Moves are afoot to increase the utilisation of subsidised cattle trains in Queensland this year, but the push could face a challenge due to the tight availability of meatworks-ready cattle.
Three key rail corridors link cattle producing areas of western Queensland with meatworks closer to the coast – the Cloncurry to Townsville line in the north, Winton to Rockhampton in Central Queensland and Quilpie to Brisbane in southern Queensland.
Rail is a favoured option where it can be used because it can cut transport costs for producers compared to road, while it can also offer benefits in animal welfare and in removing transport loads on highways.
Rail freight provider Aurizon is currently contracted by the Queensland Government to provide 325 cattle train services in Queensland this year.
All cattle moved by rail in Queensland are slaughter-ready cattle delivered to processing plants, specifically JBS and Teys Cargill, and, as of last year, Oakey Beef and Thomas Borthwick and Sons at Mackay.
Cattle train services are currently booked by processors with Aurizon. Processors receive forward schedules of train services, then try to match cattle consignments with those services for delivery to their plants.
“We fully utilise rail wherever we can,” one processing company manager told Beef Central this week.
“It is the cheapest option for vendors to get their cattle from those areas to us, we have a great working relationship with Aurizon and the service works really well.”
Processing industry representatives spoke highly of Aurizon for its willingness to work cooperatively with them to make existing cattle train services work.
One said Aurizon faced a complicated task in working around regular passenger and coal-freight services to create pathways for livestock trains, because once live animals were loaded, they had to be given preference over all other services.
Beef Central: Get our free daily news straight to your inbox – Click here
Aurizon had been willing to renegotiate the minimum number of wagons on cattle services when cattle availability was reduced, at a cost to its own business, in order to allow producers to get cattle to meatworks at a cheaper rate.
However, the subsidised rail service has also had its critics.
In recent years regional mayors have suggested that the services, which are subsidised by some tens of millions of dollars each year by the Queensland Government, could be better utilised.
They point to figures showing despite contractual commitments to provide 27 cattle trains on the Quilpie line each year, only a handful of cattle trains have run on the line each year.
That would be expected to change this year with the addition of Oakey Beef as an added destination for cattle along that line from December last year.
The Queensland Government and Aurizon both appear to be focused on increasing utilisation of the subsidised cattle train services.
When it renewed its current contract with Aurizon (through to December this year, a new contract is being negotiated for 2018-on now), the Queensland Government introduced new performance targets (unspecified) for Aurizon aimed at increasing utilisation of cattle rail services.
For its part Aurizon says it is fully committed to increasing utilisation of the 325 cattle haulage services it is contracted to provide this year, and says it will be promoting those services to producers and processors.
In a recently released fact sheet it has identified the full schedule of cattle trains it plans to run on each major line this year (see image below):
It says each of those 325 services will run, provided at least one deck (22 cattle) is booked and filled on each.
Who can book cattle on trains?
To run more cattle trains you need more cattle.
Whether there will be enough meatworks-ready cattle available in this year of reduced herd numbers seems debatable.
One way those pushing for increased utilisation of trains believe that can happen is if producers and agents are able to book space on cattle trains, not just processors.
Cloncurry livestock agent Peter Dowling sees greater rail access as a vital step to open the region’s cattle to increased buyer competition
He recently tested whether someone other than a processor could book space on a cattle train by calling Aurizon to book space himself.
“It went very well,” Mr Dowling said.
“Prior to that we were under the assumption that the only train we could get was through booking to the meatworks, or getting quotes off them and them telling us we have a train here or a train there and fit in with them.
“So I rang Aurizon asking if I could possibly get six decks sent out of Julia Creek.
“I gave them the destination, they gave me an option of times, it fitted in and everything went well.”
Processor representatives however indicated that trying to coordinate cattle trains with suitable numbers of cattle was a complex task and one that would be only further complicated by trying to accommodate others trying to book services.
Aurizon’s advice is that while cattle trains can be booked by others, producers are still encouraged to book through processors.
Aurizon told Beef Central this week that both producers and processors can book a minimum of one deck of 22 head of cattle on any scheduled service.
“Both processors and producers can book a service, however there must be a confirmed destination for the livestock,” an Aurizon spokesperson said.
“As a result, processors tend to make the majority of bookings and we encourage producers to book through their processor as outlined on our fact sheet.”
For now the target of running 325 cattle trains this year seems an ambitious target, given the tight supply of cattle currently available.
A couple of factors would be expected to increase utilisation of the southern corridor this year – an improved season in the channel country and the addition of a third processor competing for cattle along that line (Oakey Beef) – but it remains to be seen whether the target of 27 trains this year is achievable.
In another factor that may lead to increased utilisation, Aurizon’s fact sheet leaves open the option to expand to other locations this year.