Call in Parliament for immediate federal action on North East Rail
Posted March 24, 2017
That this House:
(1) notes that:
(a) for more than eight years, regional communities in northeast Victoria have been frustrated by significant engineering failings on the Wodonga-Melbourne rail line;
(b) in 2016 the trains were on time 79.7 per cent of the time, with the rate dropping to 55.2 per cent in November, the train now takes half an hour longer to get from Southern Cross to Albury than 10 years ago;
(c) the Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC) maintains that it is meeting performance obligations under the terms of the 44 year lease agreement with the Victorian Government and under its charter;
(d) the ARTC has spent $134 million on remediation works that have not improved passenger rail services, with trains regularly slowed or replaced by buses; and
(e) the current arrangements are not meeting the need for reliable passenger rail services, instead regional communities are viewed as freight corridors; and
(2) calls on the Australian Government:
(a) as the sole shareholder of the ARTC, to update the ARTC Statement of Corporate Intent to ensure that passenger services and the transport needs of regional communities are considered core business;
(b) to direct the ARTC to release and review the current agreement between the ARTC and the Victorian Government for the Wodonga-Melbourne rail line, giving due consideration to the passenger rail services and the transport needs of regional communities; and
(c) to develop a long-term plan for passenger rail services that meets the economic, social and environmental needs of regional Australia.
Those of my colleagues who know northeast Victoria probably do not know that we have a really serious problem with our train service. It is the Melbourne to Albury train line, and we have had this problem for quite some time. The problem has two parts: the line is run by the Australian Rail Track Corporation, owned and operated by and reporting to the Commonwealth government, and the trains on it are operated by V/Line, which is a Victorian government corporation. I am coming to this parliament today—and I am so pleased to see the member for Murray here as well—to put it firmly in the court of the Commonwealth to take some action to fix this problem. It has been going on for far too long.
So what is the problem? When it was first reported that in November 2016 only 55.2 per cent of services ran on time, this was the least reliable of all services across Victoria, but that was, in fact, the fifth consecutive month where the North East line was the least reliable in the state. I am told—and these statistics come from Public Transport Victoria—that, as of 1 January 2017, only 94.6 per cent of the services that leave Melbourne actually arrive in Albury-Wodonga, and that is the lowest in the state. Only 65.1 per cent of services on the line were on time, and this is the second lowest in the state. So the train is not arriving or, when it does, it is late. So we have a whole lot of associated problems.
I just want to talk about what that looks like in real terms for real people. I have a letter, and I would like to read some of it briefly into the Hansard. This letter is from Irene Grant, who is the chair of the Ovens Murray Regional Partnership group, which is a group formed by the Victorian government to provide some priority around what issues need to be faced. Irene, on behalf of the community, has rung me up, visited me and written to me, and she says:
Dear Cathy—I write to you in my capacity as Chair of the Ovens Murray Regional Partnership committee. The committee includes community representation, CEOs from seven Local Government Areas, as well as representation from State Government Agencies in the region.
Our group has identified key development priorities—
that need to be dealt with for the future.
Passenger Rail Transport is "top of mind" for our community with much needed improvements in infrastructure and service delivery already identified in the 2016 Regional Network Development Plan and the North East Border Rail Group Economic Cost Analysis—
which I will come to in a minute.
… Ovens Murray has the least reliable … rail service in … Victoria (possibly Australia!) … I urge you as our Federal member to advocate on behalf of our community to improve rail service delivery—
in the northeast. So the top community leader for northeast Victoria is saying, 'Please act.'
I would like to reinforce this with a letter from John Dunstan, who is a member of our wonderful local Border Rail Action Group, BRAG. His work in bringing attention to this matter, along with the work of the two Bills, has contributed enormously to the community. John says: 'Given the ARTC's refusal to disclose any information on the extent of the temporary speed restrictions, you may like to use the fact, when you are talking in parliament today, that there are 23 sections of the track—Albury to Melbourne—with speed restrictions.' That means that, because of the condition of the railway line, the trains have to go slower. Therefore, they are obviously going to be late. He says that this is a record over the last two years of monitoring. He also says that this is in spite of the completion of a $130 million ballast rehabilitation program. So we have a problem. ARTC have put a huge amount of money in. The service is not improving. It is still running late. What to do about this?
The responsibility comes back to the Commonwealth government. The Australian Rail Track Corporation has only one shareholder, and that is our minister, the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, the member for Gippsland, Darren Chester. He is the only shareholder of the ARTC. So this problem comes back fairly and squarely to the minister to deal with. He has said that he will visit, and I think that is a fantastic achievement. We look forward to you visiting, Minister. But when you come you must come with an answer. Coming and looking at the problem will not be enough for the communities. You must come with an answer to what needs to be done.
Having said that, the problem does not lie only with the Commonwealth. The contract between the Victorian government, V/Line, and ARTC was due for renewal in 2014. The then Brumby government recontracted with ARTC for a whopping 45 more years of service. We do not know what the conditions of that contract were, but that is 45 more years of a contract that is not even working well. So there is a real problem here for the Victorian government and Public Transport Victoria, PTV. What are they going to do? This problem gets played out in our local press. We get the Victorian government saying, 'It is up to the Commonwealth,' and the Commonwealth says: 'Yes, we are meeting our contractual obligations. This is a problem for the Victorian government.' Neither of them is claiming responsibility. I have come to parliament today to say to the Commonwealth and the Victorian governments: this is not an argument we need to have in public. Can you please sit down with our local community and do what needs to be done?
What needs to be done? We have fantastic local community groups who have got together, including BRAG, who I have acknowledged already. Also, local government have just commissioned a report called the 'Hume Corridor Passenger Rail Study', in which they have made clear recommendations on what needs to be done to get this happening in the future. This problem does not exist in isolation from the community, the Victorian government and the Commonwealth government sitting down together and saying, 'Let's sort it out.' From the community's perspective, we would like some transparency in what is going on. We really would like to know what the contractual obligations are. We really would like to know what the long-term plans for ARTC are. Clearly they know they have got a problem. They do not like the fact that the trains are late and that the community is constantly complaining about it. We know that the ARTC wants to solve the problem. I am absolutely convinced that the government wants to solve the problem; it cannot want this level of dysfunction. I am sure the Victorian government wants much better service.
In its budget last year the Victorian government committed $17 million to this particular line—$2 million for planning and $15 million for infrastructure. That was $17 million more than we have ever had from the Victorian government, so it was welcome. When I speak to the Victorian minister, I say: that $2 million was for planning so that, in the budget this year, you deliver the goods. We have a couple of months for the Commonwealth government, the state government and the community to come together and come up with a long-term strategy to address the short-term problems and the issues in the medium term and long term.
In bringing my comments to a close, I want to talk about the opportunities. Public transport is alive and well. It is well used. There is enormous potential to grow it. The community of Victoria want to use the train. We do not like using the bus, for a whole lot of reasons. We want to use the train. So the opportunity is there. We know that if the service were better more people would use it. My office is constantly bombarded with the problems when things go wrong. Clearly we want to fix it up, so I say to the people in my electorate: the will is there to fix it up; what we need to do now is get the Commonwealth government, the state government and the community groups sitting around the table and working out what we can do.
I want to talk about the opportunity that I have got at the moment. One of the great fans of transport in north-east Victoria is Tim Fischer. Tim Fischer has been involved in trains forever and has been a great fan of high-speed rail and the inland freight route, which I know is going to be really important. I was talking to Tim yesterday, and he said that, this year, on 17 October, we are celebrating 100 years since the signing of the contract to set up the first east-west transcontinental link. The Commonwealth government, 100 years ago, signed a commitment to look at that transcontinental connection. Surely, with 100 years behind us, this is the year for the Commonwealth to take the lead role and to work with the state government and the community to give us the assurance that we are going to fix up our train line.
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