Murray Basin rail project


Mr BARBER (Northern Metropolitan) — I am aware that there are some people back home in Mr Drum's electorate who are listening intently to this debate. Like me, they were waiting for him to use the 'P' word — passenger rail. It received scant mention in the report by GHD commissioned by the government of which Mr Drum was a member. In fact when it talked about it at all it was more or less in terms of an impediment to freight movements. I was at least gratified at the end to hear Mr Drum say that he believes option 4 of the GHD report is the best option.

[Speech was interrupted. Click here to view the full debate.]

Mr BARBER — I am looking at the report in front of me and I see only options 1 to 4.

[Speech was interrupted. Click here to view the full debate.]

Mr BARBER — What we need here is a longer term vision for where this project might go and what it could deliver for the region. That is certainly not cutting out of the loop a number of important townships along the way that would like to see not only freight but also passenger rail as an option for their communities, and not with goods and people flowing in the direction of just Melbourne but cross-country and to other ports and destinations, for both generators and users of freight as well as destinations for visitors.

People make jokes about Maryborough railway station. They sometimes quote Mark Twain, saying that Maryborough is 'a railway station with a town attached'. I have even heard an urban myth that Maryborough was thought to be Maryborough in Queensland when the railway station was designed. But telescope out a little bit and you will see that at the time it was built Maryborough was in fact the crossroads for a number of very important communities. That is the vision we need to reinstate.

It has been a long time coming. Mr Drum referred to $30 million in maintenance funding that was allocated for that line. That is simply back pay; it is simply the result of massive neglect of our country rail system by a succession of governments, Labor and Liberal, going right back to the time of privatisation. At least it was good to hear the former Premier, Dr Napthine, in his time admit that perhaps breaking up and selling off V/Line freight had been a mistake. You can well and truly see that when you look at the system today.

As you travel through the region you crisscross a number of unused or under-utilised freight lines. For that matter, if you look at it on a map, you will see exactly what I am talking about. People need to be able to travel from Hamilton to Ararat, or Ararat to Maryborough, or Maryborough to Bendigo, or Mildura to Ballarat. They are the sorts of trips you need to make in country Victoria if you want to open up your opportunities to get a job or to study at a place of your choice or just have the capacity to go to your next major centre for a doctor's appointment and maybe even get back in the same day without it turning into an overnight stay. It is about not simply moving bulk commodities to the nearest port but over time starting to get containerised freight moving across the landscape.

Mr Drum otherwise said a lot of things that I agree with.

[Speech was interrupted. Click here to view the full debate.]

Mr BARBER — You're welcome. The report lays it out in pretty stark terms. There is a continuous and ongoing increase in the so-called productivity of road freight — trucks getting bigger, travel getting faster, new overdimensional and high-capacity routes being opened up — and even talk of reducing matters such as loading and unloading times at destinations. All these things are continuously improving the productivity of road freight.

Poor old rail freight, in the meantime, is languishing where it was pretty much at the time of privatisation. Those in the industry can barely put up a wish list of small projects that might make an immediate impact in terms of addressing their needs. At the moment there is no vision, there is no plan to have a vision, and there is no body that could bring forward that vision.

If you read the Switchpoint report, which was put together by a former federal leader of The Nationals, Tim Fischer, you will see that one of the lesser known recommendations in the report is that there should be a body created to take on the responsibility of planning the freight task. Yes, the report talks about a number of priorities for upgrades to lines, but most importantly it recommends that we bring back what we once had — that is, a body that coordinates the entire freight task and plans for its future.

A few years back we ended up in the ridiculous situation of having a bumper grain harvest after a long drought but not being able to get enough rail wagons — let alone drivers, who had gone off to the mines — to move it. Some of the rail wagons were found on an abandoned siding in north-central Victoria by our good friends at Pacific National. Pacific National went to Lynne Kosky and said, 'There you go; you can have them'. The government was even on the blower to railway historical preservation societies to see if they had any wagons that could still be moved. There will be booms and busts in the freight task, particularly in relation to grain. That is why there should be a body that also takes care of at least some of the leasing of the wagons so they are available in those peak years. It may not be a viable proposition for a private entity to do that, but we do not want to end up in a situation where we have a bumper year but cannot move crops by rail so the roads start getting hammered.

As this report shows, and as Mr Drum and almost everybody else understands, a real, direct and immediate cost is falling to country councils as a result of the increasing amount and proportion of the grain task that is being carried by truck. We simply need to put in place measures that start to equalise the cost between the two modes. The mode shift incentive scheme — which I think Mr Ramsay referred to, although he was actually talking on another motion — was one such measure under the previous government. It was only a small measure, but I understand from the budget papers and earlier media releases that it is on hold with money not being spent on it this year. We need an investigation into why it is on hold, because that could be one excellent method of equalising the costs between road and rail and making sure that the full costs of moving a tonne of commodity are being paid by those who are creating those costs.

Mr Drum is well aware of the interest this subject attracts in his electorate. His government ticked off GHD to write a report about supply and demand in regard to various types of commodities — grain, mineral sands, general freight, regional containers and even possibly interstate containers coming through the tri-state area from across the country — but passenger rail received scant mention in the report. This is despite the huge level of interest in Mr Drum's electorate, including in the crossroads of Maryborough, which falls smack in the middle of the highly marginal Assembly seat of Ripon, which gets a bit of political attention from time to time. There is good news if you are from this area, because you will certainly get that sort of attention.

However, in typical style, on the morning of the announcement that the Murray Basin rail project would receive funding both the Liberal Party and The Nationals wanted to announce it, so they came up with separate press conferences at either end of the district with their respective, competing candidates for the marginal seat of Ripon. When the member for South-West Coast in the Assembly and then Premier, Dr Napthine, was asked whether the project included passenger freight he said, 'I dunno'. When Mr Ryan was asked whether it facilitated passenger freight, he said, 'You betcha it does!'. I got to read about it in two different local newspapers a few days later.

Mr Drum's community are just as confused now as they were then, but I am sure they will be pleased to hear him now, from the position of opposition, saying that he will back the network option, which does not cut off options for expansion — including for passenger rail — does not cut important townships out of the loop when the money is finally spent on standardisation and creates future options for more and different types of freight and passenger movements cross-country.

A group of councils in south-west Victoria is pushing for passenger freight services to be reinstated on the freight line from Horsham to Hamilton via Ararat. That freight line is not frequently used, so that could certainly be accommodated and it would provide great value. Whenever Victoria invests in passenger rail we have seen a take-up that is massively more than anybody could have predicted. I have taken it upon myself to advocate for that group of councils, which is seeking what is really a small amount of money to investigate that possibility. So far what the government has told them is essentially, 'We are doing a strategy — we are doing a network development plan for regional Victorian rail — and we will take a look at it then'. We will want to see those results sooner rather than later. We also want to see the communities participate in that process, because they did not really participate in the metropolitan passenger rail development strategy. It was developed in secret, and we all found out about it on the day it was launched.

Mr Drum will be gratified to know that yet again he has found another area of common ground between The Nationals and the Greens. He will be thrilled by that — especially after watching, as he has been, the rise of the green vote in regional Victoria.

[Speech was interrupted. Click here to view the full debate.]

Mr BARBER — No. In fact the front page of the Weekly Times covered that story very well the week after the election. It noted that wherever the coal seam gas issue had arisen in the Victorian election there had been a surge in the green vote.

[Speech was interrupted. Click here to view the full debate.]

Mr BARBER — I am not going to go on to talk about what has happened in New South Wales. That is probably a bit outside the scope of this debate. Mr Drum does not want me to talk about that, and we were finding common ground.

I compliment Mr Drum and his former government for at least releasing the GHD report, because for some of the other major infrastructure programs you would be lucky to get a scrap of paper that told you what was being contemplated, what the costs and benefits were and what the implications were for different options. For most other projects, some of which were up in the realms of billions of dollars in cost, you would be lucky to get a government press release and a YouTube animation showing something coming in and out of the tunnel. Here we at least have a document that discusses the costs, benefits, risks and different options and what they mean, which can form the basis of a debate — and that is what we have had here today. I know there are many members in northern, central and north-western Victoria watching this one very closely. For that reason, the Greens are quite happy to support this motion.