ABC Goulburn Murray

Interview

DCI028/2017

16 March 2017

Subjects: North East Rail Line

Joseph Thomsen: Darren Chester, good morning.

Darren Chester: Good morning, Joseph.

Joseph Thomsen: And Cathy McGowan, I might just invite you to put your headphones on as well. Darren Chester, first and foremost, you’ve agreed to travel the North East Line. Have you got a date yet?

Darren Chester: That is right, Joseph. Steph Ryan and Bridget McKenzie visited me in Canberra only a matter of a few weeks ago and asked me to come down. The two local Mayors have done the same thing. I think it is going to be in early April. We’re trying to confirm the date that works with people in your community, obviously, to meet with me during that visit. I don’t think we’ve got an actual date at this stage, but early April is the plan. We had hoped it would be sooner than that, but it is going to be about three weeks away, I think.

Joseph Thomsen: Okay. We’ve just been speaking with Cathy McGowan about her intention to try to get passenger services brought in as part of the core ARTC business, but also the discovery that our North East Line is apparently not classified as a premium rail line, unlike, for instance, the Ballarat and Bendigo services. Were you aware of that, and what is your view on whether that needs to change or not?

Darren Chester: Well, Joseph, the critical point – and I think Cathy’s probably touched on, I missed the start of the interview – is that one of the regional rail upgrades were done in the last 10 years or so, the Bendigo, Ballarat, Geelong lines had a lot of money spent on them. It was lines like the North East and the Gippsland line, which had very little spent, and they probably had basic maintenance – that was about all, and they are certainly the lines that are requiring significant investment.

I think there’s an opportunity – and Cathy and I have spoken about this, and I’ve spoken to the State Transport Minister about it as well – I think there’s an opportunity in the context of the Melbourne to Brisbane inland rail project, which is that major freight rail project I’m working on across all three states at the moment. But as part of the discussions around how we work with the states on that, there’s opportunity to upgrade the North East Line as part of that whole program. Obviously from a freight perspective, it doesn’t require the same level of work there would be to improve the passenger service and the passenger experience. But for people like myself and Cathy that live outside the cities, we know that our constituents expect to have a decent regional service, and right now, I don’t believe we are getting that.

Joseph Thomsen: Okay, well, Cathy McGowan in the studio with us, of course, as you know, Darren Chester. So we were just talking about that very possibility of when this inland freight line, when the construction process begins that maybe that is a good trigger point, a good time to be able to also update our North East Line. Is that something that you can either commit to or that you’ll be discussing with Cathy McGowan, with the Federal Government? What can you say about that?

Darren Chester: Well, I wouldn’t want to pre-empt my conversations with Jacinta Allan. It is fair to say that Jacinta and I have had some productive conversations. Obviously, we are both going through our budget processes right now. That is the challenge, I guess, of being in government as distinct from Cathy’s position where she is an independent and she can say whatever she likes but doesn’t have to fund it. Jacinta and I have to try to find a way to fund it and get it through our respective Treasurers, and make it a policy priority.

So we have both been working to try and achieve that outcome, and I can’t really pre-empt what might happen in that regard other than to say we’ve had some good discussions. Jacinta Allan has been on board in terms of the need to improve passenger services through the North East. She has also been supportive of the Melbourne Brisbane Inland Rail Project, which is an iconic project. It is going to deliver a lot of benefits right along its route, particularly in the Albury-Wodonga region.

Joseph Thomsen: Alright, just lastly Darren Chester, we have noted down it might be early April that you travel that North East Line. We just had maintenance and track work that was scheduled right across one of our busiest long weekends in Victoria, the Victoria Labour Day Weekend when there are festivals galore, things happening at every turn, a very busy long weekend. We understand that it was ARTC – Australian Rail Track Corporation, owned by the Federal Government – which made that decision. Something that perhaps needs to be looked at more closely is when this sort of track work is scheduled, and whether an upgrade to premium status can help avoid it, I don’t know, but when it can come to an end, this continuing track work?

Darren Chester: Well, I think we are in a better position than we were 12 months ago, Joseph. I think we are in a better position than we perhaps have been in the last 10 years in terms of our discussion around the North East Line. But I understand people listening to me talk today don’t want to have discussions or hear about productive talks; they want action, and Jacinta Allan and I are trying to achieve that through our respective budget processes.

Joseph Thomsen: Alright we’ll leave it there. Darren Chester, thanks very much for your time this morning.

Darren Chester: All the best, Joseph.