Carol Single, co-owner of Single Transport Services and life member of the Mackay Road Accident Action Group (RAAG), has been spending a lot of her time campaigning about what she and many others describe as one of the most archaic and inadequate stretches of highway in Australia.
Some 10km to the west is the small township of Walkerston. The main thoroughfare, Dutton Street, is a section of the Peak Downs Highway, a major freight route to the west of Mackay. The stretch of road has grown from its horse and cart days in 1876 to a major heavy vehicle freight route and the only B-double route west of Mackay. Five decades ago, the narrow roadway through the small town of Walkerston was flagged as a serious danger to road users and the local community.
In fact, in 1972, what everyone had hoped would never happen, did happen. On the Fitzroy Development Road, 90km from Taroom in central Queensland, an electrical fault caused a fire in a semi-trailer carrying ammonium nitrate, sparking a massive explosion. The devastating explosion killed three people including the truck driver, and was heard and felt up to 88km away.
With such a scary scale of devastation, albeit mercifully in an isolated location, it’s hardly surprising then–Police Minister Tom Newberry was galvanised into action in calling for the Walkerston bypass. His concerns were obviously well founded. It is truly mind numbing to think about the social cost, both in lives and property, if such a disaster were to occur within close proximity of a town like Walkerston.
In more recent times there have been several explosions in different parts of the country involving trucks carrying ammonium nitrate. In May 2013 at Wubin in Western Australia; September 2014 at Angellala Creek, 30 kilometres south of Charleville, Queensland; and in November 2014 at Ti Tree on the Stuart Highway, 200 kilometres north of Alice Springs, Northern Territory.
The Angellala Creek accident was chillingly similar to the Taroom tragedy some 42 years prior. A double road train carrying 44 1.2-tonne bulk bags of ammonium nitrate crashed into the creek bed at 8:55pm. A fire started, causing a small explosion that was followed by a massive explosion at 10:12pm, which left a crater 12 metres long, six metres wide and six metres deep. The blast completely destroyed the road train and the road bridge, a rail bridge and an attending fire truck. A second fire truck, two transport trucks and a police car were seriously damaged and eight people were injured. Miraculously, no lives were lost.
It’s this sort of carnage and road trauma that drives Carol and the group she is an active part of, the Mackay-based organisation Road Accident Action Group (RAAG) to continue working with all stakeholders to deliver this and other much-needed infrastructure upgrades to improve road safety outcomes.
Indeed, RAAG believes the Walkerston bypass is definitely top of the list of most pressing infrastructure upgrades needed in the region. As such, the group is heavily engaged in advocating to politicians in all tiers of government to make sure they are aware of the safety issues and community concerns and to ensure this infrastructure upgrade is commenced as soon as possible.
Carol is an active and vocal member of RAAG as well as its secretary, and she maintains the reason nothing has been done so far to remedy this issue, flagged nearly half a century ago is the relative isolation of the region from capital cities and, indeed, Canberra, where much of the federal road funding decision-making is done. It is on this basis that RAAG completes research and presents evidence-based submissions to the relevant state and federal political members.
“Sometimes it feels like the further you are away from the capital cities, the harder it is to be heard, and the less money you get,” says Carol. “The Peak Downs Highway through Walkerston (AKA Dutton Street) is the only B-double route west of Mackay, and crosses the 76-year-old, narrow, two-lane, wooden Kirkup Bridge. The bridge was built in an era when fuel was transported in 44-gallon drums on the trays of small trucks. Each lane is only 2.8m wide, meaning wide loads over 3.5m cannot use this route. This leads to the ridiculous situation where escorted over-dimensional loads from 3.5 to 10m wide must use Rosella Eton Road, which is not a B-double route.
“We have lots of pedestrians – schoolchildren, mums with bubs, everyone – crossing this little bridge, it shakes like hell and you can see how little room there is on either side of the truck.”
Carol refers to a picture she took while standing on the veranda of the Duke Hotel in Walkerston. RAAG members were doing a 36-hour traffic survey to support submissions for funding the Walkerston Bypass. She describes the chaotic scene at 3:00pm each weekday in the main street of Walkerston, just as school finishes for the day.
“It’s a typical afternoon, three o’clock. You can see the lollipop lady is on the left near the chemist, and the school is on the right,” she says. “There’s another pub in the distance where the body truck is about to turn into the main street.
“Several trucks have actually crashed into the Walkerston schoolyard at this corner and now we have 10 new school buildings right along the edge of the highway, which is Dutton Street, the main street in Walkerston.
“All these problems are due to an 1876 surveyed road trying to cope with 2017 traffic, it’s just crazy.”
Yet despite all of these issues, there is some light at the end of the tunnel. After 13 years of submissions and presentation to all and sundry by RAAG, to highlight the urgent need for a bypass of Walkerston, a solution appears to be getting closer.
“We’re thrilled that the Federal Government has actually come to the party and agreed to put in an extra $45 million for the project, bringing their total funding commitment to $120 million,” says Carol. “We certainly have met with every politician we could. We’ve taken them on drives, we’ve put them under bridges, we’ve done whatever we could to help them see the urgency for the Walkerston bypass.
“It’s been a very long journey, but I think it’s a great thing that we now have the Federal Government recognising the need to get dangerous goods out of the small township of Walkerston. The fact that they’ve committed $120 million of the estimated $160 million required to complete the bypass is fantastic. However, to complete this much awaited project, the state government is yet to commit publicly to integrating the Walkerston Bypass with the Ring Road to complete both projects together.”
Here’s hoping the stars will align and the state government will step up to the plate and set in concrete its verbal commitment to supply the remaining $40 million to enable the completion of the Walkerston Bypass within the next five years. This is the least the community of Walkerston deserves.
Currently it is not proposed to even start until after Stage 1 of the Mackay Ring Road is completed in another three years, and then only if all the funding is committed. Logically, the Mackay Ring Road and Walkerston Bypass should be completed together or it will be at least another five years before dangerous goods and trucks will be able to bypass Walkerston.
Perusing the figures for heavy-vehicle crashes in the vicinity of Walkerston in recent times is indeed a sobering exercise. For instance, between 2012 and 2014 there were a staggering 46 heavy-vehicle crashes recorded, with three involving loaded B-double fuel tankers just west of Walkerston.
While it might be considered fortunate that to date no catastrophic accidents involving heavy vehicles have occurred within the township of Walkerston, the longer this amount of heavy vehicle and dangerous goods traffic is forced to pass through the town, the more likely it is that something serious will happen. It could be simply a matter of time, and the consequences could be deadly.