AFTER four years of planning, two of Central Queensland's wettest seasons on record and numerous setbacks, the first ever coal train rolled through Middlemount Mine on Wednesday, signalling the start of export operations.
The Pacific National train made its way through the loading plant just after 2pm to the cheers of watching dignitaries and staff from the numerous companies that worked on the project.
The newly completed 16.5km rail spur connects the mine to the Goonyella rail network and enables exportation through the Dalrymple Bay Coal Terminal.
A joint venture between Gloucester Coal and Macarthur Coal - newly acquired by Peabody Energy - the Middlemount project was now ready to ramp up operations.
"The construction of the whole project and the spur line spanned over two of the wettest wet seasons Central Queensland has ever seen, and a global financial crisis, and we've come out the back of it," Middlemount Coal chairman Tim Crossley said.
"What people don't realise as we stand here today is the time and effort and commitment that has gone into this by an incredible amount of people… it's a terrific milestone."
Speaking on behalf of the construction alliance - a union between the John Holland Group and GHD, who took care of building the project - John Holland's Andrew Baker said the wet season resulted
in "probably one of the most horrific starts to a project you'll ever see".
"The site was awash, it was the first time in my life that I had to put my entire staff through four-wheel drive training just so I could get them around the site," Mr Baker said.
"Back then I was wondering if this day was ever going to come… but it was pleasing to see the team come together."
Department of Employment, Economic Development and Innovation associate director-general Dan Hunt said coal would continue as the mainstay of Queensland's economy.
"There's lots of attention in government at the moment on the LNG industry and the expansion that's going on there," Mr Hunt said.
"One of the things we keep impressing on government is the expansion and new mine developments in the coal industry in Queensland are significantly bigger than the new industry we are getting in LNG."
His comments were music to the ears of new Macarthur Coal chief executive and Peabody managing director Julian Thornton, who was happy for the acknowledgment.
"Gas gets a lot of attention in terms of capital investment and where the future is. But certainly, I've got absolutely no doubt in my mind that the coal industry in Australia, and obviously Queensland, has got a major future going forward," Mr Thornton said.
"All forms of energy are going to be required and coal is absolutely going to be a part of that."
One of the most visibly pleased at Wednesday's ceremony was Middlemount Coal chief executive Michael Gray, who called the project "groundbreaking".
"Putting the floods aside, it was one of the first rail projects to be built through the Sustainable Planning Act, it's not on the mining lease and it's done through council so that's an innovative approach," Mr Gray said.
"It was the first rail line to be built after QR was privatised, so we broke new ground there. It was also the first rail line coal spur to be built completely by a private organisation without QR being the construction authority."
The project was also a finalist in the Queensland Major Contractors Safety Awards.
Isaac Regional Council Mayor Cedric Marshall said the completion was a feather in the cap for Middlemount Mine.
"We do have a number of challenges with traffic today so it will be good to see all those big trucks off the road," Cr Marshall said.
The mine trucked test loads of coal out for nine months while the rail spur was being constructed.
The EIS process for the expansion of Middlemount Mine has been completed and the company is hoping for final approval by mid-2012.
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