Rail freight deal New operator avoids closure

WARRNAMBOOL has secured a new rail freight operator which the city's terminal chief predicts will start a new transport era for the region. The deal between Westvic Container Handling and the independent Melbourne-based freight company El Zorro is all but finalised and comes less than three weeks ahead of an expected pullout by the state's monopoly provider Pacific National.The announcement by Pacific National's parent company, Asciano Group, in December that it planned to abandon grain freight transport in Victoria raised fears of a possible closure of the Warrnambool freight line, which would send an estimated 40 more semi-trailers along the Princes Highway each night. News of the deal came as up to nine Pacific National employees at the Portland depot prepared to finish work today, leaving the Portland line without a freight operator.The Warrnambool deal emerged only hours after Asciano all but confirmed it would end its Victorian operations within three weeks.Westvic Container Handling managing director Warrick Loft said the dedicated Warrnambool train would be "the start of a whole new era" for freight in the south-west. "We're looking to base a train in Warrnambool and we're looking to potentially crew it from Warrnambool," he said.The service will run between Warrnambool and Melbourne five nights a week.Mr Loft said the uncertainty surrounding Pacific National in the past 12 to 18 months had been "an absolute disaster". "It's now time to put control back in the hands of the people who run the freight terminal - and that's us." Pacific National's looming pullout encouraged a number of smaller operators, including El Zorro, to step forward. Asciano released a statement to the Australian Stock Exchange this week confirming that unless it could secure "contractual commitments that see all of our risk mitigated" it would be "withdrawing from that business over the next two or three weeks completely". The Brumby Government responded to the looming freight derailment last month by announcing a $20 million support package to be distributed between terminal and rail operators over the next two years.El Zorro business manager Geoff Tighe said the deal with Westvic was yet to be finalised. "It will be a rapid and reliable service to the ports," he said. "And hopefully we will be able to build up that business to his (Mr Loft's) terminal so that when that Government support package disappears he can continue." Meanwhile, the future of the Ararat to Portland line remains in doubt.Former chairman of the Alliance and Glenelg Shire Mayor Geoff White welcomed the Warrnambool deal but said it was "unimaginable" the Portland line might close.A normal grain harvest would require 4000 B-double movements on the district's roads if no rail operator was found, he said, posing serious safety and environmental hazards.

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