the Torrens Creek to Barcaldine road is to the rapid supply of food to the south was highlighted last week-end when massive storms across Victoria all but wiped-out crops in the weeks leading into Christmas.
It drives home the importance of how roads from North Queensland are a necessity when severe weather destroys summer crops in the south.
Additionally, if areas west of Charters Towers around Pentland had a reliable supply of water, many of these crops could be grown year round, especially that the area is not susceptible to cyclones.
But the federal and state governments keep pouring money into the already-crowded Bruce Highway (less safe and a longer distance to southern markets) and last week’s announcement about the Richmond-Winton Road — essential ten kilometres of bitumen for a local beef road — but not as useful as the major freight route Torrens Creek could be.
The benefits to the Central West are jobs — truck drivers, truck stops, repairers, local depots and better freight connections for cheaper local goods. Add to that the factor that truck drivers find it easier to park and walk a small distance to access chemists and other necessary outlets that increase the potential for smaller towns and communities.
The alternate route to the Torrens Creek to Barcaldine route — via Clermont — has the barriers of restricting truck size south of Clermont to the New South Wales border and then through the rest of the state.
Torrens Creek to Barcaldine and then to Bourke is available for road trains and AB Doubles — critical is making the northern produce industries viable in supplying southern markets.
Unfortunately, this road doesn’t fit into either a national highway criteria (80 per cent funded by the federal government) or a declared beef road (federal funding).
Much of the delay in funding has been caused by:
- Lack of recognition of the route as a key north/south freight route;
- The economic significance of the route in reducing transport costs to make northern agriculture viable (it needs to be a banana/mango/avocado/beef/grain route);
- Queensland Transport and Main Roads not understanding that, as a freight route, it does not necessarily need to be bitumen-sealed or requires major bridges over creeks, but a wide and well-maintained gravel road with wide culvert crossings. That’s why it doesn’t need, for the immediate future, to be a regional bitumen road at $1 million per kilometre build cost (this isn’t a south-east Queensland freeway);
- Lack of understanding of how many trucks can be taken-off the Bruce Highway at a fraction of the cost of upgrading and maintaining that increasingly overcrowded road;
- Lack of unity between local councils — Richmond wants the southern route to start further west in the mistaken belief this would put more traffic and economic development through Hughenden. It won’t, because it would just make the alternative freight route unviable.
A government-appointed inquiry some ten years ago concluded that the Torrens Creek to Barcaldine route was the most viable link that could be utilised efficiently and economically by heavy transport operators hauling goods between North Queensland and Melbourne and Adelaide.
At that time there were 30 B-doubles using the road each month.
Currently, between 30 and 50 trucks in triple configuration are using the road on a weekly basis.
Blenners of Tully is a major transporter of bananas from the north to the south.
It is also the preferred route for road transport operators hauling goods in Townsville and the entire north.
It is the most logical route, but there is a small section of 33km in the Richmond Shire that, although it is common knowledge that the federal government has allocated funds for its upgrade (bitumen is not necessary, it is not an arterial road), the funds have (there is much conjecture why) apparently been re-directed towards the Hann Highway — one that is not the chosen route by the majority of long-distance operators.
This moot point was the subject of a meeting of concerned and affected transport operators, locals and stakeholders at the Oakleigh Station turn-Off (along the disputed section of highway) last year that was extremely critical of the road link situation.
It was pointed-out to the meeting by a representative of the Barcaldine Shire that the Council could seal the road for $178,000 per kilometre.
In what is regarded as a well-worn government ploy, the chief engineer from Transport and Main Road in Queensland disputed the costing — saying that its estimate is one million dollars per kilometre. At this juncture the TMR representatives admitted that they didn’t know where the money would come from, nor would the road proposed by Barcaldine Shire be up to TMR standards.
It must be acknowledged (but isn’t) that taxpayer money is more fluid against that of economy-seeking Local Government entities using ratepayer monies.
If all roads were built on government departmental costings, the Outback Highway connecting Perth and Cairns via Laverton ad Winton would never have been started, let alone predicted to be 75 per cent completed by 2020.
It was noted at the quickly-convened meeting that the road hadn’t seen a grader for some nine or ten months (minimum). There was a grader operator employed to grade the road, but fell into disrepair when he was very quickly relieved of the job. It is reported that he was very much in favour of upgrading the 33km section of the road.
Quite extraordinarily, a grader and water carts turned-up 10 days before the meeting to restore the road to some semblance of integrity.
According to long-time road transport operator, Bob McMillan, “more and more operators are running triples — and it is increasing,” he says.
“And more and more operators are hauling cattle and general freight out of Brisbane for the west.”
Based in Cardwell and a veteran owner-driver who has been in trucking for 50 years and is still driving, Bob hauls mainly bananas from the north to all points south and the west, and returns north with onions and potatoes.
He avoids the Clermont route: “Once we reach there, the rig must be split and then the ‘dog runs’ begin. That means more trucks on the highways.
Bob McMillan says he started using the route in 1986 when there was 260km of dirt within the 270km section between Torrens Creek and Aramac.
“It’s pretty well-known around the traps that Flinders Shire is based in Hughenden — and that the contentious 33km is under that jurisdiction.
As noted previously, the Federal Government has approved funding for upgrades to the Richmond to Winton Road, under the $100 million Northern Australia Beef Roads Program.
“The Richmond to Winton Road upgrades will involve pavement construction and bitumen sealing a total of 9.5 kilometres of the Richmond to Winton Road.”
Readers should take particular note of the essential wording (it is important for politicians to sell their individual stories): “Beef roads!” Further down there are the words “progressive sealing.”
“The upgrades made through the Northern Australia Beef Roads Program form part of the Australian Government’s record $75 billion investment, which is creating jobs and a more effective national road network,” said Darren Chester, Minister for Transport and Infrastructure, and Member for Gippsland.
(One wonders whether he has ever visited the entire Central West to gauge the opinion of the heads of Barcaldine Shire and Longreach Regional Councils).
It would be a mere pittance to add the Torrens Creek to Barcaldine section — just 33kms — to give all transport routes in the Central West economic viability — and make the Central West the transport hub of the Outback. Here, we are talking produce and general freight. Additionally, it could be done more cheaply by Barcaldine Shire Council that understands ‘economy of scale’.
And where’s Federal Member for Maranoa, David Littleproud, who said the works were essential for Queensland to connect the paddocks to market.
“The upgrades will be delivered in two packages: the first consisting of more than 7kms of upgrades, and the second providing a further two kilometres of upgrades,” he said, noting a completion date of mid-2019.
“These works are going to make the road safer for road trains, as well as allow for safer overtaking opportunities for passenger and freight vehicles, improving safety for residents and tourists using the route.”
(Oh dear, Mr Littleproud is beginning to sound like Malcolm Turnbull — or is the opposite end of the electorate too far away to get out here more often to talk to all relevant stakeholders?)
Funding of the Richmond-Winton Progressive Sealing Packages comes from the Australian Government ($3.77 million) and the Queensland Government ($860,000).
Bob McMillan notes that it’s shorter from Townsville and Charters Towers to Winton via Torrens Creek and Barcaldine than via Hughenden.
“Not much,” he says, “but transport operators too are always looking for ‘economies of scale’.”
“All we need is one champion of the bush in State Parliament to say: “Let’s get this done — and then just do it.”
— Rob Chandler, Mayor of Barcaldine Shire.
Also at the Oakleigh turn-off meeting was Justine Ferguson from the Aramac haulage company of the same name.
She addresses the situation of the Torrens Creek to Barcaldine road from both a business and family point-of-view.
“We’re pulling more and more out of the north,” she emphasises — “steel, stockfeed and general freight, especially out of Townsville and Charters Towers. And stockfeed is essential in the drought.
“Everything used on the land is predominantly being sourced out of the north — what we don’t need is increased kilometres.
“The Rockhampton road is horrendous,” she adds.
“I also have a daughter in boarding school in Townsville,” she said, while acknowledging there are other parents in the Central West whose children attend colleges and boarding schools in Charters Towers, which has always been an educational hub of North Queensland.
Justine adds to the list of positives for the road to be upgraded the fact that more and more residents of the area are travelling to Townsville rather than Rockhampton to access medical treatment — “they have been doing it for quite a while,” she says.
“And those experiencing birthing difficulties are going north because they can’t be accommodated in Longreach.”
Her northern list extends to further education, and she lists James Cook University as “a wonderful institution that is most convenient,” and the TAFE colleges.
“It’s so much easier to go to Townsville for the week-end…
“It’s just a shame that the authorities cannot finish the road,” she said with a note of despair.
Barcaldine Shire chairman, Rob Chandler, understands the full history of the road, beginning with AusLink, the former federal government land transport funding program that ran from 2004 to 2009. This was superseded by the Nation Building Program and later replaced by the National Land Transport Network.
“It was started by the state government eight years ago, and with 33km to the finish line, work stopped! Since then, no money has been spent on the road.
“More importantly, its an Australian Defence Force road,” he said. “It’s the shortest and most viable route between Lavarack Barracks in Townsville to Puckapunyal in Victoria.
“Consider the extra man hours and fuel if they had to take an alternate route?” he queried. (It should also be noted that the new tank transporters aren’t qualified for use on national highways due to weight and size when fully loaded).
“Additionally, across the region are many Cowboys Rugby League supporters who use the road to get to the Townsville games.
“For the sake of 33km and an upgrade of the Prairie Creek bridge, the road would be fully sealed in a virtual straight line from Townsville to Melbourne.
“Not only that, the recently announced Northern Beef Road funding for the Hann Highway will provide a sealed route from Cairns to Hughenden.”
He said that with the Torrens Creek to Aramac section sealed, motorists will be able to travel on bitumen from Cairns to both Sydney and Melbourne.
Mayor Chandler admits that the increased traffic will then have a serious affect on the road from Cornish Creek to Barcaldine, including Bullock Creek.
“All we need is one champion of the bush in State Parliament to say “let’s get this done — and then just do it.”
Les Blennerhassett, owner of Tully-based Blenners Transport, says every truck dispatched from the north to Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth takes the company’s preferred route through Torrens Creek and Barcaldine.
“We dispatch ten B-doubles and road trains on a daily basis from the north to the southern states,” he said — “it’s the shortest route, it saves time and money, and it’s well away from the high traffic zones.
“When it rains, our trucks have to go via Charters Towers and down the Belyando Highway to Emerald, then across to Barcaldine to join our preferred route.
“We would like to see the route sealed as a matter of urgency,” Mr Blennerhassett said.
“Our trucks can only travel between 25 and 30kms/hr over the dirt, and not only does it wreck our gear, but it affects the fruit.”
“What’s holding it up — 30km is nothing in the scheme of things,” he said.
Neil Williams, of Woggadoona Station, Torrens Creek, was another concerned stakeholder at the Oakleigh turn-off meeting. From his property he has three kilometres of bitumen and 33km of dirt into Torrens Creek.
He was employed by the Flinders Shire on a contract basis to regularly grade the road many years ago, but the contract then ceased. He believes the road is really essential to transport operators and the travelling public. “They complain bitterly about the state of the road,” he says.
Neil recalls when Barcaldine Shire had a further 10km pegged-out, but everything stopped.
“And from the Torrens Creek end, the Flinders Shire put-down blue gravel and two culverts, but never went ahead with the bitumen-sealing.”
- Last week-end the Torrens Creek to Barcaldine Road was described by road transport operators as “like driving through slurry.” There are many trucks hauling mangoes and bananas that must get through to the south before Christmas. With the expected rain, the road could be impassable for days.
- Col Jackson is a long-time trucking journalist. His first truck licence was gained in the Army driving a World War II left-hand-drive, 10-wheel Studebaker with crash box and splitter gears (in bull dust with a 10,000 gallon water tank on board); he retains a National Heavy Vehicle license. He is the author of ‘Centenary of Road Transport in Australia, 1900 to 2010’ and editor of the hilarious and frighteningly candid book by the late trucking pioneer, Ray Gilleland, “My Way on the Highway—the life and times of the Nullarbor Kid” (Publishing Services).
- First printed in The Longreach Leader, Friday, December 8, 2017.