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URGENT upgrades to the public transport network are running alarmingly late, putting commuters at risk and fuelling doubts about the Brumby Government's ability to deliver major projects under the $38 billion Victorian Transport Plan.
Project delivery has fallen to its lowest level this decade - at a time when demands on the public transport network have never been greater, the Transport Department's annual report shows.
One-third of all projects are behind schedule despite record investment earmarked for the system and promises by Government to bring about once-in-a generation upgrades.
The department would not say when the delivery rate was last so poor, but past annual reports indicate not since at least the 1990s. Public transport experts say the main problem is the department's staff, and a failure to grasp the scope of the problems.
''The department lacks the skills base and organisational culture to deliver projects. It's a department full of lawyers, accountants and PR advisers … a department better at diverting attention from the real problems than fixing them,'' said RMIT public transport advocate Paul Mees.
One of the most concerning delays is the installation of a $152 million suburban train radio system, which is to replace the current flawed system that has a number of ''dead spots''.
Without the new radio system, train drivers will still face periods when they are out of contact with the network's control room.
The system's inadequacies were blamed earlier this year when a 14-year-old girl was hit by a train at Narre Warren station because the driver could not be warned by radio.
But the alarm was first raised in 2004 when the coroner called for an urgent overhaul of the system after a teenager died when a driver could not be contacted.
''The system must be capable of establishing immediate contact with a train in motion to alert a driver of impending danger,'' coroner Phil Byrne said five years ago.
''In this technological age, surely nothing less is acceptable.''
Documents obtained under freedom of information show that the radio project is set to be delivered 18 months late, in 2012.
The delay in upgrading the metropolitan rail control centre, Metrol, which runs on technology from the early 1980s, also poses a serious public safety risk. At present it can only visually monitor trains on 10 per cent of the network.
The Australian Transport Safety Bureau slammed the system's deficiencies in 2003 after two trains collided at then Spencer Street Station.
But the Metrol upgrade is not classified by the department as running behind schedule despite being originally due in 2001, because the Government tore up the original contract.
Another safety concern is the glaring failure of entities including Connex, V/Line and VicRoads to fix thousands of breaches of the Australian standard at level crossings throughout Victoria, with the State Opposition estimating the upgrades will not be complete until 2098 at the current rate.
Other late Transport Department projects include scheduled maintenance work on the V/Line network and the completion of the North Melbourne station upgrade. The report does not list the myki ticket project, which is $350 million over budget and at least three years late, as being delayed.
Daniel Bowen, president of the Public Transport Users Association, said record patronage growth - the number of annual trips is up by 36 per cent to more than 500 million last financial year - had made delivering projects on time more important than ever.
Work is due to begin next year on the first major project of the Victorian Transport Plan, a $4.3 billion rail link from Werribee to Southern Cross Station.
But Opposition transport spokesman Terry Mulder said the latest figures did not bode well for the timely delivery of any projects promised in the plan.
''The latest delayed projects are only designed at enhancing the existing transport network,'' he said. ''If the department can't get that right, what hope would they have to deliver major projects like the rail link, the extension to South Morang and the rail tunnel [from Footscray to the city]?''
Dr Mees said the delays were symptomatic of a department that had failed to adequately plan for the boom in patronage. ''It shows … they're not capable of delivering projects to time frames they set themselves,'' he said.
A department spokesman said project schedules could change based on community and stakeholder consultation, or because of the inclusion of community amenities such as paths and vegetation.
He would not give reasons for each of the delays or say why a third of all projects were late.
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