Opening up the Great Australian Food Bowl

The export of the produce of Australia has always been crippled by the tyranny of distance and the high cost of covering that distance. Our national tragedy is that we have never faced-up to this fact and created a fast, efficient and economical system of transport for our exports.

This same considerable problem will be a major issue in opening-up the Great Australian Food Bowl.

The vast blacksoil plains of Queensland that can be opened-up by the building of dams and canals in the Gulf Country, based on the Gilbert and Flinders Rivers, will best be served by a good rail system working in an efficient partnership with road transport.

The region currently has three railtracks that don’t serve it very well — the Townsville/Mount Isa railway, the Rockhampton/Longreach track and the Hughenden/ Winton/Longreach line that connects them both. All need a lot of upgrading as they are not in good shape. Indeed, Queensland Rail is already dismantling the latter for no valid reason.

However, there will not be much point in upgrading the Rockhampton/Longreach track as the Emerald/ Rockhampton section is the domain of coal miners, and they will not want major agricultural exports clogging-up their operations. The same comments generally apply to the Mount Isa/Townsville line which is barely capable of handing mineral exports now.

The best plan will be to rebuild the Longreach to Hughenden track as a standard gauge railway, then convert the existing narrow gauge Hughenden/Cloncurry track into heavy duty dual gauge line, as this will also help the miners at Mount Isa — and then build a new standard gauge track alongside the Matilda Highway from Cloncurry to Normanton, and on to the port of Karumba on the Gulf of Carpentaria where considerable dredging has recently been carried-out and more can be done. The Gulf has a lot of shallow water which is not good for heavy mineral exports, but okay for crops.

Altogether, the railway from Longreach to Karumba will be 1,300 kilometres in length, a long-haul track that will cost around six billion dollars (about a third of what Australians spend on gambling every year), but it can be done progressively as the food bowl will take a generation to reach its full capacity.

The first step would be to build the Cloncurry/Karumba line of about 450 kilometres, costing around 2.5 billion dollars. This will give access to the port of Karumba and the track can also be used by some Cloncurry miners, thereby adding to its viability.

Of course, the food bowl project will not get started unless a major agricultural company is established to buy up land along the railtracks and water canals and start a massive food production enterprise to serve Asia. It won’t be achieved by small farmers.

Burke and Wills will start cheering from their graves.

This food bowl will bring to fruition their dream of proving that Outback Australia can be tamed and made wealthy. They would not have regarded 1,300 kilometres as a long distance. Nor would they have been frightened by it. But, part of their dream was to see a major port established on the Gulf, and now Karumba has the potential to become one of the world’s largest agricultural ports. We are about 150 years late in saying so, but Burke and Wills may not have died in vain.

As an aside, can I point out a not-well-known historical fact — Robert O’Hara Burke was the only member of the Melbourne Club, in its entire history, ever to have died of thirst.