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Under the Bracks government's Regional Fast Rail initiative between 2000 and 2006, train lines to Geelong, Ballarat, Bendigo and Gippsland received a once-in-a-generation upgrade, defying the neglect that had plagued public transport for decades. V/Line trains could go faster but, more crucially, run more often – from a few trains a day to about one every hour or better.
Patronage on intercity lines boomed, exceeding all expectations. Not for the first time, government planners failed to anticipate the extent to which people flock to public transport when service is provided at a standard that is competitive with car travel.
Plans were hastily made to buy more VLocity trains to carry the new passengers. Meanwhile, new life flowed into regional centres as "tree changers" took up residence in central Victoria and Gippsland. And in the midst of it all, V/Line became the only Australian transport operator in recent times to be de-privatised, after British operator National Express walked away from it in 2002.
Plans were hastily made to buy more V/Locity trains to carry the new passengers.
So how did we go from that roaring success of the mid-2000s to the present-day debacle: dozens of V/Line carriages out of action with prematurely worn wheels; inconvenienced commuters being expensively bussed by the thousands between Melbourne and regional centres, and the VLocity trains effectively banned from running on Metro tracks after a level crossing failed to trigger?
Sadly, that success masked deeper structural problems. So when Melbourne had its own patronage boom, mirroring that in regional Victoria, it took planners by surprise. Services were increased, not as part of any strategy but by force of circumstance.
In 2005 the official line from the transport minister down was that the City Loop was full and Melbourne couldn't handle many more peak-hour trains. But six years later, peak-hour train numbers had miraculously gone up 30 per cent without any new tracks being built in the inner city.
That was the first structural problem: a management culture emerging from half a century of decline and stagnation and not prepared to tackle the challenges of a growing system.
These challenges include not just making the most of latent system capacity, but also being able to rapidly procure rolling stock suitable for the network, in numbers well above replacement levels.
For years we have lived with the legacy of early mistakes and poor decisions on new suburban trains: delays at busy stations because of an insufficient number of doors; internal layouts that assume more standing passengers but provide no handholds; brakes that failed mysteriously and required timetables to be slowed; and so on. Perhaps it was inevitable that the VLocity fleet – like as with the Siemens trains in Melbourne, originally contracted by National Express – would develop similar problems.
Or perhaps it's the rails and signals themselves at fault. Our second structural problem is the dearth of recurrent funds for root-and-branch renewal of the rail network. Generous funding only tends to flow when attached to a big announceable project, and even then can be poorly applied. Insiders have long been aware that some ageing track circuits in the suburban network, meant to trigger level crossings when trains pass over them, cannot reliably detect shorter trains. If all trains are long enough – it was convenient that three-car operation had already ceased on many suburban lines – the problem could be ignored. Yet a side effect of the VLocity wheel wear issue is that V/Line was forced to run shorter trains, which now can't be trusted on the suburban network.
In probing why the VLocity wheel flanges have been so prone to wear, attention has focused on the Regional Rail Link with its tight curves, both at the city end and the new track west of Melbourne. These crooked paths reflect the failure to anticipate future rail needs and to set land aside in the Melbourne 2030 plan just 15 years ago. Today the line must also do double duty as a regional and a suburban service, and this has meant further compromises in design and operation.
It would be a greater shame if we did not learn from these mistakes. The Andrews government has an excellent opportunity to do so, particularly if Canberra makes good on its renewed interest in well-functioning cities.
Our neglected rail network desperately deserves funding to renew our dilapidated tracks; replace the outdated 1950s signal technology ; improve the standard of routine maintenance; and ensure close control of rolling-stock procurement to ensure its compatibility with our infrastructure and operational requirements.
The government has plans to do at least part of this work in parallel with its level-crossing grade separations. These plans need to proceed post haste, and the federal government should assist by redirecting funds away from Tony Abbott's 1950s road-building agenda.
It's all about getting us to the standard required to ensure our public transport system can meet the challenges of growth, for the future of both metropolitan Melbourne and regional Victoria – and federal MPs should not need to be reminded of the national significance of both.
Our true rail renaissance may still be in the future, but it's the actions of today's politicians that will determine whether a strong growth mentality prevails, or if Victoria is still missing the train a decade from now.
Tony Morton is president of the Public Transport Users Association.
This article first appeared on www.theage.com.au
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