03 April 2017
Subject: Victoria's North East Line Infrastructure
Bridget McKenzie: Darren Chester, following on from my meetings over summer with our local councils, and hearing that their number one issue was to get this rail line fixed. We know it's a state issue, which is why it's absolutely fantastic to have our local member, but deputy leader of the National Party here in Victoria, Steph Ryan, with the Minister for Transport seeing first-hand the travels and travails, I guess, that our locals have to put up with in accessing the V/Line transport.
Steph Ryan: I'm delighted to have Darren, as the federal Infrastructure Minister, along with our fantastic advocate for the regions, Senator Bridget McKenzie, here with us today. We have been speaking to the Victorian Government for the past couple of years now, trying to really push the need for new rolling stock in this region. The train that we just came up on from Melbourne is a 1960s train. It is time that those trains were replaced. Obviously, there are also some issues with the track, and we are very grateful for Darren—he has only been into the job a couple over a year now—to actually come up and have a look at the issues with the line. We have ridden in the loco, so we actually got a good picture of what the drivers face on a day-to-day basis, and I am hopeful that out of today, Darren will be able to take his experiences back and do some work with the Victorian Government to hopefully see some improvements in the line here.
We know that commuters on the North East Line are incredibly frustrated. I must say, I was hoping for perhaps a bus today to accurately reflect the experiences that people have, but we did have a train, it was on time. It is important that those trains are replaced. That is the responsibility of the Victorian Government, and Tim and I will continue to advocate to the Public Transport Minister to see that happen.
Tim McCurdy: In the past, there is no doubt about it, the investment that has happened in Victoria has happened on the Geelong Line, the Ballarat Line, the Bendigo Line, and the people in the North East are absolutely sick and tired of hearing the investment go to other places in Victoria and not on the North East Line, and that's why I've got Darren Chester here today. Obviously with the state Budget coming up we want to put the pressure on Jacinta Allan to make sure that she contributes to our line as well.
Question: First of all, what did you make of the ride?
Darren Chester: Well it was a terrific opportunity to experience first-hand what the locals are putting up with on a daily basis. We had a good trip up this morning, the service was running well and functioning very efficiently today. So it was a good trip, but there is no question when you sit up the front with the drivers you can see the condition of the track is of significant concern.
My view is we need to see the state and federal governments working together as positively as we possibly can to achieve the improvements that the community wants. We understand that improving connectivity in our regional towns will mean more opportunities for young people in our communities, it will mean opportunities for decentralisation and regional development. Having a good rail service is part of the answer for that.
Question: So what will you take from today's trip? What is the next step?
Darren Chester: Well Steph Ryan and Bridget McKenzie invited me up here to take a close look at the issues and also to meet the local community, understand their concerns, and I'll be doing that. You can read as many reports as you like, but until you actually experience it first-hand you don't really appreciate the conditions that people are working with. I think it is challenging for the staff in particular, but also for the travelling public.
I have already had some meetings with Jacinta Allan, the state Transport Minister, and I think there will be more meetings in the future where we need to see how we can work together on this. Primarily public transport in Victoria is a state concern, but the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has made it very clear he is happy for me to work with state governments on public transport issues, and this is one of those challenges I think we can work together on.
Question: The track though is federal. Can we expect any federal funding though to fix up the track?
Darren Chester: Well we are approaching the federal budget and the state budget at the same time, so I am sure there will be more said in the weeks ahead. The purpose of today was to get a better understanding of some of the challenges. ARTC has spent a lot of money on upgrading the track already, but there are shortcomings. The travelling public is expecting more from us, and certainly from the safety of the V/Line staff there is a challenge there as well. So it is a matter of working through some of those challenges, understanding what the local community's expectations are, and seeing how we can work with the State Government to meet those expectations.
Question: But there is definitely a need for an upgrade of the track. Will you give any commitment that that will happen?
Darren Chester: Well I can't give commitments today because we are about six weeks away from the federal budget, but the purpose of coming here was to get a better and a first-hand understanding of some of those challenges. As I said, you can read all the reports you like, but until you actually experience first-hand what people are going through you don't really get a full appreciation of that. So we are meeting with community groups, we are meeting with local councils. I talked to a lot of passengers on the train this morning and they're very passionate about getting a better service, and I can understand why.
Question: Surely, six weeks before a budget you already know if you are going to make a big commitment.
Darren Chester: Well six weeks before a budget, if I started telling you what was in the budget the Treasurer would have some very stern words to me and I would find myself perhaps sitting on the backbench very quickly.
Question: You were speaking with passengers and staff today. What were some of the specific stories that you have heard?
Darren Chester: Well passengers today were very happy with the service because they were actually on a train, it was air-conditioned and the toilets were working, everything was fine. So they had a good trip today, but what they're telling me though is the lack of reliability and frequency of services are a concern for them, and they want to see upgrades to their train service. It is an important way for them to link with their families in the city, to get there for medical appointments or for work commitments.
So people are very passionate about the train service and I can understand why, and there's opportunities I think for the federal and state governments to work together on that. The challenges with the track are also exacerbated by the old rolling stock. So there's challenges there for both state and federal governments to work on.
Question: There were suggestions that the line could be upgraded as part of the Inland Rail project. Is that something you would consider?
Darren Chester: That's a very good suggestion.
Question: Speaking with staff as well, obviously the staff there that have been riding trains for years and years, I have heard some of them saying that some of them had to have time off because of injury and things like that. Did you get any of those stories today?
Darren Chester: It is very concerning for me that staff coming to work on this train service have experienced injuries while at work related to the condition or the experience of the track and the rolling stock. So V/Line itself has raised those concerns directly with the Government in the past. I heard stories today of staff who had been injured at work and that is very concerning. So that is why you have so many speed limits on the track, that's why there's limited access to the buffet service from time to time.
These are all issues that are well understood in the community; the question is what can we do about it in the future? My view is it has to be a state and federal government working together to meet community expectations, meet the safety standards that V/Line staff would like to experience in the workplace. So they're all important issues, and they are all part of understanding the challenges here on this service.
Question: If there was money set aside by both federal and state governments this year, how long until we'd see some real work begin?
Darren Chester: Well it is difficult for me to speculate on what might be in a state or federal budget, and it is up to the two Treasurers to make those decisions. But obviously I've had meetings already with Jacinta Allan and we've had very productive discussions, and we'd like to see work start on improvements as soon as we possibly can. But that's a question for the next six to eight weeks, to work our way through that.