Local, Independant and Effective

Release of scope of works for North East Rail Line long overdue

Posted March 27, 2018


Cathy has called upon the Federal Government to release the scope of works for the North East Rail Line. Her speech highlighted the rising cost to community and government with the failure to balance the requirements of freight and passenger rail.

Ms McGOWAN (Indi) (18:23): Colleagues, my grievance tonight is about the decision-making surrounding the north-east railway line. I call on the government to give the community the information it needs by releasing the details of the scope of works around this decision-making. Tonight I would like to address three key points: the cost of the problem we have on our north-east line; the belief that we're spending good money after bad; and, finally, looking for better processes.

Infrastructure in Australia needs to be valued in economic terms as well as social terms. The cost when we don't meet the social needs must be recognised. It is my belief that there's an inability of governments to balance the requirements, in my instance, of the freight use on the inland rail with the passenger use of the north-east railway line. We've done some excellent work—and I acknowledge the member for New England in the Chamber tonight—on the inland rail that is going to be coexisting with the north-east railway line, but the problem is that people, as well as freight, use the trains, and public transport is a really important part of infrastructure.

Sadly, the extent of the problems and the works required on the north-east railway line are unknown, and, until the scope of works are released to the public for consultation, they will remain unknown. So the community continues to wait and try and understand what decision-making the government has in mind. There's no calculation of the cost to individuals in the time lost while we wait for this decision. Clearly, there's a cost to government with more cars, buses and taxis on our roads when the rail services are cancelled. And there's an increasing cost to government when replacement buses and taxis have to be used because the trains on our north-east railway line, for any number of reasons, fail to work. We've got a comedy of errors, I would say, happening around us.

It's not been without effort. Government has responded, as government does, to the huge cry from the community for something better, but it's my belief that we're now throwing good money after bad. Some 309 days ago, the Commonwealth government committed $100 million in the 2017-18 budget for improvements on my railway line. A joint Victorian government and Commonwealth government steering group found that the $100 million committed by the coalition government was insufficient to upgrade the north-east line to a standard that would allow for running new passenger trains. So, earlier this month, following enormous agitation by the Victorian government and the Commonwealth government, the new minister for infrastructure announced an additional $135 million for the north-east railway upgrade, bringing the total federal contribution to $235 million, which is a not insignificant amount of money. This is really welcome, I have to say, but it's surrounded by the enormous problem that no-one understands how this money is going to be spent. Is it enough? What is enough? Hopefully, the answer lies in the scope of works—the scope of works that we don't have access to. But the real comedy of errors and the throwing of good money after bad comes about because, with this extra money that we've got from the Commonwealth now, over a billion dollars has been spent on this railway line.

Tonight, in preparation for my speech, I went onto the ARTC web page and looked at the time line of what I think is a fiasco. In 2004, ARTC takes up the lease of the railway line between Sydney and Albury. As part of the negotiations, ARTC invests $870 million between Melbourne and Sydney, which is welcome. In 2006, the federal government provides an additional $270 million, which ARTC uses to install concrete sleepers on the line between Melbourne and Sydney and also between Sydney and the New South Wales border with Queensland. It goes on and on and on. In November 2011, a long-term rehabilitation program, amounting to a $134 million investment, is presented to the ARTC Board for approval. It goes on. In August 2013, my predecessor as the member for Indi, responding to the enormously negative feedback in the electorate, organises for the Australian Transport Safety Bureau to do a report into what was happening on our line. So there's a long history of things not working well, and it's detailed there.

What I think is happening is systemic failure, very poor process and a lack of good governance. We've seen stopgap, bandaid actions, and they have failed to resolve the problem. From my perspective as a member for north-east Victoria, there are no mechanisms to call the ARTC for review, there's no transparency in the decision-making and there seems to be no rigour at all in a system that would deliver a railway service to meet our needs. I would actually call on the Auditors-General of both Victoria and the Commonwealth to look into the decision-making that's been made to date and where the problems are in the work that's been done that leave us with a system that's still not working.

So, where I've got to is that we have another $235 million of Victorian government money, we have a train service that's not working, we have no scope of works that tells us how this $235 million will meet the problem, there has been no identified nature of the problem, and what really is catching me in such a frustrating way is that when we talk to the ARTC and the Victorian government they tell us that this money will bring the line up to what they call class 2. I asked what class 2 was, and they said that that is what regional Victorian passenger service is about. So I asked them if Ballarat and Bendigo are on class 2, to which they replied, 'Oh, no, they aren't on class 2. They have a different service.' So, Ballarat and Bendigo in Victoria can get trains running at 160 kilometres an hour and the trains in north-east Victoria, when this money is invested, will run at up to 130 kilometres an hour. I then asked them about New South Wales. They said, 'Oh, no, New South Wales doesn't work on class 2. New South Wales has a different service.'

What is going on here? What is class 2, what is the standard, how much money do we need and how much money is enough? The poor people of north-east Victoria are just so frustrated because, while all this discussion is going on, the trains break down, they become a bus, taxis are employed, you don't where you want to go, the trains are late and they are not reliable. When talking to the Victorian government they say they'll get the work under way—ARTC. And I'm asking what will happen to the two years in the middle? What's the plan for actually improving the service that's currently not operating? Do we have to put up with this for another two years, without the system operating? There is no answer in the system and no-one who takes responsibility, and as a member of parliament I get pushed from pillar to post in a very, very frustrating way.

Clearly, my community wants to see long-term and worthwhile solutions. We really want the inland rail to work. We really want it to be compatible with passenger services, but we don't want a second-, third- or fourth-class passenger service that doesn't work well. We want a First World public transport system that enables Albury-Wodonga to grow to meet its full potential, that enables Wangaratta and Benalla to grow, and we want those communities to be able to use the transport system so that people in Benalla can get to Wodonga and to Wangaratta. It's not all about Melbourne based services. We want a system that works, which we currently don't have.

In closing, I ask: what is the background to the decision-making; who is going to be responsible for the billion dollars we've already spent, and the inability to actually get a good result; who is going to take responsibility to make sure that the $235 million is enough—that it does the job; and who is going to define for us what class 2 means, and why is it different to whatever else is happening in Victoria and New South Wales? Also, what is going to be the interim plan? When all this is going on, what do we do with the people who want to use the train line over the next two years while the repairs are being made?

There are so many unanswered questions. It is so frustrating. In bringing my grievance speech to a close, I call on the infrastructure minister to release the scope of works. Let us have a community discussion about it. Let's have a debate about whether it is going to be enough. Do we need more money? If so, how do we go about getting more money? But let's do the decision-making now and not wait for another five or 10 years of this appallingly poor decision-making, during which the people of north-east Victoria will have to suffer the problems we're currently putting up with.

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