Local, Independant and Effective

Regional passenger rail should be prioritised in rail infrastructure projects

Posted March 24, 2017


Ms McGOWAN (Indi) (10:36): I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

I am pleased to present a bill for an act to amend the National Land Transport Act 2014. This bill is to be known as the National Land Transport Amendment (Best Practice Rail Investment) Bill 2017. In opening my comments I would like to acknowledge the presence in the gallery today of participants in the Australian Alpine Valleys Community Leadership Program and other constituents from my electorate and to say how proud I am to be here as I represent our interests to improve public transport right across Australia but particularly north-east Victoria.

The purpose of this bill is to strengthen the social and community benefit considerations that are assessed when the minister approves an investment project under the National Land Transport Act 2014. The bill adds matters that the minister must consider when improving a project as an investment project and mandates that the minister address each matter listed in the bill. The bill also requires a summary of evidence supporting the approval of the investment project to be published in the department website and to be tabled in parliament.

Under the amendments, when a project involves the construction of a new railway or the upgrade of an existing railway, the amendments require the minister to consider: the extent to which the project prioritises passenger rail services, demonstrates best practice in rail infrastructure investment and maximises the community benefits from the Commonwealth investment; and, secondly, the extent to which the project can lift the level of service and the standard of existing rail infrastructure to maximise the benefit to communities along the railway—for example, by facilitating better passenger services. The minister would also be required to consider the extent to which the project maximises rural and regional economic and social-economic benefits and the extent to which the project meets or will meet the current and future needs of the users of the infrastructure.

Outside of the capital cities, infrastructure investment is traditionally measured in economic terms and not in social good. Projects in the city largely focus on easing urban congestion, which is clearly a social benefit. This bill aims to address this gap. In metropolitan Australia, rail infrastructure supports dedicated networks of freight and passenger movement. In rural and regional Australia, this infrastructure is a shared resource, and decisions regarding Commonwealth investment must consider it as such. In considering infrastructure investment in rural and regional Australia, consideration must be given to both the economic—which is clearly important—and the social value, which is equally important. And the most direct way to maximise the social benefit of rail investment is to prioritise passenger rail.

An example of the gap in policy is the Inland Rail project. It proposes a freight line from Melbourne to Brisbane through hundreds of rural communities, and this freight line is welcome and will make a huge difference to our community. However, there is no mention of rural or regional passenger services being upgraded in any of the project material. We share the same line. It will be freight and passenger service. We will upgrade the freight service, but there is no mention of the impact on passengers. The only consideration of passengers is of a positive benefit gained by removing freight from Sydney and reducing congestion around Sydney. This amendment really aims to say, 'Of course economic is important, but so too is social and we must name it.'

If I could briefly talk about the Inland Rail: this Inland Rail freight route should not be considered in isolation from passenger transport. The two consistently overlap and share much common infrastructure, and, with improvements to the national freight network, have the potential to increase passenger traffic safely and reduce congestion.

There is little dedicated road or freight infrastructure in Australia. In most instances, road and rail freight operators share infrastructure with passenger services. This situation largely exists because of cost. It is generally more cost effective for transport infrastructure to be used together—and, in regional Australia, even more so. It is important that we share infrastructure.

The Australian government and the Australian Rail Track Corporation, the ARTC, have clearly outlined the economic benefits of the Inland Rail project: it will save time; it will reduce supply chain costs; it will improve access; it will create jobs. But, Mr Deputy Speaker Mitchell, I call out to you that economic and social benefits are not mutually exclusive. We need both.

And why do we need both? We need both because in north-east Victoria there is a huge problem with our train line. It is not just Melbourne to Wodonga, which is the particular bit I am concerned about; it is the whole freight route—it is the whole transport system. It is absolutely working below capacity. The north-east line suffers really poor service—one of the worst in Victoria. Services are late, as they were this morning. There are currently 23 speed restrictions along the track. The system is not working.

The issue has been brought to a head with the Australian Rail Track Corporation, and they have scheduled track works. The fascinating thing was that this work happened last weekend, which those of you from Victoria know was our long weekend. So we had the cancellation of train services. We had buses put in their place. It was a debacle. And why was it a debacle? Because we do not put passenger services up there on an equal footing with freight. And that is what this amendment seeks to do.

Interestingly, the line between Melbourne and Wodonga, for my colleagues' interest, is not classified as a premium line. So if you were to travel on the line between Melbourne and Bendigo or Melbourne and Ballarat, you would get a premium service. The service on that line is not premium. And you would ask: 'Why?' Well, the reason is that five years ago the Victorian government signed a 50-year—50-year!—contract with the Australian Rail Track Corporation and put into place standards of service at a lesser rate for Albury-Wodonga than those from Bendigo to Ballarat. Why would you do that? I ask the people in the gallery to think: who was in government five years ago in Victoria?

So we have got huge problems that need to be addressed. What I am trying to do today is to say: it has not been enough to rely on the goodwill of the V/Line, it has not been enough to rely on the goodwill of the Australian Rail Track Corporation and it has not been enough to rely on the goodwill of the government, because we in north-east Victoria have experienced the utterly devastating result of that. So this private member's bill says that, when we are building railway or upgrading railway, we need to make sure that passenger service gets treated in the same way as do our freight lines. So we have got a bit of movement to do.

What does the government need to do? The federal government needs to change its terms of reference with the Australian Rail Track Corporation. They need to bring the standards to an equal level. And, as the federal government upgrades this inland freight line between Brisbane and Melbourne, which will use our rail track, there is an opportunity to actually upgrade it to get us premium service, and I call on the minister to do that.

But the problem is not just with the Commonwealth government. The Victorian government has a really important role to play here. They need to commit to upgrading their rolling stock. They need to commit to actually doing a much better job on regional planning. In Connecting regional Victoria: Victoria's regional development plan, a commitment was made, in budget 2016-17, to put $2 million into planning so that we can plan for the long term on our line. The Victorian government also allocated $15 million to fix up some of the trains. I am calling on the Victorian government, in this budget—the 2017-18 budget—to seriously fund what needs to be done. That means fix up the line, give us better rolling stock, renegotiate the contracts so that we have a premium service and really seriously look at the passenger needs from Albury-Wodonga, Wangaratta and Benalla to Melbourne, at how we can get a shuttle service happening and at how we can develop Seymour as a hub.

The Australian government has an opportunity to provide leadership. It has an opportunity to make a real commitment to regional Australia. It has an opportunity to act on a real-time problem that is not political, that is in their power to act on, that would make such a difference to the lives of students, families and businesses, and that would unleash the capital that we know we have in northeast Victoria.

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