Fremantle Road to Rail campaign

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SA has been playing a significant role in a campaign to move freight travelling to Fremantle Port onto rail and opposing the Barnett government's destructive road-building plans. The campaign's success has been to link up diverse activists and political players into a united front that extends into regional WA.


The WA Barnett Liberal government's application of the federal National Ports Strategy means favouring road expansion to the detriment of freight rail. This is but one of the government's climate change promoting policies, which include the Kimberley gas project, uranium mining, more coal-fired power stations and coal seam gas extraction.

One road project is the “upgrade” of the High Street/Stirling Highway corridor through suburban Fremantle. This articulates with plans to build a freeway extension through a significant wetland (the Roe 8 extension) and turn Stock Road (running through the ward Sam represents on Fremantle Council) into a freeway. There are undeclared plans to bulldoze other areas along the freight route.

In regional WA, the Barnett government is determined to close over 800 kilometres of grain freight line infrastructure in the Wheatbelt (east and south-east of Perth) and replace bulk rail transport of wheat by truck.

Fremantle issues

As early as 2017, 1.2 million TEUs are projected to pass through Fremantle Port annually, double 2010 numbers (containers are either 20 or 40 feet long. The measurement of container traffic is by Twenty foot Equivalent Unit-TEU).

While there is a freight rail line to Fremantle Port, its use has declined since the election of the Liberal/National coalition government. The previous Labor government managed to increase the percentage of containers on rail to 17% in 2007/08 with a target of 30% by 2013, but the Barnett government has allowed it to drop and it is estimated to be 8.5% in 2011/12.

Consequently, truck traffic along unsuitable roads to Fremantle Port has been steadily increasing, along with noise and diesel particulate pollution and the danger of a roll over or collision.

A notable aspect of the trend towards road freight is inefficiency. Only 35% of all trucks are fully laden travelling both to and from the port. 27% of trucks are empty, with the rest carrying under-capacity. Others return empty containers to the container park, thus polluting Fremantle whilst carrying nothing but fresh air!

It is claimed that if only 30% of containers went via rail, as recommended by the 2002 Freight Network Review, even with the major expansion of Fremantle Port, the number of trucks on the road would be kept to 2002 levels.

The High Street widening is estimated to cost $100 million, for one block of roadway. The associated road works along the route will cost upwards of $1 billion. Upgrading the rail freight lines would cost a fraction of that.

Freo R2R is formed

Fremantle SA's involvement began in the first half of 2010 with information gathering. There had been a series of community consultations regarding the High Street widening several years previously, but further plans had been presented to a select reference group and were not widely known. Barry wrote two articles for the local paper exposing the plans and detailing the diesel particulate effects, which led to contacts being established with long-standing Fremantle activists, whose advice was invaluable.

At the same time Annolies was working in the local community to build consciousness around the issue. From a film screening, a street party and a sustainability course came a small group of local residents who were prepared to do something about local transport issues. Amongst residents who had been resigned to the government's plans there developed a constituency supporting action. Towards the end of 2010 Annolies was elected onto the Fremantle council's local precinct committee.

In December 2010 Fremantle SA held a public forum about the freight issue featuring Sam, Greens Senator Scott Ludlam and Ian Alexander, the retiring President of the Fremantle Society. The event attracted around 50 people and we collected an initial fifteen names for a campaign.

There followed an extended period of building up a core group, networking, letter-writing and media stunts. We spilled the beans on the Department of Transport (DoT) and the truck lobby's secret eight lane option which gained us valuable local media attention and qualified support from the hitherto pro-road local precinct group. The community opposition we generated against the option contributed to the ditching of this plan.

The official campaign launch, attended by 80 people, was held on August 6, 2011. Speakers were Fremantle Society President Jon Strachan (now a Freo Councillor), Doctors for the Environment spokesperson George Crisp and Annolies for the campaign committee. A response panel consisting of Fremantle mayor Brad Pettitt (Greens), local MLA Adele Carles (ex-Greens, calling herself a Green Independent), ALP shadow minister for Transport Ken Travers and Greens MLC Lynn MacLaren; all expressing support for the campaign. Transport Minister Troy Buswell declined to attend.

Work with the Wheatbelt Railway Retention Alliance

Straight after the campaign launch, Ken Travers invited R2R representatives to meet at Parliament House with leaders of the Wheatbelt Railway Retention Alliance (WRRA), the WA secretary of the RTBU and sustainable transport guru Professor Peter Newman. The WRRA, which has its base among farmers in the Wheatbelt, many of whom are National Party members, is organising in regional WA against the closure of the grain freight lines. At the time the WRRA had signed up eighteen local councils. The meeting led to immediate cooperation between R2R and the WRRA.

Sam was able to use his position to encourage Fremantle's Council to join the WRRA, making it the first urban council to do so and help break the state government's media blackout. The closure of the grain lines will result in more trucks clogging metropolitan roads, so Fremantle has a direct interest in opposing it. Further, Sam was able to help get East Fremantle to affiliate, bringing the number of councils to 23. Sam is working within the Western Australian Local Government Association to encourage more urban councils to get on board.

On November 10 the WRRA presented its campaign petitions at a rally outside Parliament House. As an indication of the breadth of the campaign, Sam spoke alongside Ken Travers and National Party members in the WRRA. R2R activists and banner featured prominently in photo opportunities with the WRRA, ALP parliamentary leader Eric Ripper and Ken Travers and safety experts on the day and in a spate of articles in the subsequent week.

That night, in the Fremantle Council Chamber, R2R hosted a public meeting of 50 people at which the WRRA presented its case against the closure of the grain lines. The event was attended by several councillors and community leaders, the mayor of Fremantle and Ken Travers.

Through our work with the WRRA, we are building a bridge between two aspects of the same campaign and between the city and country. In doing so we are exposing the failure of the Nationals to represent small farmers, their stated constituency.

R2R builds consensus against the Department of Transport's preferred option

In August the DoT and Fremantle Council held a joint community report back on High St options. An independent engineering firm had been given the DoT's criteria and evaluated the DoT's preferred option (now up to 6 lanes, featuring a contentious broad curve which would destroy a number of homes), as well as other possibilities put forward by Council. It was no surprise that with the criteria weighted in favour of truck efficiency rather than the community or environment, the DoT's model topped the list. Freight rail was not even considered.

Various groups within the community mobilised to support a lesser-impact option. R2R helped bring seven community groups together and express a clear demand for freight on rail, the community's acceptance of a compromise road position being articulated as a necessary safety improvement and not an upgraded freight route.

Fremantle Council passed a resolution at its August meeting supporting the community's preferred option. Many of its points reflected arguments put forward by R2R.

In September, Troy Buswell ignored the Council's resolution and announced his intention to proceed with DoT's model for High Street. R2R convened an opposition rally of 80 people outside Fremantle Town Hall addressed by Brad Pettitt, Lynn MacLaren , ALP MLC Sue Ellery, Professor Peter Newman of Curtin University and Annolies for R2R. A large organising meeting convened immediately afterwards attracted a new layer of activists.

R2R gathers support

From the time of its launch, Freo R2R has struck a chord within the community. It has received nearly weekly reportage in both local papers, including featuring in the Fremantle Herald's cartoon, a sure sign that we've arrived on the scene! The committee has expanded and attracts high level political participation. At the December meeting three Fremantle councillors and Lynn MacLaren all played active roles.

As well as the events it organised, R2R has held stalls at a rally opposing the Roe Highway extension, and public transport and sustainability forums. R2R Greens activists have taken our material to their party's conferences. We have 500 people on our contact lists (it's hard to keep up with the data entry!), many more have signed our charter and 25 have attended organising meetings.

In December, 13 R2R activists marched in the Fremantle Festival Parade, sporting orange work vests with Road2Rail stencilled on the back and carrying our two banners and the WRRA one. We handed out 1,000 leaflets and were cheered and clapped along the route.

The strong public response demonstrates the political vacuum that had existed around this issue.

Greens and ALP

In May six activists met with Greens transport spokesperson and local MLC Lynn MacLaren, who pledged her support and has been asking questions in parliament. One of her staffers was initially part of our core organising group. Lynn attended R2R's last committee meeting and is organising a public forum on freight rail in Kwinana next month.

Shadow Transport Minister Ken Travers has shown interest in the campaign since our launch and has been keen to include us and our banner in a series of photo ops. R2R is due to meet with the ALP shadow cabinet in Fremantle at the end of January. Clearly both parties are keen to make rail transport an election issue in the March 2013 state elections which they are already gearing up to.


R2R has reversed the political momentum of the road freight issue in Fremantle. From being seen as a dead issue that nobody was prepared to lead on, it has become a prominent local campaign with a community now united in its opposition to the road plans and with links extending to other similarly affected areas.

The issue promises to be an enduring one due to the continuing growth of Fremantle Port and the government's pro-truck policies. Connected to the broader problems of capitalism's model of economic growth at the expense of the community and environment, and the reality of climate change, the matter will keep manifesting in various forms.

At first glance the issue doesn't appear to pose the notion of socialism. But it illustrates how capitalism and its governments are incapable of rational social and environmental planning, such as the refusal to invest $93 million to refurbish the Tier 3 rail lines which will result in real costs, running into billions of dollars, being externalised onto the community through road building, particulate pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and road accident trauma.

R2R is an example of a united front, which anyone and everyone is welcome to join. Through R2R we are working with a wide range of activists from life-long National party members to anarchist forest blockaders, workers and their unions. Local residents and activists can see that can see that we work effectively in a non-sectarian manner with anyone who is as committed to the issue as we are.

R2R has raised the profile of SA within the Fremantle community. We have demonstrated our ability to initiate a community campaign on an immediate "winnable" issue. We have sought to head off the common NIMBY reaction, triggered by divide-and-rule politics, that characterises community opposition to road building projects and have worked to unite opposing community groups. As a result, Fremantle SA is recognised as a serious campaigning organisation and a well-regarded a component of Fremantle politics.