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THE Baillieu government has been accused of condemning central Victorian train travellers to slower journeys and damaging the environment in a bid to save money as it rehabilitates the Seymour railway line.
Thousands of degraded wooden sleepers on the regional line are being replaced with new wooden sleepers harvested from redgum forests in New South Wales, after the government opted not to lay concrete sleepers because of higher cost and pressure from freight rail operators.
Concrete sleepers are held to be superior to wooden ones because they last more than three times longer, which makes them environmentally friendlier, and because they enable trains to run at faster speeds.
Tens of thousands of old wooden sleepers in Melbourne and regional Victoria have been replaced with concrete sleepers in recent years. They enable V/Line trains to travel up to 30km/h faster and release as little as a fifth of the carbon emissions over their 60-year lifespan compared with wooden sleepers over the same time.
About 52,000 sleepers are being replaced along the Seymour line as part of a $9 million upgrade, but about 25,000 of them will be wooden.
''Due to funding constraints in the 2012-13 budget the use of concrete sleepers was changed to timber so the project could be completed,'' a V/Line spokesman said. ''It is our preference where feasible to lay concrete sleepers on our network. This reduces maintenance requirements in the years ahead.''
The NSW timber sleepers cost $69 each, while concrete sleepers are made in Victoria at a cost of $95 to $135 each.
Nick Roberts, the Victorian National Parks Association's redgum and river rescue project co-ordinator, slammed the decision.
''Use of wooden sleepers from poorly managed forests in New South Wales contributes to impacts on threatened species, land degradation and water quality,'' Mr Roberts said. ''Timber is the third-rate country cousin to concrete and locks in slower rail services with more maintenance and delays.''
Public Transport Users Association regional spokesman Paul Westcott said Seymour travellers were being consigned to a slower service than other Victorian lines that had concrete sleepers.
''New wooden sleepers are better than rotten ones,'' Mr Westcott said. ''But if they want to really upgrade it equivalent to the regional fast rail tracks then clearly wooden sleepers don't do that.''
A 2007 analysis by consulting firm Energy Strategies found that concrete railway sleepers emit an average 93 kilotonnes of carbon dioxide in their 60-year life, while wooden sleepers emit as much as 540 kilotonnes in that time, depending on the rate of decay. Wooden sleepers usually last 18 to 20 years.
A spokesman for Public Transport Minister Terry Mulder said the government ''encourages the use of concrete sleepers wherever possible'' but had chosen not to this time because of the needs of freight operators that also used the Seymour line.
''Because the broad gauge tracks may be converted in the future to standard gauge, the Department of Transport's freight and logistics division asked that V/Line use new gauge-convertible timber sleepers between Donnybrook and Seymour,'' the spokesman said.
This article first appeared on www.theage.com.au
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