ABC Goulbourn Murray Breakfast

Interview

DCI047/2017

15 May 2017

Subjects: Infrastructure spending on the North East line, Inland Rail project.

Joseph Thomsen: The Federal Infrastructure and Transport Minister Darren Chester is in Wangaratta today to discuss the Federal Government's $100 million funding announcement for work on the North East line. I spoke to the Minister a few moments ago and asked him first of all what we know of how that money is likely to be spent at the moment.

Darren Chester: Well this is where the conversation starts getting serious because now we need to sit down with V/Line, obviously, as one of the main users of the track. We need to talk with the community about where we target the first $100 million dollars' worth of work; it could be anything from improved drainage upgrades and re-ballasting to basically targeting improving the quality of the passenger service for people in the North East. So it is really a matter now with the $100 million on the table to sit down with V/Line and the Victorian Government, and work our way through how we maximize benefits of it.

Joseph Thomsen: What will you be asking in those conversations, well you're running the track or ARTC is, at the very least. Shouldn't it know where the black spots are and what needs to be done already?

Darren Chester: Certainly. There's a large degree of awareness about where the weaknesses in the system are at the moment, if you like. From the conversations I had during my last visit, which was a few weeks ago now when I traveled the track with locals, the main commentary was around the reliability and the frequency of the service. They were the key factors that people are concerned with. Obviously, people like to get there faster as well, but their greatest concern was making sure that trains were going to run on time and there was more frequency to let them move within the region also move through to Melbourne. That is a combined issue of rolling stock, so the Victorian Government's rolling stock really is in desperate need of renewal, and in terms of track quality, and that is where the ARTC responsibility fits into the whole conversation. So it's not about people passing the buck back and forwards it is about us working together to maximize the benefits of this $100 million which I think is a good start, and I'm looking forward to that conversation.

Joseph Thomsen: There will have to be some work anticipated on those ballast areas that are the cause of speed restrictions, which the State Government says is part of the reason there is no point in upgrading the rolling stock. So with those things in mind, are you anticipating that that would be one of the priorities when it comes to doing work on the line?

Darren Chester: I'm pretty confident that's where there will be some focus on early, Joseph. The ARTC obviously is a Government business enterprise, and it wasn't aware the Budget was going to include $100 million on Tuesday night. So basically our conversation with ARTC now is about how do you work closely with V/Line and how do we link into the community to avoid disruption as much as possible while work is undertaken and how we set up the scope of works over the next coming months and years to get on top of these problems.

Joseph Thomsen: Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews says $100 million isn't going to be enough to upgrade the track to the extent that it needs to be to get new rolling stock. What is your response there?

Darren Chester: Well I must say, Joseph, Premiers complaining about not getting enough money from the Federal Government is a bit like the sun coming up every morning; it does happen every day. We have $1 billion on the table for Victoria, $500 million of that is for specifically allocated to regional rail, and we've flagged $100 million for the North East Line. So that is actually money on the table to help the state with basically its own responsibilities being the State public transport system. Right now Premier Andrews has zero on the table, he doesn't have a single dollar from the State Government there to negotiate with, and we are encouraging him to come to the table with money. Let's have a proper conversation about how we can invest together in the future of regional Victoria.

Joseph Thomsen: Why not make it a requirement as part of the funding? You are putting money in; part of the requirement is the Victorian Government has to upgrade the rolling stock.

Darren Chester: Well that is the point of negotiations, Joseph. I expect to sit down with my counterpart at state level, preferably sooner rather than later, but I have got to say their commentary since the Budget hasn't been terribly helpful. But my door is still open and I want to have that conversation. We'll sit down with them saying; well, if we've got money on the table, what will you deliver in return? More broadly that a billion dollars we've talked about is there and available for Victoria to undertake infrastructure upgrades around the state. We need to talk about how we're going to spend that in the most effective way possible. I want to have a constructive dialogue with the Premier or his Minister as soon as possible to get that money rolling out for all Victorians, because end of the day people I talked to in the streets whether it is Wangaratta, where I am today or Gippsland, my own home town, they don't care about these argy-bargy between state and federal politicians, they just want us to get on with the job of delivering infrastructure they need.

Joseph Thomsen: Have you got a first meeting date set yet?

Darren Chester: No, I haven't. I met last week with the State Public Transport Minister, just before the State Budget, and the undertaking we gave each other then was we'd catch up after the Federal Budget. So it's after the Federal Budget now and I'm hoping the dust has settled a bit, that the sabre-rattling and everything else, the carry-on that went on last week, can end and we can sit down and have a productive and constructive negotiation in the interests of all regional Victorians to deliver some of that infrastructure that we have talked about.

Joseph Thomsen: A lot of people might say; if you're going to allocate a figure like $100 million to upgrade the North East line, then why not aim to upgrade it to make it faster than it can run at top speed at the moment, or is supposed to be running anyway?

Darren Chester: Well I think that's a very fair ambition from the community and something that I'm keen to work with them towards. I mean, I regard the $100 million as a down payment on the further upgrades that are going to be required. Keeping in mind that Melbourne-Brisbane Inland Rail upgrade activity will be undertaken as well over the coming seven or eight years. The Federal Budget wasn't just about regional rail here in Victoria, there's $8.4 billion for ARTC for the Melbourne to Brisbane Inland Rail project which will obviously have some benefits through the North East as it flows through the region, so there'll be some upgrades associated with that as well. So I absolutely share that aspiration of the community to get a better, fast service and a more reliable service to these communities.

Joseph Thomsen: Just on that, on the Inland Rail project, what's the latest dot point update you can give us on that?

Darren Chester: Well it's a type of project that our kids and our grandkids will thank us for. It is the biggest rail project in the past 100 years in Australia. Very proud to see the Coalition make the announcement last week because it ends all the talk—and there has been about this project for decades—we are actually going to get on with the job of building it. So it will link Melbourne and Brisbane with a freight service of less than 24 hours. It will change lives in the fact that it will provide better access to markets, but it will actually save lives because it will take some of those heavy vehicles off our road routes and put those goods on to rail into the future. So I think it's a great project; it's one that many generations in the future will say I'm glad we had the foresight in 2017 to finally get on with the job.

Joseph Thomsen: That route now finalised?

Darren Chester: Well virtually finalised. The corridor has been finalised in terms of the broader route. So it is about a two kilometre wide route that has been finalised, but in terms of the actual alignment what you need to do now is get right down to the specifics in the communities that are impacted by it along that wider corridor route and work out the most efficient way, how you can do it with the least amount of environmental impacts, how you can maximise community benefits. So quite broadly, the route or the corridor has been finalised but the actual alignment hasn't been finalised yet.

Joseph Thomsen: Work beginning there when?

Darren Chester: Work beginning this year. The Prime Minister has made it very clear to me he expects to see construction begin on some of that new areas of track—which will be in New South Wales to begin with—this year. It is a 1700 kilometre journey, Joseph, but there is a bit over 500 kilometres of actual new track. So a lot of it is upgrading existing track and existing corridors and about 500 kilometres of it is new track, primarily in the New South Wales section.

Joseph Thomsen: When you say this year, you mean—we are only a couple of months away from the end of the financial year, less than that—so are we talking then, or are we talking right at the end of the year just to sneak it in?

Darren Chester: No, we are talking this calendar year. There is some work already underway with some culvert work in New South Wales which is future proofing for Inland Rail—so strengthening the track in that section near Narromine—but there is also going to be new work begin this year on bridges so I'm talking this calendar year within the next six or seven months.

Joseph Thomsen: Look, last question, just on the North East line, $100 million—there has been work done on and it resulted in mud-hole problems. How are you going to ensure that we don't wind up with something like that again as an outcome at the end of all this?

Darren Chester: Well we need to get the best available people, the experts in rail engineering on the site. We have got to be working on—obviously those drainage issues you referred to have been a major cause of concern, it has led to the speed restrictions which have frustrated everyone who uses the service. So we have got to get the experts involved to get the job done properly. This money is on the table and we are going to get that underway, hopefully—and I am confident we have—we have learnt from previous mistakes. At the end of the day, we need to provide a better service to the North East and I'm determined to do that.

Joseph Thomsen: Does this money mean that a VFT is more likely or less likely?

Darren Chester: Well let's get a faster, more reliable and greater frequency of service before we worry about getting too far down the track on that one, Joseph.

Joseph Thomsen: On that note, getting down the track, Darren Chester, thank you very much for your time.

Darren Chester: All the best. Thank you for your time.