Cooperation between governments needed to fix North East rail line
Posted May 04, 2017
Ms McGOWAN (Indi) (17:12): I would particularly like to welcome into parliament three of my constituents and say how good it is to have you here, Eliza, BJ and Pauline from Glenrowan. Welcome and thanks for turning up, because the topic I am going to be talking about is our money bill, Appropriation Bill (No. 3) 2016-2017. I note that the cognate bill, Appropriation Bill (No. 4) 2016-2017, provides for an appropriation of just over $905 million. Of this account, there is $81 million in equity funding to the Australian Rail Track Corporation for the delivery of network upgrades. This particular part of the appropriation bill is of real interest to people in my community. In my speech today, I would like to focus on the role of the Australian Rail Track Corporation. I would like to outline some of the problems we have with the Australian Rail Track Corporation and our railway line between Melbourne and Albury-Wodonga. My call for action is for the Victorian and Commonwealth governments to get together with industry and communities to resolve this particular problem, which has been going on for too long. Pauline, if I could say, I reckon you of all people here understand the problem with the railway line.
The truth is I support the Australian government's financial contribution to the ARTC. They have significant responsibilities. Across five states, they manage and maintain 8,500 kilometres of rail network, and each day they manage the transit of hundreds of freight and passenger trains across the network. Mostly, it is a well-maintained network that meets the needs of its customers.
However, in north-east Victoria the ARTC customers are both passenger and freight, and the needs of the passenger customers are not being met. For more than eight years regional communities in north-east Victoria have been frustrated by significant engineer failings on the Wodonga to Melbourne railway line. The north-east rail line suffers really poor service; it is one of the worst in Victoria, in fact. Currently, there are 23 speed restrictions along the line due to the lack of track work, and trains are constantly replaced by buses, often at the last minute and without appropriate communication to passengers. The issue was brought to a head with the ARTC scheduling track work on the long weekend in Victoria, leading to significant disruption to passengers. Some on the XPT were woken at 3 am on the sleeper carts to be herded onto buses. And what did we hear? We heard the blame game: 'It's not us. It's them' and 'It's not them. It's somebody else. Go and talk to them. We made the decision ages ago. Don't get cross with us.' But what we must do now is ensure safe, reliable services for the communities of north-east Victoria. We have to end the blame game and we must work together. Truly, it is the absolute responsibility of the Australian government—that is, us—to ensure the infrastructure that supports all rail services is maintained at a level that allows services to run an optimal level.
We have heard from the government and the ARTC that they are meeting their contractual obligations, but when this results in the train now taking half an hour longer to get from Southern Cross Station to Albury than it did 10 years ago, there is clearly a problem. My constituents tell me that the train is running slower now than it did in Ned Kelly's time. I believe them! The ARTC has spent over $134 million on remediation works on this line and they advised that, while the projects were due to be completed in December 2016, the majority of the work was completed in March 2016. They also advised that on completion of these works the north-east line would be of the standard of the rest of the network. But let me share some statistics with you. In February 2017, last month, while 95.8 per cent of services were being delivered, only 61.7 per cent of them ran on time. Can you imagine waiting at the Wodonga Railway Station for the train that does not come, and it is certainly late? And, if it does not turn up, it actually becomes a bus.
I do not think you could even begin to understand the frustration of my community—people with disabilities, parents with babies, people with wheelchairs and people with luggage. You are ready to go on the train, which you love, and then you cannot go on the train; it has become a bus. You have to lug up the steps and you have to walk along the narrow passageway, and if you have children or if you are looking after an older person it is incredibly difficult. But, anyhow, I will not go into the problems so much at this stage. I just want to stress that the standard must be wrong if ARTC constantly tells us that they are meeting their contractual obligations.
Let's turn to the role of the community in trying to sort this out. The city councils of Wodonga, Albury, Benalla and Wangaratta got together and formed the Hume rail corridor group. They worked with our local community activist group, the Border Rail Action Group. They prepared a report to show that $100 million in missed economic benefit is being caused due to the poor standard of our railway line. They also found out that, if the line were improved, almost 60 per cent of existing and 72 per cent of potential passengers would convert their non-rail trips to trains, so they would be off the road, they would not be using petrol and they would be on the fantastic road service that we would have.
The north-east line ensures that communities in my electorate can connect to Melbourne for business, education, events, health and other professional services as well as for domestic and international travel. It is really important in rural and regional Australia to have public transport, but it has to work. The north-east line is not working. It was reported in November 2016 that only 55.2 per cent of services ran on time, and that made it the least reliable of all Victorian services.
What I really want to talk about now is that the community has a resigned acceptance that our train does not work. They say: 'Oh, I'm going to go in a car. I can't go on the train; it will arrive late, or I need to go down the day before and pay an extra night's accommodation.' Young people coming home for the long weekend say, 'I can't get on the train.' So then they do the sometimes dangerous work of getting lifts with people or hitching, because they cannot rely on the train. So we have really got to do something.
In this particular instance I would like to say that I believe the Australian government, and in particular the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, have an opportunity to show leadership and commitment to regional Australia by ensuring that passenger services and the transport needs of regional communities are considered core business by the ARTC. There is a very strong message from my community that the ARTC currently does core business around freight. They think, 'They know passenger services are important but they do not make the money that they need.' So my work has been to say, 'You have to do an "and"—this is not a case of either-or.'
In 2016 I met with the federal transport minister, Darren Chester, to fill him in on all our issues. I am really pleased to hear that Minister Chester has committed to travel the North East line—we hope in early April—to see the situation firsthand, and I look forward to welcoming him. But I have to remind him that it will not be enough just to come and look and see. He must do, and he must make a commitment for action. I also supported Senator Hinch and Senator Rice from Victoria two weeks ago during additional estimates, when they asked questions of the ARTC boss, John Fullerton. I welcome the fact that as a result of their questions ARTC has released details of their contract with the Victorian government.
Recently I introduced a private member's bill to parliament that would require Infrastructure Australia to take into account the social benefits of proposed infrastructure investments for rural and regional Australia. We need to know not only that the economic benefit is going to be achieved, and maybe the environmental benefit, but also that social good will be achieved. Last week, I introduced the National Land Transport Amendment (Best Practice Rail Investment) Bill 2017 into parliament. This bill requires new rail projects under the National Land Transport Act 2014 to maximise benefits for communities along the railway, including passenger rail. What it means for Pauline's community is that if the ARTC or the government is going to improve or upgrade railway lines, as we know they are going to do with the inland freight route, they actually have to pay attention to passengers as well as freight. That is a private member's bill, so it does not mean that the government is going to accept it for debate, but it actually puts it on the agenda that, for my community, passenger and freight need to go together and you cannot sell one out for the other.
The government is upgrading the inland railway line and building, in some places, new rail to take freight from Melbourne to Brisbane. This is a fantastic initiative and totally has my support. However, the problem is that the new freight line is going to work on our old faulty railway line. We have been hearing about double-decker containers and we have been hearing about the need to renew the line and up bridges, get rid of railway crossings and make the railway line—our faulty railway line—fit for extra freight. I can tell you that sends shivers through my community. If we cannot even get the passenger trains to run on time and we have to have speed restrictions because of mud holes and faulty engineering—oh, my word!—what is going to happen when we have more trains and freight?
So the call-out is now. We have this small window of opportunity: as we improve the line to take account of the inland freight route, let's make sure that any improvements we make actually give us improved passenger service. Interestingly, it is not automatically assured. Here I would just like to remind the minister and the ARTC—and you, Pauline, and your communities—that one of the problems that we discovered when we were trying to understand what was going on here and we met with the ARTC people and said, 'Well, you're fulfilling your contractual obligations, but clearly it's not working and we have a problem, and the problem's been there for a long time, and people know about the problem; can you tell us what the problem is,' was that the head of ARTC said, 'Well, it's not a premium service you're getting there.' We looked at him and said: 'Well, what do you mean it's not a premium service? I mean, we know it's not, but why are you telling us that?' He said, 'If you want a premium service, you have to pay for a premium service.' and I said, 'What do you mean "pay for a premium service"'?' and he said, 'Well, Melbourne to Ballarat and Melbourne to Bendigo have a premium service.' The penny dropped. I realised that in North East Victoria we have a crappy train line on a second-rate contract. I said 'Who would have signed the contract to give us a second-class service?' If you dig a little bit deeper, you find that it is a 50-year contract—oh, my Lord!—signed five years ago.
Those of you who know Victoria could think: who in Victoria would have signed a 50-year contract five years ago, committing us to 45 years of below-standard service? It is a big problem. We now have to work with the Victorian government to say: 'You've signed this contract. It's going to go for another 45 years. It's below standard. We've been treated really badly. You didn't do this to Ballarat or Bendigo, so why do it to North East Victoria? What are we going to do about it?' What I am going to do is meet with the Victorian Minister for Public Transport, Jacinta Allan, in Bendigo in early April and talk this through with her and tell her that we have a serious problem.
But the answer is not to blame each other. The answer is not to say the Victorian government was at fault or the ARTC was at fault. We have been doing that for a good 10 years. The way forward is for us to work together. As we do the budget—the appropriation—and as we agree to pass this legislation and give this money to the ARTC to improve and increase the efficiency of its network of railway lines, my call-out to the Victorian government and the Commonwealth government and their ministers and to the ARTC is to come together on this with our communities, because we all want to solve it. We all want much better public transport. We want public transport that is going to be a legacy for all our communities for 50, 60 or 100 years. The train is so important to us. We love it and want to use it, but we want it to work at a premium level.
In bringing my comments to a close, my call-out to the government is to come together with us as a community. Bring industry with you. Bring the Victorian government with us. Bring the unions with us. Bring V/Line with us. Bring PTV Victoria with us. Let's all sit around the table and talk about what we actually have to do and how much we need to do it. Then, between us all, let's talk about how we can get the funding and commitment to actually do what we need to do now, not in the future. Let's do it in 2017-18. Let the Victorian government have the allocation in its budget, and in our next budget let's have the Commonwealth make the allocation, so that together we can resolve this problem that has been hanging around far too long. Thank you very much for the opportunity to present my comments today. I would like to acknowledge my community. Thank you for turning up. I look forward to supporting this legislation.
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