Many thousands of head of cattle have passed through the Channel Country depot of Quilpie over the past century but the 880 fat bullocks loaded onto the KLEX and KOJX rail wagons on Tuesday morning had a special significance.
They were the first consignment of cattle bound for Oakey Beef Exports via rail in 23 years.
It was the culmination of many years of lobbying by a number of parties, particularly the mayors of the south west, and there was no happier man than Quilpie mayor Stuart Mackenzie watching the 44 decks being loaded at the local trucking yards on Tuesday.
He had seen what the contract negotiated by the Bligh government with Aurizon when Queensland Rail was privatised in 2009 had meant for his community, when whole trains had to be booked by one operator, and could only be unloaded at Dinmore.
“Processors don’t usually take responsibility for booking, and the big companies didn’t do it either,” Cr Mackenzie said.
After the glory days of the 1980s, when trains were loading up twice a week or more, the town was down to one service a year until Oakey Beef Exports joined forces with South West RED to put the case for cattle deliveries on rail, and deputy Premier Jackie Trad helped negotiate changes to state freight contracts.
“We were needing a plan to source cattle from the west and the railway line was the obvious answer, but we were excluded from an archaic freight contract which was geared to fail and helping no-one,” Oakey Beef’s general manager Pat Gleeson said. “We met with South West RED and started advocating for more common sense to be applied to the utilisation of the existing rail networks.”
Changes that meant anyone could book a train saw three services take place in 2015. This year there have been 14 cattle trains leave Quilpie since July 9, and Cr Mackenzie is confident there will be a full 28 services in 2017.
“Oakey’s involvement is a significant change to the contracts we have been used to,” he said.
“This is going to improve the viability of the service.
“The next step is further entry points at places like Morven, but we are going in the right direction now.”
Another benefit to Queensland of reinstating a regular train service is that is has the potential to capture more spell cattle for markets in the state’s south east.
“A lot of cattle have been going to Narracoorte in South Australia, but trucking them with a rail option means the south east is preferred,” Cr Mackenzie said.
His impression was that the state government genuinely wanted to see cattle trains running again, especially for the employment they generated.
“The whole rail line from Dinmore to Quilpie is only there because you can load cattle at Quilpie,” he said.
“If you stop that, all you do is run coal from Miles or Chinchilla.
“So, all the maintenance and drivers need the whole line to be operational.”
Another factor is the effect on road transport: one KOJX wagon is 40 feet, and seven of them are equivalent to a type 2 road train.
The 44 decks that left Quilpie on Tuesday are doing the job of 14 B doubles.
Local grazier Dave McWaters was one of five vendors sending cattle to Oakey Beef Exports, and he was on hand on Tuesday morning to watch his 101 Droughtmaster bullocks fresh out of knee-deep Channel Country herbage be loaded.
He said he would keep using the service so long as it came every week at a certain time, so he could muster with confidence.
“In the ‘80s it happened on Monday night. We mustered to meet the train.
“It’s also cheaper, and the hip pocket nerve is an important consideration.”