REGISTRATIONS of interest were to be called last month for purchase of Western Australia’s rail freight business. This has been planned since 1997, but progress has been held up in recent months by a parliamentary stalemate over the structure of the future private sector railway. The government had wanted to keep a vertically-integrated operation with a single owner. This did not accord with the views of Kalgoorlie-based Upper House Independent MP Mark Nevill, who was determined that some form of competition should be introduced.

Protracted negotiations led to a deal being hammered out to change the sale bill so that the door is open for on-rail competition. Although Westrail Freight will be sold as an integrated company, the bill provides for separate businesses to be set up: one to manage infrastructure and access, and another to operate trains.

Bidders lined up for the purchase include Genesee & Wyoming, Rail America and Australian Transport Network. They may be joined in the bidding by interstate infrastructure manager Australian Rail Track Corporation, which is keen to be involved.

The deal also includes a government commitment to upgrade the Kalgoorlie - Esperance line for trains with 23 tonne axleloads operating at 80 km/h. This follows a decision by Portman Mining to double to 4million tonnes annually the amount of iron ore it would send over the route for export over the next 20 years. The A$32m originally allocated to the scheme has been supplemented by a further A$10m. In addition, tenders were called at the end of February for a A$45m upgrade of the Kalgoorlie - Koolyanobbing line.

The opposition Labour party has meanwhile said that Westrail will not be sold if it wins the election - on the assumption of course that the sale has not happened by the next election.