Australia's A$15 billion ($90.25 billion) a year coal industry is enjoying a boom, but the country's infrastructure has been unable to keep up and threatens to stall the resurgent industry in its tracks. Last year, it was the sight of up to 50 coal ships at a time clogging the port of Newcastle that put the infrastructure shortfall into focus. This year exporters are estimating that delays at the Queensland port of Dalrymple Bay will cost them A$500 million in demurrage costs - charges incurred when ships that should be carrying coal lie idle, waiting to be loaded. Quite simply, Australia cannot get the coal out of the mines and to its customers fast enough. The continuing coal boom, driven by China's transformation from coal exporter to importer, has driven prices from 25-year lows of US$25 a tonne in 2003 to about US$60 a tonne. Australia exports about 250 million tonnes of coal each year, 11 per cent of its total exports. Sixty-six per cent of that is thermal coal used for power generation and the rest is higher quality coking coal used to fire steel mills. China had been an exporter of coking coal, but it has become an importer. The mainland still exports thermal coal, but a boom in domestic consumption means it is exporting less. As a result, power producers are beating a path to Australia's door. It is a dream scenario for Australian coal producers - the biggest of which are BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto and newcomer Xstrata - except for one factor: transport. Australia's rail and port infrastructure is incapable of keeping pace with the demand and is unlikely to be able to do so for at least three years. So will Australian coal miss the boat and the chance of maximising unprecedented global demand? Bruce Jacques, an analyst at McCloskey Coal, said: 'Australia is infrastructure-constrained and that's going to have an effect for at least the next two or three years, and I've got my doubts as to whether they are going to sort it out. 'If everybody did everything right starting today, I think there are going to be some issues there for the next few years at least.' Infrastructure to facilitate the export of coal is not the responsibility of the coal producers, but private providers and the governments of coal-producing states Queensland and New South Wales, backed up with money from the federal government. And while those governments are keen to see the coal industry prosper - creating taxation revenue and employment - the very nature of government investment suggests there will be no quick fix. 'Infrastructure takes time to build and there's a question mark over whether sufficient investment funds will be made available,' Mr Jacques said. In Queensland, where Dalrymple Bay is operated by Prime Infrastructure, a vehicle created by local investment bank Babcock & Brown, producers have accused the port operator of being slow on developing the port since it was privatised three years ago. In New South Wales, the responsibility has been passed on to the Australian Rail Track Corp, a federal agency that provides the rail infrastructure to take coal from the producing areas of the Hunter Valley to the port of Newcastle, which is about two hours north of Sydney. The corporation plans to lift rail capacity from 85 million tonnes a year to 140 million tonnes by June 2008. But will the window of opportunity for the coal industry have closed by 2008? Several years ago there was a surplus of infrastructure capacity and few could have foreseen this dilemma. 'This infrastructure bottleneck will play to our competitors, such as Indonesia in the thermal coal market,' Mr Jacques said. 'But the big factor is what happens with China. They are such a major economy that a 1 per cent shift in their demand, or the quantity that they export, will have a big impact on Australia.' Chinese economic growth seems assured, but it still faces risks. A year ago producers proclaimed themselves happy with Prime Infrastructure and Dalrymple Bay, but today they are screaming for an upgrade. The problem is whether these infrastructure providers should spend upwards of A$2 billion in the short term in the hope that the coal boom will last. For that they will need a crystal ball.