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WHILE the rest of the world is building high-speed rail, train travel between Australia's biggest cities is getting slower.
The timetable for train services between Melbourne and Sydney has recently been padded out by up to 85 minutes because operator CountryLink cannot keep to its published schedule. Little more than 10 of its twice-daily services to Sydney have arrived on time this year, although its Melbourne-bound services fared better.
Victorian operator V/Line will also rewrite its timetable in coming weeks to reflect its inability to keep time on the Albury line. Last month, just 2.8 per cent of V/Line trains between Melbourne and Albury ran on time.
More than $600 million was spent in 2009-10 on standardising the 960-kilometre railway line. Since then the track's condition has deteriorated so badly that trains are being damaged and passengers severely delayed.
Multiple sections of water-damaged track - called mudholes - are to blame. Speed restrictions of between 40 km/h and 80 km/h have been imposed on many stretches to ensure safety, but consequently the journey now often takes more than 12 hours. CountryLink's XPT trains normally travel at about 130 km/h, V/Line's locomotives at 115 km/h.
The situation has become so intolerable that a crisis meeting was held on Thursday between the Australian Rail Track Corporation and members of the Victorian government.
''ARTC officials acknowledged that the standard gauge line was its problem to fix and not the responsibility of either the Coalition government in Victoria or rail operators V/Line or CountryLink,'' Nationals MP and member for Murray Valley Tim McCurdy said after the meeting.
V/Line spokeswoman Clare Steele said the track's poor condition was causing wear and tear on its locomotives. It has replaced 16 springs on trains that run on the Albury line this year. Normally, it replaces about two springs a year in total.
The Australian Rail Track Corporation is fixing the mudholes by replacing muddied track ballast, at a cost of $134 million. The rehabilitation work is expected to be done by mid-next year.
But sources that have worked on the line's rehabilitation told The Saturday Age under the condition of anonymity that replacing the ballast was a short-term solution. The problem could only be permanently fixed by replacing the track's foundation. If not, water would one day seep up through the ground again.
''What's being done is very much a Band-Aid,'' one source said. ''They're spending a lot of money and they're doing it in a way that is seeking to address the short-term problem of having to impose severe speed restrictions, but it's not really addressing the fundamental problem.''
The lack of high-speed rail between Australia's two biggest cities is held to be one reason the Melbourne to Sydney flight path is one of the world's five busiest.
Bryan Nye, the chief executive of the Australasian Railway Association, says Australia has fallen behind most of the rest of the world after decades of focusing on building roads.
''In the 1960s we just fell in love with the car and we stopped investing for almost 50 years in our rail network,'' Mr Nye said. ''Governments are struggling to catch up from years of neglect.''
Mr Nye is on the reference group for the federal government's study into building a high-speed rail line between Melbourne and Brisbane that would reach speeds of 380 km/h. The cost of high-speed rail has been estimated at $108 billion. The study is investigating forming a public-private partnership with Chinese or Japanese investors. It is also mapping a preferred corridor.
''High-speed rail along the east coast between capital cities would dramatically change the way people live and where they actually choose to live,'' Mr Nye said.
''People could commute from Albury-Wodonga to Melbourne.''
For the time being, the residents of towns along the line just want a service they can trust.
''We'd use it more if it was more reliable and more regular,'' said Wendy Cameron, a Wangaratta winemaker.
She has spent too many hours sitting at Wangaratta station, waiting to collect her children from a train that is always late.
This article first appeared on www.theage.com.au
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