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WEST Coast Railway has become the latest private operator to bail out of the public transport system.
The Geelong-based company yesterday announced it would hand over the Melbourne to Warrnambool rail service to V/Line when its contract expires at the end of August.
V/Line has been operating rail and bus services on the Warrnambool line since West Coast's 10 ageing locomotives were withdrawn from service last month for safety reasons.
West Coast director Don Gibson said yesterday the fact that seven of his company's 10 locomotives needed repairs had contributed to the decision to withdraw.
The withdrawal of West Coast follows the shock withdrawal of another private operator, the UK-owned National Express, in late 2002.
National Express was the operator of V/Line passenger services, which reverted to State Government control.
At the time, Transport Minister Peter Batchelor said the Government would continue to run V/Line services until the implementation of the Regional Fast Rail Project.
West Coast Railway has been running trains on the Warrnambool line since 1994, when the company was formed by Mr Gibson and fellow rail enthusiast the late Gary McDonald.
Mr Gibson said the Warrnambool passenger line had been earmarked for closure by the Kennett government, and his company had saved the line.
He said yesterday was a sad day for his company, but much had been achieved.
``We were quite proud of the fact that we could run it for all those years,'' Mr Gibson said.
The State Government has reversed the trend of closing passenger lines, with four former lines, including the Mildura line which passes through Geelong, earmarked for re-opening.
Mr Gibson said it was not only his firm's locomotives that were caught up with the safety problem, with a total of 150 Clyde Engineering-built locos having to undergo tests.
At present, V/Line is operating one rail service a day each way on the Warrnambool line, with buses used on the other four services during the week.
Mr Gibson said he expected a full train service to return to the line in July.
V/ Line managing director Andrew Neal said yesterday that both operators would be working to ensure a smooth transition of services.
``V/Line is committed to providing the three daily services to and from Melbourne during the week, giving certainty to users,'' Mr Neal said.
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