ABC Goulburn Murray

Interview

DCI060/2017

27 June 2017

Subjects: Federal funding boost to Victoria's Regional Rail Package

Joseph Thomsen: The Federal Government has agreed to a major funding boost towards Victoria's Regional Rail Package, following that ongoing stoush over infrastructure spending. So, the Commonwealth has now agreed to provide $1.42 billion to fund the overall network upgrade after talks between Victorian Public Transport Minister Jacinta Allan and her Federal counterpart Darren Chester. For the Goulburn Murray and Gippsland this now means $435 million for the Gippsland rail line, $140 million for the North East rail line—that one's up by $40 million from the first announcement, $95 million there for the Avon River Bridge upgrade on the Gippsland line as well, $91 million in total for the Bendigo-Echuca rail line, $20 million for Murray Basin freight rail and $10 million for the Shepparton freight network planning process. So everybody is claiming victory here.

Darren Chester is with us. Darren Chester is the Federal Infrastructure and Transport Minister, speaking to us from our Melbourne studio. Darren Chester, welcome to the program.

Darren Chester: Good morning, Joseph.

Joseph Thomsen: Well firstly, what will this funding mean for the Victorian regional network?

Darren Chester: Well, I think the big winners in all of this are the Victorian people. The people who live in rural and regional areas who have been calling out for better frequency, more reliable passenger rail services—and they'll be the big winners. And I'm very pleased that we've been able to negotiate an outcome with the Victorian Minister. We've been meeting for the past month or so trying to work through some of the details. They've certainly provided more detailed planning than they provided to me in the first place, and we have more confidence now in the projects going forward. And I'm really looking forward to seeing that work start where there'll be jobs created during the construction phase, obviously, but in the longer term I think what it means is we connect our regional communities better, we provide more opportunities for people to live and work in regional areas, which is something that I'm particularly passionate about.

Joseph Thomsen: As I mentioned, everybody's claiming a win here. Why not just have come up with this money in the first place?

Darren Chester: Well, Joseph, if I had have put $1.4 billion on the table about two months ago when it was first raised by the Victorian Government, then you would have said to me; well, what details have you got? I had a one and a half page letter from Victorian Government at that stage. I had no detail whatsoever in terms of their planning work, so I was not in a position to fund it at that time. Now, what's happened since then is we've had meetings—myself and Jacinta Allan have met several times and our offices have been in pretty close contact over the last couple of weeks as we've finalised this arrangement—and in addition to that, the Victorian Government has put another $150 million on the table which has allowed for some additional work on the North East line and some other projects that we were keen to pursue. So it hasn't been pretty to watch I guess from the outside, but I can assure your listeners from inside it, we've been working very hard between our two offices, and I'm very pleased with the result today.

Joseph Thomsen: People won't knock the money back. It always looks like politics these sorts of things. I mean, you say there wasn't enough detail, but there was obviously enough detail for nearly a billion dollars in the first round—I mean, that's nothing to sneeze at. You obviously had enough confidence to put that forward.

Darren Chester: Well, in the first instance, Joseph, we can look on the history of this announcement, the Premier and the Minister went out and demanded $1.4 billion and sent me a press release. So that's all I had on day one. Now, in the Federal Budget in May, we announced $500 million for regional rail because we'd seen more detail on some of the projects; and the Victorians wanted more, and I wanted to be able to deliver more but I needed to see the details. So, I don't see much point in me raking over old coals, if you like, and having a fight with them about something that happened a couple of months ago. I'm looking to the future where I think regional Victorians are going to be the huge winners out of this. There's a commitment here from the Federal Government—the biggest commitment in recent times in terms of passenger rail services in regional Victoria. It's going to be a great announcement in terms of improving that connectivity, making sure our regional communities can work more efficiently and allow people to get to and from work—whether it be in the city or be in our regional areas—and at the same time, I think there's going to be some benefits with reduced congestion and improved productivity. So I think there's a lot of winners in regional Victoria today.

Joseph Thomsen: We're covering both Gippsland and the Goulburn Murray region today, so just a couple of points out of both of our regions today—so $435 million in total now for the Gippsland rail line, plus $95 million for the Avon River Bridge upgrade. Can you run us through that?

Darren Chester: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, the Gippsland line has been one of the worst performing lines on the regional services, so this is going to see some additional track duplication work in the Moe-Morwell-Traralgon-Longwarry-Bunyip region. So that's going to be good in terms of more reliability of services for the Gippsland communities. And Gippsland has been a region which obviously has been hit pretty hard with job losses in recent times due to the Hazelwood power station closure, so, you know, any jobs we can provide in that regional setting is going to be good for the community. And it's obviously not very far away from where I live personally, so I'm very invested in making sure that we improve that service.

And the North East line is another one which has missed out on major funding in the past. We've seen big commitments to Geelong, Ballarat and Bendigo, but the North East line is one that has missed out, and it's good to see $140 million allocated for that as well.

Joseph Thomsen: On the North East line, again, will this be tied somehow to carriage upgrades? Which is something that everybody on the North East line has been waiting for and there've been numerous occasions—still happens all the time—where we've got train cancellations, you find out at the last minute that they've been replaced by buses, suddenly you can't put your bike on there, or whatever else you might have brought along, which causes problems for everybody. What have we got there, in terms of whether there will be new carriage upgrades as part of this funding?

Darren Chester: Well, you're absolutely spot on, Joseph. There's two parts to the equation with the North East line. It's absolutely about improving passenger ride quality through upgrading the rail line, and that's the $140 million commitment that we've announced today. But the Victorian Government has publicly stated in the past that if we can get the rail line upgrade money, they're going to invest in better rolling stock. Well, that's a question now for the Victorian Government. The passengers on that line are, you know, enduring carriages which are sometimes 40 and 50 years old—it's time to get some decent rolling stock on the North East line. I think we're heading in the right direction though, Joseph. I know people are frustrated—it never happens fast enough for me either in politics—but we've made some great progress over the last couple of months. If we had have been sitting here at the start of the year and you told me I'm going to be able to deliver a total of $1.6 billion for regional rail this year, I'd say ; mate, it's a bit of wishful thinking there. But we've been able to deliver it. It's going to roll out in the next few years. There's going to be projects right around Victoria. And then the challenge becomes well, what's next? So, you're constantly doing the what's next; and the what's next is going to be better, faster, more reliable rail services for regional areas, which means that our regional communities have access to good public transport, which makes it easier to live in our regional areas and either commute for work, or for health reasons, or whatever it might be. We're really passionate about making sure that our regional communities in Victoria have the chance to grow just as Melbourne is growing.

Joseph Thomsen: Money is good. I reckon if you ask people what's next, they'd say; have you looked at how the trains are running overseas— particularly the fast ones—because a lot of people would like that to be next. In fact, a lot of people would like it to be now.

Darren Chester: Absolutely, Joseph. If I had an unlimited bucket of money, I would be pouring more money into even faster rail services. But we need to upgrade the rail links that we've got. We need to provide greater frequency of services, more reliable services, so people know they're going to actually turn up and the train is going to be there and that gives more confidence to the system and people use it more often.

I look at the Shepparton service and I think; well, Shepparton—a major town in the Goulburn Valley—is underserviced at the moment and I'm very keen to work with the Victorian Government on, can we get faster rail into Shepparton, for example, and more reliable services there as well.

So we want to keep working with the Victorian Government. I think we've had a good month or two in terms of negotiations on getting this money rolling out for regional areas. There's always going to be more work to be done and—quite rightly—people have got their hand up saying; well, what about us? We need more in our region …

Joseph Thomsen: [Interrupts] But in terms of spend- if you're going to spend all this money on these regional rail networks, I mean, it's the 21st century now, it's 2017, every other country around the world—particularly countries like China—when they're building these things, they're going at 300ks an hour. We're still working on a technology which is really out of the end of the 19th century and spending all this money on upgrading lines for that technology. If we're going to spend the money, why don't we do what the rest of the world is doing and drag ourselves into the 21st century with these rail speeds? We are nowhere near what the rest of the world is doing here.

Darren Chester: Well, you're absolutely right, we're not anywhere near what the rest of the world is achieving—in different parts of the world …

Joseph Thomsen: [Interrupts] But that's what could truly rejuvenate regional areas, at least in terms of what rail benefits we could have.

Darren Chester: But, let's be fair, the upgrades we've seen on—for example—the Ballarat, Bendigo and Geelong lines, over the last 10 years, has now meant that people are either commuting from those regional towns into the city or doing the reverse commute. And I talked to the Mayor of Bendigo, just the other day and at their platform they're actually seeing people commute out to Bendigo to go to university or to work. So, they're seeing a reverse commute happening in Bendigo with the speed of line they have now …

Joseph Thomsen: [Interrupts] Yeah true enough but they're closer, geographically, than some other locations.

Darren Chester: Absolutely. But if we can achieve speeds in the order of 160 kilometres an hour, with faster rail services—it's not the high speed rail you're talking about, the 300ks an hour you're talking about, but neither do we have populations of one or two million people outside the city …

Joseph Thomsen: [Interrupts] What's that got to do with it? That's just the technology, that's how fast they build them these days.

Darren Chester: Well, what it's got to do with it is the cost, Joseph. I mean, we don't have the population centres there to justify a cost of that magnitude.

Joseph Thomsen: Yeah, but I don't see the link. We're just talking about the same as cars, the same as everything else; technology has gotten better, that's why trains can travel faster, just buy those trains.

Darren Chester: Well, the point I'm making Joseph; you've got to have the population to pay for it. I mean, I …

Joseph Thomsen: [Interrupts] Why? What's the link?

Darren Chester: What do you mean what's the link? How does …

Joseph Thomsen: [Interrupts] What's the link?

Darren Chester: How does a government pay for rail services, if it doesn't have a population and a tax base to pay for it? I mean …

Joseph Thomsen: [Interrupts] Why is it that much more than standard rail? I don't understand why that keeps being said- being given as a reason. I mean, it's the same as other vehicles, technology has meant now they can go faster. So, if we upgrade our network to faster trains, that's what we can have. Can't we?

Darren Chester: And what we're doing right now; is upgrading our network to provide faster trains. You're right. Not the very fast trains you're referring to but certainly a faster service, providing for greater reliability and more frequency of services. Now, I entirely accept your point that the infrastructure we're experiencing in Victoria, has been underinvested in. I'm not going to blame the Labor Party for that; I'm not going to blame the Liberals or anyone. It's been a community based response to rail for decades. We haven't had the investment in our regional rail network for decades. So, we actually have to get the actual basic infrastructure up to speed before we can do anything about improving the quality of the rolling stock and this investment, I think, is a very good news day for regional Victoria. We're going to see and require upon the Victorian Government to see greater investment in the rolling stock which can travel at faster speeds. But you need a sound base to work on, that means the basic infrastructure—the rail track itself—has to be brought up to speed.

Joseph Thomsen: I should point out; I'm no expert in it. We've certainly had a lot of feedback, though, on trains. And I think in every part of Victoria, Southern New South Wales, there's been lots of that. You'd be aware of that being the Federal Infrastructure and Transport Minister.

I've got this comment here, via SMS, though—and this isn't your portfolio because it's a V/Line question, but I'll just mention it anyway—from somebody who says; the cost for trains on V/Line, is too expensive and it's often cheaper to take the car. Cars are reliable as well and they get you there on time.

Now, I don't know whether that's a conversation to have or not but it's a public transport cost question.

Darren Chester: Well, absolutely. And the point to make, Joseph, for your listeners is that public transport in Australia only returns a third of its operating cost at the farebox. So, in terms of what the passengers pay in comparison to the cost of running the services across Australia, they get—the state governments who run these services—get about a third of it back. So, it's a heavily subsidised form of transport. But there's other benefits in terms of reducing congestion, improving productivity and road safety benefits, which are harder to factor into the equation. But in terms of actual money returned to the governments for running those services; they only get about a third of it back. So, public transport is reasonably expensive to run in Australia, and given our dispersed population base, we don't necessarily receive a return at the farebox.

Joseph Thomsen: Well, I've got this SMS—it says; trains in China, every seven minutes, fast train to the Airport, one hour 30 minute trip costs less than $2.

Darren Chester: And the other point you mention; trains to airports. We've allocated $30 million to finally get the planning work done for a Melbourne Airport Rail Link. It seems bizarre to just about everyone who visits Melbourne, that you can't access a train into the CBD. Now, we want to get that planning work done. We put $30 million on the table. I understand the Victorian Government is quite receptive now to getting that work done. They weren't that keen on it at the start of the year but they're keener on it now. And I think that's a good step forward too.

Joseph Thomsen: There's a very big car park out there, with a lot of cars and a lot of parking.

Darren Chester: Well, I think the challenge is to get more of that commuter traffic—people who are travelling for work or for pleasure—on to rail, so they can get a rail link from Southern Cross, Flinders Street, out to the Airport, and then get on with their journey. I think that's a better way of doing it in the medium to longer term. We need to get the planning work done, that's why we've put $30 million on to the table and I'm confident the Victorian Government will work with us on that. It's one that the people in Melbourne regularly raise with me but also people in regional Victoria raise with me because they want to leave their cars at home and be able to commute into the city and get on with their journey, whether it's for work or for pleasure.

Joseph Thomsen: Yeah, that's been another long conversation, that one. It's certainly a big incentive for all Victorian State Governments, not to put any public transport out to the Airport there. A lot of money comes in every year, from that big car park there. But we'll wait and see, as with all of these things.

Darren Chester, thank you so much for giving us some time and coming into the studio today.

Darren Chester: No, I appreciate your time. Have a great day.

Joseph Thomsen: Darren Chester, who's the Federal Minister for Transport and Infrastructure and National Party Member, with a little bit of a look at that boost to Federal funding for regional rail network services in Victoria.