Transcript - ABC Radio Melbourne - Breakfast with Justin Smith

JUSTIN SMITH [HOST]: It's 25 to nine, but please don't - first up, please don't roll your eyes. But there is more talk this week about the train to the airport. It can feel a little like talking about colonies on Mars because it always feels like we've been here before and no matter what is said or what is planned or what is funded, does it feel like we always start from zero? 

But let's muster some enthusiasm for this and say that an independent study into the station says that rail to the airport for Melbourne, for Victoria is quote-unquote, "essential” for the state and for the future of the state. We need it, says the report. Not only do we want it, we need it, says the report. So, here's a question for you. On a scale of one to ten for you, whether it be your business or just personally or how you travel, how essential is the rail link in your life? 1300 222 774. The independent study says it's essential. Scale of one to ten for you, how important is the rail link in your life. So, what happens from here? 

Catherine King is the Federal Minister for Transport. She's been good enough to join us on the line. Good morning, Minister.

CATHERINE KING [MINISTER]: Good morning, Justin. It's good to be with you.

JUSTIN SMITH: Do you feel the frustration for people that they are feeling that we've been here before?

CATHERINE KING: Well, I think we're all frustrated about this project. This is one that's got money on the table and we really came to get it done, but we're just at a bit of an impasse at the moment. And that's what we had asked the mediator, Neil Scales, to just have a look at about how we start to progress towards getting agreement about airport rail and how we get this constructed. And he's come up with three really strong recommendations to start to progress this. And that's been an important report that we released the recommendations of yesterday.

JUSTIN SMITH: Yeah, sure. But that frustration is kind of, you mentioned,  we are keen to make it happen. Who is we? I know that you are and there are other people, but there always seems to be a foot on the hose somewhere, doesn't there?

CATHERINE KING: Yeah. So, I think what Neil Scales found and Neil's actually the former head of Queensland Transport, and they've built airport rail before in that state as well. But he's done the mediation work for us to try and look at progressing this. So, really what it says, his report says is the Australian Government, so represented by me, the Victorian Government, Danny Pearson and the Melbourne Airport Operator, APAM,  we all believe that the project is viable and that it's necessary and that it's needed. And so that's the first step. Everyone agrees that it has to get done. 

Where there still remains disagreement is obviously the airport believes that the station should be underground and there's been no business case done on that, no costings and no geotechnical work. And so what Mr Scales' report to me has said is that really what the Victorian and Commonwealth Government should start doing is do the no regrets work at Sunshine station to make that into the hub that it will need to be in order to support airport rail, and we will start talks with the Victorian Government about doing that and putting money on the table to do that as part of airport rail.

It's also said the modelling work that was done on the Tullamarine Freeway, the amount of cars on there, that is now outdated. We will put some money in and ask Infrastructure Australia to do that work. And then it's really over to the airport to do the business case if it still believes that the underground station is the only viable option, it will now need to do the work in order to put that to both the Victorian and the Commonwealth governments. We need to see a business case which will need to go to Infrastructure Australia. 

We need to see costings, the geotech, they  need to be very strong costings. They can't just be, you know, we've assessed business cases that are already existing overseas or on other projects. It has to be a business case on this project and then we'll look at what other investment might be needed in order to do that. But at this stage, the only business case and the only work that has been done is on an above-ground station. So, until that's done, it's really over to the airport. We'll get on with the work as two levels of government on Sunshine and do the bit that we can and really encourage the airport to do that business case and do that work and put that to us if they still believe an underground station is the only option.

JUSTIN SMITH: I'm not trying to be negative about it, I really are, but there is that feeling, and I think the frustration is there that if that were to be solved, if the above ground/underground decision was made and there was a business model made and that all got fixed, that there would be something else. That there are so many hands on, there are so many hands on this that there will always be an issue that is preventing it. So, is it the case that we have had, every time this has come up, there has been “Is there somebody who's trying to stop this from happening?” I guess is the feeling that most people have.

CATHERINE KING: Well, that was - I mean, absolutely, as a Victorian, I've been around through many of the iterations of this and I've obviously, we've been in government now for two and a half years and we've inherited this project. It's a project I really support and want to see happen. And really what Neil really found out, he spent a lot of time talking to the parties, to the rail and to the Victorian Government and to us, and really getting a deep understanding of where the sticking points were. And really what he said is that every party says it's needed and  that's a good thing. Everybody wants it to happen. We've just got this issue around the station and here is a pathway forward in terms of getting - continuing with the project. The Victorian Government has already done a lot of work moving all the services around Sunshine Station and around where the rail's got to go, and that's cost Victorian taxpayers money to do. We're going to continue to work on Sunshine. And now really what we want the airport to do is if it really is saying that an underground station is the only viable option, then it needs to do the business case work before the Commonwealth or Victorian Government can think about what investment might be needed there. 

So, that's where we are. And I just want to be realistic about that. That's where we are. I don't think. I think the airport believes that it should happen as well. And really that's for them now to sort out and work out with their board how they're going to do that.

JUSTIN SMITH: That report says that it is essential. Do you agree with that, that it is essential?

CATHERINE KING: Absolutely. Absolutely. Absolutely, it's needed.

JUSTIN SMITH: Okay, so when does that need kick in? So, is there, is there a timeline on when we're going to be in serious trouble? So, the report says, and I'm obviously paraphrasing here, is because of the growth of the city and because of the way our future looks, it is essential that we have rail to the airport. When is that going to be a critical point, when it becomes really, you know, essential?

CATHERINE KING: Well, it's needed now. I think that's obvious. And you'll hear that from everybody who travels to the airport, that their preference would be if they could, is to travel and it's practical for them, it would be to travel by rail. And so it's needed now. In terms of what the capacity is of the road, which is really the only way you can to get in there at the moment. That's one of the things Mr Scales said we needed to look at, because the modelling that was done initially on the business case for this said, look, we've got quite a few years yet before the Tullamarine gets congested enough. I think the population growth along there would probably tell you it's probably needed a bit sooner than it was originally in the business case. So, we'll do that work to see that. 

But I think, you know, my view is it's needed now and this is a project that's needed now, but we've got to do the work to know if there is going to be an underground station. And that's - the report doesn't recommend that we pursue that at this stage. But if that's what the airport is saying, it's the only thing that it will consider, then it needs to do that business case work. We need to know the costings before we can - and it needs to go to Infrastructure Australia - before we can think about what we do next at the station end.

JUSTIN SMITH: Okay. All right, look, I will let you go. I know that you're busy, but every good radio interview about airport rail in Victoria always ends with this question. When are we going to get it?

CATHERINE KING: Yeah, and I know that's a really good question. I think when these issues - when these issues --

JUSTIN SMITH: Oh, it's a great question, Minister. It's a fantastic question, Minister, but --

CATHERINE KING: Listen to you. You funny thing. You've interviewed way too many of us, you cheeky thing. No, that's fine. You know, look, absolutely, like, I get what you're wanting and you'd love me to - I'd love to be able to say a date. I'd love to, you know - I like nothing better than getting in a hard hat and shovels and getting the picture taken. But, you know, realistically, right at the moment, we can't. We don't have an answer to that. We've really got to do the work. When these issues are resolved is when we know that we can give you a timeline and they're just not resolved as yet.

JUSTIN SMITH: All right? He musters all his patience and he tries again. And he asks this question, can I try this one on you, Minister? When do you want it to happen?

CATHERINE KING: Well, I'd like it done yesterday. I think we all would, and I think all parties are saying that as well. But we want it done. But we've got to work through this pathway to actually get it done. We'll start talking to Victoria about getting progress on Sunshine Station. You'll start to see work around that. Once we've made some investment decisions from the Commonwealth end to work with the Victorians on that. We've got a few conversations and some costings to get on that. You'll start to see that work done. We'll do everything we can do and really work and encourage the airport and the Victorian Government to open the door to talk to each other. The airport will need to do that work on the business case, though, before we know how much it's going to cost, if an underground station is at all viable.

JUSTIN SMITH: Forgive the cheek. Have a good day.

CATHERINE KING: Of course. Always.

JUSTIN SMITH: Thank you, Minister. Catherine King, the Federal Minister for Transport.