Public Transport Victoria forum hears call for more Maryborough train services
State Government Commits to Developing Rail Infrastructure for Victoria
Horsham residents to be quizzed about future use of dormant rail corridor land
No choppers here: Malcolm Turnbull takes the train to Geelong
Opposition Leader Matthew Guy backs Melbourne Airport rail link
Jail time for train threats to Vline Staff
Premier Daniel Andrews hears efforts to address Central Goldfields disadvantage, push for more Maryborough trains
The Inland Rail Link Melbourne to Brisbane a Similar Case as the RAA's Bendigo - Geelong Rail Link
North-West Rail Alliance urges more council support amid push for return of Mildura passenger rail
Grampians Rail Trail: Shire calls for community to step up and manage facility
Background: Labor Governments and Rail Transport
Readers of this blog know that posts do not set out to be partisan, despite leanings to the left. But the flaws in the Labor side are often glaring while the strengths in the Liberal side are often missed by commentators and rail fans alike.
For readers who have followed the sequence of posts on judging the Cain and Kirner Government’s approach to rail, and that of the Kennett Government that followed, can start to see themes emerge.
These themes cut against the mantras of the rail enthusiast community, who overwhelmingly seem inclined to vote and promote Labor, regardless of how bad for rail they can at times be.
Some of these rail enthusiasts, this blog has observed seem to be wanting is an anti-progressive/anti-Green form of Laborism – one that history has demonstrated doesn’t seem to actually value rail for its contribution to the transport task, or its mitigation of the worst aspects of motor transport. Think Clem Jones or Mick Costa.
It is as if this form of support for Labor from rail enthusiasts claims to want a major shift to rail transport, but without help from the ‘hippies’ who also want this.
If Labor’s own stakeholders and supporters cannot make up their mind why they want rail transport, it is no surprise that such confusion appears when they are in office. It no doubt has soaked into the minds of ministers and their staff alike. Even a robust pro-rail platform will be attacked not by the usual sectional interests, but also whiteanted by the apparatchiks from all directions.
The Labor Party, while in opposition, will want to be seen as addressing all the concerns that can be possibly be addressed using rail transport with their potential voters, such as:
Labor can struggle with these things, as it is torn between its left and right wing impulses when in office.
Liberal governments seem much more straightforward. Commentators such as Judith Brett in Quarterly Essay have suggested over the years that the Liberal Party exists specifically as a foil to the Labor Party, having no real purpose of its own. In government they manage circumstances as they arise, without much of a program from opposition.
Definitely the pattern of the Kennett years fitted this thesis. Kennett was not so much as an ideologue as an opportunist, there to exploit Labor’s bad last 2-3 years in office and remind everyone of it incessantly. But later, when called upon for his own program, took the Treasury’s ideological advice towards privatisation, outsourcing and underinvestment, and for that we are still paying today.
Ballarat Courier photo
The rise of Bracks
The post on Kennett covered a lot of material around the time of his downfall. The crisis of government debt, for which the drum had been beaten heavily over his 8 year reign, was quite visibly finished, yet Kennett was unmoved, particularly as he might have been had he listened to his rural brethren in the National Party and started re-examining the need to spend money.
Kennett also had weakness in such areas as government tendering and secrecy, which the public transport tendering had inevitably fallen into the scope.
It was one thing for a government to ideologically respond to the privatisation push of Treasury types and think tanks, and to respond politically to their enemies in the union movement. But to then hide the contracts from the public, and tender to people whose relationships to government members were too close – pushed much of the public away from the Liberals.
In addition to Labor providing viable contests in the provincial cities of Ballarat, Bendigo and Geelong, where Labor had been in and out over the years, there was beginning to be a contest for seats that Labor had little hope of winning, but were slipping from the National’s easy grasp.
Three of these independent MPs gave Bracks government. Good reading on the rise to prominence of the three independents is here.
National Party MPs are generally more inclined to spruik for passenger rail these days, as Darren Chester (Federal) is here.
Hospitals and ambulances dominated the political news – but rail was not too far behind.
Susan Davies, the most left-leaning of the independents elected at the 1999 election, represented the South Gippsland electorate. In addition to grievances about the Moe (moved to Traralgon and privatised) and Leongatha hospitals, she represented an electorate that had lost its passenger and freight rail services.
Craig Ingram was probably the most right-leaning of the three independents, a National in all but name and from a very conservative area, but also one that was accutely aware of the lack of government services – including the train to Bairnsdale which Kennett stopped. His main beef was lack of water in the Snowy River – which NSW controlled.
For Ingram, the issue was not the Orbost Rail Bridge, but the lack of water under it. Savetheorbostrailbridge photo
Russell Savage, though a former Nat, came across as moderate and was probably the most out-spoken of the independents, representing the far-flung city of Mildura. As well as their hospital having been privatised, this electorate was devastated morally by the loss of their train. As the most outlying district in Victoria, the sensitivity about losing services and being unloved by the government in Melbourne was strongest here.
Bracks found himself on post-election morning in an unusual position. Having won back the ground from Kennett he was within striking distance of government. One Liberal member had died on the day of election – and that seat was won to Labor in the subsequent by-election.
This, plus the three independents, would place Labor in government subject to an agreement being negotiated. Unsurprisingly, reopening the rail services was in that agreement.
It was Cain’s story over again.
The state of rail when Labor took power
It is important to outline the system in late 1999, so as to be clear what issues could be laid at the feet of Bracks and what was the fault of his predecessor. The system had been largely privatised under Kennett thus:
National Express in a very different context – profitable, effective and fast intercity rail in the UK. Evening Standard photo
The Department of Infrastructure had a Director of Public Transport, theoretically the purchaser of the services from these operators on behalf of the public.
The system could therefore hardly be more decentralised, and with operators very narrowly focused on maximising their own profits. And there could be tension between the metropolitan and country operators over track paths, and between the country operators over access to rolling stock.
That said, Labor did not make strong commitments in its 1999 manifesto to abolish privatisation or to renationalise, and given its desire to not be rebranded with the idea of reckless economic management, therefore seemed to be content to let the narrative of ‘private good, public bad’ be written for them by their opponents. They could harass Kennett’s privatised rail system with official enquiries, but would not turn the clock back to full government operation.
In one respect this was a good thing. Going to the electorate to fight an ideological fight for its own sake was not what those disaffected rural voters were seeking. Instead, to simply focus on the outcome of reversing the actual service cuts.
As under Cain and Kennett, the calibre and attitude of Ministers of Transport was crucial during the period. And as under Cain, you could ask whether the best of them were put forward for the role.
The first couple of terms was overseen by Peter Bachelor, a long term operative of the state Labor Party and one of their most well-known ‘fixers’. His early involvement in the Nunawading By-election, at the start of Cain’s term, made his name within the party and outside it. Prior to election in 1999 he conducted a media stunt (which the government claimed was dangerous) of driving over parts of the Citylink project he claimed were ready to use but the government was deliberately holding back from opening officially.
The fortunes of the Regional Fast Rail project, of which much more will be said, were largely the feature of his time most associated with him.
Lynne Kosky, the next occupant of the chair, was ALP royalty and came from the favoured location of ALP royalty, around Williamstown and Altona, an area that Steve Bracks himself, Julia Gillard, and Joan Kirner had all represented.
Let them eat cake!
Like Kirner, she had to her credit been associated with education reform and advancing the status of women in the party.
And she had spent her time in the junior Treasury portfolio of Finance, an important aspect of being in government.
However her time in Transport will be forever branded by her ‘let them eat cake’ attitude to the travelling public, the failure in many respects of the Myki electronic ticketing project (about which more below). The ‘let them eat cake’ claim came from an email her advisers sent the bureaucrats, saying in short not to tell her about passenger complaints.
With her Ministerial colleague Bronwyn Pike, claiming not to know about a scandal in the health portfolio, she and Pike were branded for eternity, as the Ministers “who didn’t know, and didn’t want to know.”
The flaring up of industrial disputation during her term, which is probably not a surprise as (like Roper in the Cain period) she had the double mark against her of being an industrial player within the party but also her personal demeanor may have added fuel to the fire.
Kosky presides over the myki reader falling apart. See Daniel Bowen’s blog.
Under Kosky, as under Cain, public transport started turning from an asset to the Labor Government, into a liability. Significant disasters for her included when the Oaks Day race trains failed.
With her own personal and medical issues looming, ones that ultimately saw her untimely death, she handed over the reigns to Martin Pakula, a no-name party apparatchik again with no particular flair for Transport.
Announcing he resignation as Minister, Kosky would soon be deceased.
Under Pakula, it is apparent the party could see the liability and started throwing everything including the kitchen sink at the portfolio, but of course too late to change course before the party’s loss in 2010.
Bracks himself had jumped, like Cain, using a supercharged version of the classic ‘spending more time with family’ excuse and left the show to John Brumby, the less charismatic figure he himself had replaced. Brumby had been a notable support to the Government as Treasurer, but did not seem up to the job of refreshing the effort prior to being defeated.
Bringing trains back to Victorians
Labor came into government, as it did under Cain, with commitments to reopen rail services. Under the Moniker Bringing trains back to Victorians, Bracks committed to reopen:
Other rail promises made by Labor also featured in Labor’s first term and these will be covered later in this post. For the moment, the country line reopenings are the most interesting because of the bearing they had on Labor’s hold on power through the independents.
(Note that Cobram did not make the list this time. Stony Point was still open and since Cain left office the Echuca line was back on the map. And oddly enough, with the diversion of freight to Adelaide via Derrinallum, that line also saw its first regular passenger trains since the 1930s, albeit with no stops en route.)
Passengers now get to see the Barwon Bridge at Inverleigh regularly, for the first time in many decades. Film Vic photo
The electoral significance of the Ararat commitment was the seat of Ripon – won to Labor for the first time in a while.
Ararat and Bairnsdale may have seemed the most straightforward, and hence why they were delivered, more than 3 years since they were first promised.
Under Cain, the only sections of line that needed significant upgrade prior to restarting services were the Stony Point line beyond Long Island Junction, and the short Strathmerton to Cobram section (which was open, but only for freight).
The key difference for some of these reopenings was that unlike 1982, the lines had deteriorated quite badly since they fell into disuse or minimal use and would require a lot more work than in 1982.
The Bairnsdale line beyond Sale had already come back into use, for log traffic from a siding outside Bairnsdale, and had been worked slowly and occasionally. It was in no state for conventional-speed passenger trains, and needed some work. According to The Age:
The project includes replacing 40,000 sleepers, upgrading 17 level crossings, resurfacing railway platforms and other station works such as new lighting, signage, seating and sound systems.
The trip will take about three hours and 20 minutes after the upgrade is completed. Trains will go faster, up to 115kmh.
The poor state of the Avon Bridge, which had been deteriorating for years and really should have been replaced, was ‘kicked down the road’ as it was made to be serviceable again at slow speeds.
Bairnsdale has nonetheless seen significant work since reopening, as this bridge shows.
The Ararat line had been abandoned, as freight went a different way on a different gauge. There were a couple of movements in the years of abandonment – to place disused rolling stock on the line and retrieve them later.
This line could no longer access Ararat station so there was the need to build an at-grade diamond crossing at the physical junction as well as extra track into the former dock platform, leaving the main track available for the interstate freights.
These were the lucky ones, and both lines reopened in 2004 – admittedly after the election for the next term.
Not for the first time, as under Cain, Bracks found himself unable to deliver on the balance of the reopenings.
In essence, Bracks betrayed two of the three independents by his inaction on rail. It is hard to discern intent in this. Labor governments have always had trouble being in office as a minority supported by independents, even if, as in the case of Savage and Ingram, they gave them votes well to the right of where they would stand to get them normally. As the Herald Sun reported:
OUSTED Mildura MP Russell Savage has blamed Premier Steve Bracks for his loss.
The independent, who was instrumental in bringing Labor to power in 1999, yesterday took aim at the party for proposing a toxic waste dump in his electorate.
The Nationals’ Peter Crisp had won 40 per cent of the primary vote at the close of counting on Saturday.
“It’s not the National party that got rid of me: it’s Steve Bracks and the Labor Party,” Mr Savage said yesterday. “They didn’t bring the train back when they said, and they proposed a toxic waste dump in my area and it looked like we were being treated with contempt by the Labor Party.”
Bracks did not need the independent vote in the subsequent election, where the Liberals ran the unpopular Robert Doyle as Leader, and some within the party were no doubt glad to see the back of the country independents.
With the South Gippsland Railway (volunteer run) the line between Nyora and Leongatha was serviceable for a time. Weeklytimes photo
Looking at it from the view of the lines themselves, the Leongatha line was still feasible to restore in the early 2000s, but there were complications:
Abandoned but not forgotten blog photo. Between Nyora and Loch, 2019
Greg Fitzgerald Photo: Despite the rhetoric of how impossibly expensive it would be to reopen to Leongatha, freights had in fact run beyond Koala siding well into the late 1990s,
The councils have always been after the railway land in Leongatha and Korumburra.
If nothing else, Bracks could have offered a simple day return train using borrowed Z cars and a P class, made it clear that an upgrade to the line might have to wait future funds, but at least be seen to deliver on the promise. In this he failed.
It only then took the loss of Susan Davies’ seat for it to go completely cold on this issue. Eventually, with rebuilding local pressure, Bracks commissioned the inevitable report with the cynical conclusion that it was not wanted. By 2009, when the report came out, Labor had much bigger problems with transport, was not particularly angling for South Gippsland voters, and the line was in a very poor state. It was no longer 1982.
In Mildura the betrayal was more keenly felt. Ironically, because it was never also a priority for the Liberals or particularly for the Nationals, who have had several members since either neutral or even hostile to rail’s return. However the failure of the first Bracks government to act definitely sealed the fate of independents at least for a while.
In one sense we do need to hold the horses, as part of the line did see the return of passenger trains, which this post will come back to later.
Diversion Time: The Vinelander
While the other lines that were closed over the years, from the Hamer years or before, or under Kennett, for most people in those areas they were simply trains.
The exception would clearly be Mildura and the Vinelander. As Victoria’s only internal sleeping car train (one briefly ran to Portland in the 1890s; and the Sydney and Adelaide trains did convey sleeping cars to those destinations) it had a much more legendary status in popular imagination than any other country train.
It was also the only one (in later years) to convey passengers’ cars by Motorail within Victoria. At the time when this ran but there was no Motorail service on the Overland to Adelaide, it was a viable alternative for drivers who then only faced a few hours of driving from Mildura to Adelaide through the SA Riverland, as this blog personally experienced.
Of course the reason for this was the distance from Melbourne to Mildura was the longest remaining passenger journey on the system, and well longer than others, both in kilometres and hours. To this day it remains the only intrastate destination with real air service from Melbourne such is the distance (although air passengers can plausibly reach Portland from Mt Gambier; Mallacoota from Merimbula and use the Albury airport for the cities of Albury and Wodonga).
Unlike larger states having fleets of sleeping cars the Vinelander, by its end, had the one, the VAM, and by the end was using other conventional air-conditioned sitting cars for the balance of the service.
The counterfactual blog post here discussed what if…in 1975 the Victorian Railways had been significantly reorganised to retain lines threatened with closures, reduce the amount of rolling stock in use, and improve frequencies and speeds within the parameters the railways themselves used at the time.
Not from 1975 – but might give a small clue as to how the Vinelander would have looked and felt as it passed Ballarat. Enthusiast special to Wycheproof 2017
This proposal had some interesting idiosyncrasies, including running via the Castlemaine-Maryborough line (which had precedent in real life) as well as that it would run through to Yarram. It would be supported on the run by a DRC running to Donald, but from Ballarat (which also had some precedent in real life).
It is pretty clear to this blog why it was hard to reintroduce the Vinelander once it ceased. The journey length, which hasn’t changed, and as of 2019 is impossibly long taking in Geelong and Ararat as well, would definitely be a very long day, or overnight journey, noting that the track conditions were never good and would still not be very good.
The standard gauge route via Geelong, Ararat and Avoca (then under reconstruction)
And of course it needs to be mentioned this route is on Standard Gauge, which is not an insurmountable issue in itself, but the train’s route could only change with more standard gauge opening, especially the section from Geelong to Maryborough through Ballarat (which would still deprive the service of the fastest way from Ballarat to Melbourne, which is Broad Gauge).
Using the remains of the standard gauge rolling stock fleet to deliver the return is certainly possible. However it is not clear whether the positions of the different advocates for a return to Mildura are reconcilable or can be achieved.
Film Vic photo Mildura
For a start, many advocating for elderly people and people with disabilities, who have a justifiable aversion to buses, have not explained how their demographic will cope with sleeping cars, or endure the sitting cars overnight.
With the shocking roads of the 1970s, this blog recalls how the Vinelander plus the drive from Mildura to Adelaide were infinitely preferable to driving straight through…but the drive has improved considerably and plane fares a lot cheaper.
And speaking of planes, reasonably priced flights can be had from Mildura with some careful attention, and train would only be cheaper if the government made it so, at considerable subsidy. Which begs the question of why not subsidise the flights? This could be for particular demographics or purposes, such as medical attention.
Finally, on the down side, both parties used their time in government to reinforce the service from Melbourne to Swan Hill, with the balance of the journey to Mildura by bus. Reopening the service to Mildura could paradoxically threaten Swan Hill.
While Swan Hill is not the most direct way to Mildura, nor was the legacy route through Ballarat and Donald. All the more in those years the Vinelander also went via North Geelong. Motorists take a shorter route that passes near Bendigo.
For what-if enthusiasts, the question should be framed a different way, a way that, paradoxically, the government through Kosky did actually look at in 2009, before their somewhat inevitable defeat.
ABC: The Victorian Government says it will start a transport study soon that will determine whether passenger rail services will be restored to Mildura.
The city has been without passenger rail since the Vinelander train was axed in 1993.
But Transport Minister Lynne Kosky says the upgrade of the Mildura freight rail line is due to finish in the next few weeks and that will allow a feasibility study on the city’s transport needs.
“Obviously the rail line is part of those discussions, so I want it to be a broad feasibility study, not just about the rail line but really looking at the public transport needs of people in and around Mildura as well,” she said.
And that report, too little and far too late for the government, actually had some ‘out-there’ suggestions.
One is that you could actually build a much faster and more robust service to Mildura by extending the Swan Hill line cross-country, past the Kulwin and Robinvale lines, to Ouyen or thereabouts, and then have the train from there into Mildura.
Swan Hill train at Kerang.
This approach would, much as the bus does, combine the Swan Hill and Mildura trains into one train. It would also deliver a fast transit time along what would be new track from the Swan Hill to Mildura lines. It would do so at the expense of all the small settlements from Woomelang to Dunolly.
Combined with upgrading the Bendigo to Swan Hill section, perhaps with the aim of cutting one hour off that route, it might be possible to achieve a Melbourne to Mildura transit time around 6 hours, enabling the ‘day in town’ timetable to be delivered and negating the need for all-night sitting or sleeping cars.
To build 100km of new line for a loss-making country passenger trains would seem extravagant. But to this blog not ridiculous, compared with all the other extravagant options like upgrading 300km of existing line for the loss-making passenger train, or any other possibility.
And while in dreamland, why not consider: if the 160km/h Velocity was able to hold that speed for most of the journey length, could it not reach Mildura from central Melbourne in around 4 hours? Travelling from Melbourne CBD to Tullamarine, checking in and flying the distance, and waiting for luggage and taxi at the other end, might take you at least 3 hours.
The Signature Dishes: The Inception of the Regional Fast Rail
Coming into Government, it was not just restitution of the sins of Kennett (and shoring up the independents) Bracks had in mind.
He had also made a series of promises to improve the suburban and country rail passenger services still running.
The signature promises were the small amounts committed to four intercity rail lines – Geelong, Ballarat, Bendigo and Traralgon. The amounts were so small – no more than $20m each – that they could have been safely ignored. Perhaps a few licks of paint on the stations, and replacing some sleepers.
Except that he had hoped the private sector (who?) would get on board and fund the rest of what would otherwise be much grander upgrades.
Ballarat Courier: Mr Bracks … said that rejuvenating the regional rail network was his proudest achievement as premier – and that he first went public with the plans at Ballarat’s Civic Hall in 1999 as he launched his premiership campaign.
Duplication of the new deviation to Ballarat has eventually become necessary.
The projects gained the name Regional Fast Rail. They did not reach full gestation until Bracks, in office, had commissioned the Department of Infrastructure and the inevitable consultants to examine what would really need to be done to reach a set of benchmark transit times.
As the Age wrote in 2006:
The problem is the latest glitch for a rail project that has been dogged by mistake and misfortune. Originally mooted as a public-private partnership, the fast rail links were a key 1999 election promise for incoming Premier Steve Bracks and were supposed to cost the Government $80 million.
But after private backing could not be found and following a string of cost blow-outs, including the need for an improved safety system, the project cost is now $750 million — a figure that does not include the bill for the Bombardier trains.
Blame for claiming an $80m initiative with some unspecified private money would transform country rail could be laid at the feet of Labor. However, everything after that point could be reasonably assigned to the bureaucrats in the Department, of whom the Auditor General was particularly criticial:
DoI’s advice to government in September 2000 recommending approval and funding of the rail infrastructure upgrade was incomplete and contributed to some of the delays in timing and cost overruns that emerged during construction. The cost‐benefit analysis included in the project feasibility studies report overestimated the benefits and underestimated the costs of the upgrade…
In December 2004, DoI estimated the cost of delivering the rail infrastructure upgrade to be $750.5 million, some $194.5 million greater than the original estimate of $556 million (actual expenditure to April 2006 was $696.3 million). The costs for other components necessary to deliver fast rail services (not forming part of the above estimates) included: • $46.6 million to upgrade the 29 slower, 2‐car trains ordered under the 1999 V/Line Passenger franchise agreement • $33 million to extend the new train safety system on the fast rail corridors • the additional $16.1 million cost of the fibre optic cable used for fast rail signal communications (this is an estimate of the share of the total cost of $21.5 million) • the additional $72.5 million over 7 years that V/Line Passenger would need to operate fast rail services
Nothing on this list should look particularly unexpected to a professional bureaucracy, but this one failed to spot these things.
For all the hype, the Geelong improvements were minor, essentially a stretch of line from Werribee to near Corio would be resleepered and rerailed – where this was needed, and new signaling installed. This would deliver 160km/h services on both tracks. It would cut transit times by a fair amount, but not address the problems of congestion through Yarraville, nor repair the poor quality track and stations from Corio into Geelong.
The Geelong line upgrade was fairly conventional. Film Vic
On the Traralgon line, it was even less impressive. Only one track would be upgraded with concrete sleepers and heavy rail, though both would be resignalled. This resignalling would allow the track directions to be reversed according to the time of day, and achieve 160km/h from outside Pakenham to Traralgon with a few patches where it would not be, around Drouin and Warragul.
This really wasn’t much of a solution. It would lift the maximum speed of some trains for a distance and cut the transit times for those trains. However the problems on this line were structural: slow, congested and very long transit from Pakenham into Melbourne; the Bunyip-Longwarry section which remained single as also did Moe station and beyond.
On the Bendigo line, to everyone’s horror, one line was to be upgraded with concrete sleepers and heavy rail from Sydenham to Kyneton, though again both would be resignalled to allow peak reversing.
From Kyneton to Bendigo, one of the two tracks would be removed, the remaining one upgraded, and only a couple of passing tracks left. Originally the passing track was to be very short, in the event, some longer stretches retained around Taradale, Castlemaine and south of Bendigo.
The reasons they gave for the singling were a bit spurious: some of the heritage bridges, and the tunnels, would be out of gauge for a 160km/h train as the kinematic envelope had to include extra room for the swaying of the train at this speed.
Of course it failed to mention there were some of these bridges south of Kyneton, where the double track was to stay, nor a vast array of alternative options such as gauntlet track; using signalling as a way of protecting the bridges from two trains at speed in the area; or even just singling the short sections through these bridges and tunnels. It looked more like the government just didn’t want to spend the money.
Historically this hadn’t mattered as much, for example, in the 1970s there was rarely more than 5 trains a day beyond Kyneton. Even if the frequency was at most hourly it would be fine. But today in 2019, the limits of this single track arrangement are being challenged.
Diversion Time: The deviations
Possibly the most exciting element of the project, even more than the new highest speed of 160km/h to be set by the Velocities, was the inclusion of deviations, including a major one between Dunnstown and Millbrook, on the outskirts of Ballarat.
Other states, thinking specifically of Queensland and to some extent NSW, had had deviations planned or built, and four major ones in Queensland in the late 1980s demonstrated the benefits.
In Victoria the rail line to Yallourn was newly built in the 1950s to avoid a steep section of the Gippsland line (but only lasted about 30 years). The standard gauge line from Melbourne to Wodonga was built in 1962, but mostly parallel to the broad gauge and to very conservative standards. The line around Lake Hume had been moved to allow the lake to rise. The opportunity to actually straighten out curved or steep track had really not occurred in many decades.
The Geelong line really did not need any, while Bendigo and Traralgon missed out. But to achieve the considerably faster time to Ballarat, the distance around Bungaree would need to be shortened, and the environs of Bacchus Marsh and Ballan fixed.
Bungaree was not actually that slow, and as at the time of writing the Bungaree section is still open and hosting trains at up to 130km/h. But providing a direct cut-off of this section would take 10 minutes off the transit time.
Marcus Wong photo
As the first piece of newly-built country line in years, it also gave enthusiasts a chance to see the state-of-the-art in country rail construction here in Victoria.
Commentary on it gave much mirth. A local MP, frustrated that her campaign to stop the line was failing, tried the excuse that the trains would be blown off the bridge in high winds. Despite that no such event had occurred on higher or windier bridges over the years, and that there was no link between train speed and wind.
The locals made a fair bit of noise, claiming that it was just not needed. In a world, now years gone, where Labor were not seen as firm in government and some Liberal voters seeing them as imposters, there was a fair bit of opposition to the projects because they were Labor projects. In the end they did go ahead. In the Ballarat case, a roaring success.
Marcus Wong photo
Regional Fast Rail: Delivery
By the time the services were delivered, we were coming into a third term of Bracks. Given the scale of the works, really the first major works on the country network in decades, it was not surprising it was not complete within one term. However, this blog is struck by how long they took when compared with much much larger initiatives elsewhere.
Most lines had very significant bus substitution periods, including the longest between Kyneton and Bendigo, where the second track was removed.
The eventual product, nonetheless, was truly transformative of the way country rail was perceived and used. Readers today who see a network dominated by the Velocity cars may forget that when the RFR lines opened there were far fewer of them, and it was left to these original deliveries of Velocities to recast the way the service was seen.
The Bracks Government became notorious for its nested government program names. It appeared that when the PR people tired of one name, they started another.
LINKING VICTORIA The Linking Victoria program was launched in 1999 to deliver new transport infrastructure projects and upgrade Victoria’s ports, roads, and rail network.
The program formed a strong foundation for Meeting Our Transport Challenges, an action blueprint for shaping Victoria’s transport system into the future released in May 2006.
The Linking Victoria projects were designed to facilitate new jobs and investment across Victoria, as well as encourage more people to use public transport. Many of the projects were delivered in partnership with the private sector. The following projects are ongoing, in delivery, or completed.
Public transport projects
Knowing whether “Linking Victoria” or “Bringing Trains back to Victorians” or “Regional Fast Rail” was the operative program name for some initiative would become a game for public servants – to stretch each initiative as far as possible to make the announceable funds as grand as possible, while not appearing to double count the funds.
Southern Cross Station nee Spencer Street
Another signature project of the period, though not really one flagged from opposition, was the rebuild of Spencer Street into Southern Cross Station. Bracks, in infinite wisdom, tried to rename the Ballarat rail service the “Eureka” line, an initiative that thankfully didn’t stick. But part of this would be renaming Spencer St to Southern Cross, a station name already in use on the line from Perth to Kalgoorlie.
Spencer Street at this time was an absolute shambles. The country train building facing the street, was an impressive modernist structure built in the early 1960s for the north east line standard gauge project, and included by then a giant mural of transport whose future became controversial (see Daniel Bowen on this).
However this building was pretty irrelevant to rail transport by the end of its life, due to less emphasis being placed on the long distance runs and more need for facilities geared to the interurban and suburban services. These were pretty well non-existent and confined to an underground passage that was being rapidly outgrown as the number of suburban and interurban passengers grew, with the redevelopment of Docklands and the western end of the Hoddle Grid.
The project was well needed, though whether what we got was the best we could do can be debated. The station has an impressive waved roof, but underneath everything appears to be the cheapest materials – bitumen surfaces, little to protect from wind that still blows through. Though on balance still an infinite improvement over before.
An earlier iteration of this blog compared the crummy, mediocre project we got with the rebuild of Dresden Station, at the same time and for an equivalent budget. Of course Dresden was in much worse condition, damaged by Allied bombing and not repaired by the Soviet-backed government of the east. The quality of the finish here, and passenger amenity, is shown clearly below.
Dresden from bahnbilder website
The rebuilding of Southern Cross, necessary as it was, made it one large construction project for most the second half of Bracks’ reign. Though the public were generous in understanding the need for construction, the frustrations would have added to the chaos of the Kosky period, the bad news of Myki and the rest.
Kennett’s Rail Overhang
Just as Kennett inherited the Sprinter cars and the 4D set when he arrived in office, some of what Bracks took over became early issues for his government.
The first was the failing privatisation of the suburban and country services. While the West Coast Rail and Hoy’s situation was not going satisfactorily, the system wide privatisations to British, French and American companies was not. National Express, holder of one suburban franchise (M>Train) and the Vline franchise (and a tram segment) found the returns did not match their expectations and unilaterally quit.
This presented Bracks and Bachelor with an ideological challenge. Their stakeholders, including unions and transport activists, expected the service to be re-nationalised and for the National Express company to forfeit any remaining investment they had in the service.
The Liberals, new into opposition and without much ammunition (given privatisation was their policy) made it difficult to come up with any response but to say Labor should also be ‘tough’ on the franchise holder – suspecting they probably would not be.
Enter the world of Yes Minister or Utopia. No matter what was in the ALP platform or what their constituencies told them, the executive government of course wanted the whole thing to go away and buckled to the idea, no doubt from within the bureaucracy, to get the French franchisee to take over the whole suburban system (and same with the trams). Only Vline returned to the government fold. The Minister(s) would not want direct accountability for the service, and having the private company as their ‘buffer’ suited them.
Bachelor, again, got into some strife by commissioning Ernst and Young to report on the best arrangements, and then having commissioned the report tried to bury it. As Jim Hacker found in Yes Minister, promising open government after years of scandal around Kennett’s secrecy was harder than it looked.
The freight system was also fraught. The American operator had bought the rights in 1999 and while the private nature of the system stayed, the original operator disputed many aspects of their contracts with the new Labor government. Some of these disputes were structural, as this paper notes.
There have also been indications of dissatisfaction from Freight Australia. The Labor government elected shortly after privatisation was completed has not been happy with what it inherited.
Unlike the situation with country passengers, the operator did not walk away, but sold itself to a second American operator, and eventually to the owner of the national system.
They did leave a few of the remaining branch lines, such as to Dookie and between Toolamba and Echuca, in an even worse state of near abandonment. Definitely the amount of traffic on the freight system fell to even lower levels, with the loss of traffics like logs, sand and so on, which rail should have had some chance of retaining.
Privatisation left a second time-bomb for Labor, and that was the acquisition of stock. Readers will recall that after John Cain bought the last of the Comeng suburban stock in the mid 1980s, and Joan Kirner acquired the single 4D set and the Sprinters, it was a lean decade for acquisitions.
The Taits and Harris cars were gone from the suburban network but the Hitachis were still at large. Kennett had promised replacements but was not in government to see them. But by splitting the network into two suburban operators, he created the situation where each one wished to order their own stock, and the franchise agreements allowed for this.
All the very worst of what one might imagine would happen came to pass:
The Siemens later went on to further notoriety, with their brakes failing to stop them in time in rare circumstances. Many were withdrawn from service for a period, which added to the woes of the Bracks government at a time when public transport was in the news for other reasons.
Kennett left a third time-bomb, as if one was needed, and that was the ticketing system. Ticketing had been the bane of Hamer (with banks of ticket machines abandoned at Museum/Melbourne Central Station which Hamer had ordered but could no longer use); Cain, who through his Minister Kennan inflicted the poorly thought out ‘scratch ticket’ on the public. Cain and Kirner had also earned scorn for some high-profile fare increases in their time.
When Kennett’s turn came, the magnetic stripe tickets were unreliable and their machines not working. The Metcard of ERG suffered from significant failures due to foreseeable vandalism, public dissatisfaction, clumsy policing of the tickets and poor delivery. Much of the impact of this occurred under Bracks.
Though at least with this, Bracks was soon ready to come up with his own ticketing failure, about which more below.
This should not be a complex or expensive endeavour. The Perth system, obviously a bit smaller but not radically so, received a new electronic ticketing system around the same time as the events here, at a total cost of $35 million. The product is basic but works.
Melbourne had been using the Metcard magentic stripe technology with self-serve selling machines and validators since the Kennett period, when their introduction caused Kennett so much grief that he had mused it might have been better to have a gold coin in an old-fashioned turnstile as the payment system.
But the Metcard/ERG contract was coming up and Melbourne had ‘fallen behind’ the technology of the rest of the world. It wasn’t just a matter of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’, but (to the personal knowledge of this blog) the parts required to keep a network of magnetic stripe ticket readers were getting hard to find. Melbourne had been ‘locked in’ because of the signing contracts specifying how these things would work (rather than, say, specifying the main contractor should keep the technology up-to-date themselves as it progresses).
The summary of a long story is that a contractor was selected (Kamco) about whom serious questions were asked at the time, and the chief public servant tasked with the contract owned shares in this otherwise obscure company, and was forced to resign. The technology itself was unimpressive and not up to international standards. It ran very, very late and many times over budget, according to some estimates, from $300 million to $2 billion.
Kosky, as mentioned before, made a fool of herself on television launching the system, when a unit fell apart. The state government had (and this is no joke) dozens of PR people working on myki alone. And of course if you were wanting a government minister to front the whole operation, Kosky would be the last person you would pick. She really looked like the poison in the chalice tasted bitter.
Of course excuses were made: the zonal ticket system made it expensive. A lie, but a silly one as the question never seemed to be asked why the zonal system should then be retained, if it was so expensive. But of course that is a furphy, it was nothing to do with the zonal system, but contractor inexperience, political and bureaucratic uselessness.
Why ERG/Vix did not win, as they had a network of working ticket machines that only needed the proximity card detector equipment installed on it, will never be known.
Other rail projects
In Bracks’ time one of the eternally promised extensions of the suburban rail network to Craigieburn and Sydenham (also called Watergardens) occurred. While Sunbury (beyond Sydenham) was also committed to, this did not actually open until after the Bracks/Brumby government was defeated.
Initially the Craigieburn extension felt ‘cheap’ and had less capacity for trains than the section from Broadmeadows to the city. That said, the lower capacity was probably sufficient for opening day (as at Cranbourne) and would be augmented in later years. The Watergardens extension seemed more substantial, a new station next to a shopping centre that could terminate all the trains that the previous terminus at St Albans was able to manage.
Alex1991 photo on wikipedia. The previous platform 1 at St Albans that only hosted country trains, until the line was extended further west to Sydenham.
Another win for Bracks was the extension of the Geelong service beyond South Geelong (its terminus of many decades) to the area of Grovedale, though to a station eventually known as Marshall. This took advantage of the larger number of self-propelled trains such as the Velocity. It also set a precedent for considering the suburbs of the provincial cities for new or rebuilt railways stations, as as since been seen at Wendouree, Kangaroo Flat, Epsom and so on.
Marshall filmvic photo
Somewhat separate from Bracks’ government but during this time, the Federal Government under Kevin Rudd committed to large sums of money, some under the rubric of Nation Building, and some to alleviate the global financial crisis, to converting the North East main line and Oaklands branch to Standard Gauge, including a bypass of Wodonga.
Like so much else, the job was done poorly, with a discredited method of sleeper replacement used to save money, which exacerbated the problems with the road base and resulted in large numbers of mud holes, poor ride quality and speed restrictions.
This has required as much again as was originally spent to fix, and still not fixed to anyone’s satisfaction, with passenger trains to this day delayed or cancelled frequently.
The City of Wodonga had been glad to see the end of the rail line through the city, and a nice station was built on the bypass.
The Albury train now runs on standard gauge, when it runs at all
An unfortunate characteristic of the time of Bracks and Brumby, was the re-emergence of the broken promise.
Of course, politicians have been braking promises since time immemorial. But welcome aspect of the later Cain, Kirner and Kennett periods was that the state government, aware of the financial state of government, tended to ease up on making promises about rail.
And given that these governments had used their early terms to deliver on some of their promises, the whole topic of the credibility of government election commitments was less of an issue overall.
This blog will distinguish those broken election commitments already discussed, such as the failure to reopen Mildura, Leongatha and Cobram, from the balance of what happened in Bracks and Brumby governments.
Promises made from opposition do not usually have the benefit of departmental advice or paid-for external advice, and may also not reflect the state of contractual arrangements (especially with Kennett’s secrecy). They also tend to be promises made to specific stakeholder groups such as unions but not yet exposed to the sunlight of reporting in the general media. Promises made in government, and after some years in government, need to be judged at a higher standard.
Some of the regulars in government were the Melbourne Airport rail; fast trains to Ringwood; and fixing up Flinders St Station.
In the 1970s and 1980s it seemed the biggest threat to a government election commitments in the rail portfolio, would be the barrelling inflation and industrial problems. The City Loop, to which this blog will inevitably return, took a decade or more of rail capital funding away from other worthy projects, such was the inflation and industrial problems it faced.
The City Loop that took a generation’s funding for rail capital
With government indebtedness as an issue out of the way by the late 1990s, and with financial rectitude now a virtue, it seemed much more likely that government election commitments, made mid term or later, would be as sensibly conservative as they had previously been.
However, commitments started appearing mid- or end-term that were just as spurious and just as empty as some of the ones made from opposition. These included:
It is not just spurious promises to watch out for. Items such as the South Morang and Mernda rail extensions were alternately promoted and poo-pooed by Labor, despite ulitmately they did build it under Andrews.
And some, like the station ultimately built at Marshall, but originally referred to as Grovedale, kicked around far longer than they needed to.
Evaluating the Bracks and Brumby Government
As this post noted in opening, Labor governments that come in with ambitious agendas are rarely rewarded with a completed program and public acclaim. Usually, this blog suspects, this is down to their lack of preparation in opposition. This includes not having access to the right advice, and having priorities often at cross-purposes. As with Cain, it is not really enough to say the money wasn’t there like expected (Hawke’s excuse Federally) because there have not been that many surprises in the Treasury.
Instead, they seem to have the blind spot of not seeing how poor the condition of the asset is, how bound up its current operations are in institutional arrangements, including both the private ownership of the operators but also the role of their own unions, who may not be so committed to the ‘customer experience’ as the parliamentarians themselves might wish.
At best, it can be said at least Bracks himself saw the benefits of a strong transport, especially rail, portfolio. But his ministers have often been of the wrong sort – the ones sent in to provide industrial peace but at the cost of conveying an unwillingness to engage with the travelling public, and instead regard all complaints as coming from ‘trots’ ie vaguely defined activists to their Left.
These activists, of course, can also fall foul of the trap of thinking individual Labor members have a personal or political commitment to public transport – recalling how Crabb, Roper and to some extent Spyker were the same. A minister who himself or herself has never boarded a train in many years, or at all, except for the inevitable media stunts, is hardly going to be a good advocate and the broad Left need to be on the lookout for this.
Experience in other states, with NSW and WA providing excellent examples of this, is that a Minister who starts from seeing the system from the view of the travelling public, and can sell their party’s vision from that point, is better than sending the ‘political operative’ to do the retail work in such a ‘retail’ portfolio.
The WA Labor Party have both branded themselves with rail, and generally delivered on their promises, including their signature Metronet project.
By the time of the ‘fag end’ of the government, and most governments reach this point, the desperation to claw the bureaucracy to make a ‘grand plan’ for them only after spending years fighting activists over the need for just such a thing, means that all is left in public memory is the ‘fluff’ – the inevitable airport rail link promises, high speed rail and so on, as a substitute for a record of competent delivery.
People have the right to be more judgemental of Labor than Liberal about this, as it is the natural territory of the former. Labor is the party that ought to be able to get the provision of public services right.
At the end of all the kerfuffle about Regional Fast Rail, Victorians were left with a minor track and signal upgrade plus some new faster rolling stock, which, for the first time, made the provincial city service fit for purpose, which in turn resulted in massive patronage increases. Hardly ‘fast rail’ but definitely what was required.
It reminds this blog of the Churchill-ism about the Americans getting it right after every other alternative was tried – Labor sometimes gets it right after trying every other way to go about it wrongly.
Marcus Wong – Kyneton
Lessons from the Cain era picked up by Bracks
The Cain era seems a different world from today, a greater contrast than simply between the world of Bracks and today. Bracks correctly spotted that the charge of financial irresponsibility would be levelled at the ALP and did everything to ensure it didn’t stick, particularly in the risky portfolio of transport. This ran the risk of being unstuck with both Regional Fast Rail and with Myki, but clearly there was enough money around the system to disguise this.
Bracks also saw that the New Deal, impressive as it was at the time, was really just an effort to bring the country passenger rail network up to 1950s standards – but it needed to move past that. To provide an acceptable commuter and long distance railway, but also, for the first time in decades, an intercity railway.
To this blog’s recollection, the first time that the cities of Ballarat, Bendigo and Geelong were accorded the dignity they deserved. The project that delivered this was compromised by cheapness and inadequacy, but perhaps Bracks was lucky – the public didn’t really see this.
Lessons from the Bracks era picked up by Andrews
No doubt with the passage of time and after he is gone, people will also want to evaluate the Andrews Government and compare it with Bracks.
Without going to the ins and outs, some clear distinctions stand – lessons that might have benefited Bracks had he known them:
Delivery has been Andrews’ signature theme.
None of this was able to save Bracks and Brumby from defeat in 2010, and the non-entities of Baillieu and Napthine appeared from nowhere, for a nothing agenda which will be the subject of a future post.
This article first appeared on undertheclocksblog.wordpress.com
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