Fitzroy River bridge to be replaced, barges installed to reconnect East and West Kimberley

Barges will be used to ferry goods across the Fitzroy River and a crucial bridge will be replaced as part of a state government plan to reconnect the East and West Kimberley after devastating floods.

Transport Minister Rita Saffioti outlined the plan on Monday to address widespread damage to the only sealed highway through the region.

The strategy involves installing a barge system across the Fitzroy River which will initially be operated by tugs before a cable system is installed. 

Pontoons will allow the barge to operate at different water levels.

The barge system will be used while Main Roads constructs a low level floodway crossing, a more permanent option until a new bridge is built.

Main Roads will brief truck drivers and freight companies on how to best to use the barge system, given multiple trips will be needed for those carrying heavy loads.

Road trains currently freighting goods from Perth to the East Kimberley are diverting through South Australia and the Northern Territory.

A long aerial shot of a damaged bridge crossing a river
A system of barges and pontoons will connect the east and west banks at Fitzroy Crossing.(Supplied: Kalen Turner)

Main Roads hopes to have Broome reconnected with Fitzroy Crossing and Derby in four weeks when a temporary gravel road is expected to be complete. 

The “side track” would enable a free flow of traffic while 10 kilometres of damaged road is rebuilt in the dry season.

Ms Saffioti said more rainfall during wet season could disrupt works.

“This will be the first time a barge system like this has been operated in this part of our state, so the final configuration and operation will depend largely on the conditions on the ground,” she said.

A severely damaged bridge with debris strewn over it.
The bridge is set to be replaced by a two-lane structure that is higher and longer.(ABC News)

Main Roads said the new Fitzroy River bridge would be higher, longer and dual lane as opposed to the current single-lane bridge.

Member for Kimberley Divina D’Anna said the construction of a new bridge would be positive for the region.

“While this has been a devastating event for the Kimberley, there are opportunities for our community to benefit from the training and employment that will come with the rebuild effort,” she said.

While Broome and Derby remain cut off by road, the Transport Minister said the government would increase a subsidy to regional carrier Aviair.

The extra financial assistance means the number of flights between the two towns would dramatically increase up to potentially 35 return trips a week.

Ms Saffioti said the government responded to already high demand after the floods.

“The only way in and out of Derby currently is by air, so the decision to offer more subsidised flights is critical for the local community,” she said.

Aerial image of outback town's main street
The closure of the Great Northern Highway has stopped Halls Creek residents from driving to the West Kimberley.(ABC Kimberley: Ted O’Connor)

Damaged road causes problems for East Kimberley communities 

Halls Creek Shire president Malcolm Edwards welcomed the government’s plan, but said it highlighted the need for Western Australia and the Commonwealth to show urgency when sealing the Tanami Road.

The dirt road connects Alice Springs and Halls Creek and work is underway to apply bitumen to the shortcut between central Australia and the Kimberley over the next decade.

“That would give us a direct link through to Adelaide,” Mr Edwards said.

“At the moment [local cattle stations] are cut off from Broome and the meatworks. The Tanami would have been a lifesaver.

“It just shows how vulnerable we are.”

Mr Edwards said the closure of the Great Northern Highway was also causing havoc for Halls Creek families grieving their loved ones.

“There’s been delays in organising funerals so people can come from Broome. So this will be an issue until the roads are fixed,” he said.

“There’s no alternative. For relations to fly in is an expensive option … so for people to drive across the old crossing, it will be another four months until it’s up and running.”