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As I write today the Bendigo > Echuca line is closed due to an a reported problem with one level crossing. Apparantly the line is to be closed indefinitely while axle counters are installed. This line was upgraded in 2015 (when the line was closed for months). One has to ask the obvious question, why weren't these things done properly in the first place? LX problems have been ongoing on the Echuca line but no-one thought to do anything about it? Apparently the issue is that a set of boom gates at a level crossing activated in 15 seconds instead of the required 25. VLine's solution? They cancelled trains for days until they decided to close the whole line. The spin doctors were out and about early. "VLine will never compromise safety". How many times have we heard that mantra in the last few years?
This problem doesn't affect too many people, the Echuca line is not a busy one, but the handling of it by VLine speaks volumes about the culture that has developed in the organisation.
Elsewhere on the Bendigo line we have endured more than a year of utter chaos. Starting with the Wheel wear problems of 2016 the service has gone downhill fast. Passengers on the Bendigo line endured a nightmare period ot many months of disruptions during the RRL works, buoyed by the promise of a faster, better and more reliable service. However the last year and a half have been unbearable. Trains late / cancelled due to the afore-mentioned wheel wear issues (which lead to months of replacement busses due to a lack of basic maintainance planning by Vline), WOLO heat speed restrictions, the ubiquitous "track fault", signal faults, level crossing faults, trees falling onto the line, tresspassers on the line etc etc etc. It feels like the line is closed more often than it is open.
Many people including myself made significant lifestyle choices to up and move to regional areas based on the brave new world offered by the RFR and RRL. Much of this was Government and Vline driven spin telling us all how great the service was. Now we cannot rely on these much vaunted services to get us where we need to go and people are making new decisions - to move back to the big smoke to at least be able to get to work on time. Since I first moved to Maldon around 4 years ago I have seen first hand neighbors moving back to Melbourne due to problems with the trains. My next door neighbor in Maldon was told by her boss that unless she found a reliable way to get to work they would have to let her go. So they moved to Pakenham!
I have recently moved from Maldon to Castlemaine, not a big move but a decision driven in no small part by the trains not being reliable enough to meet the connecting buses provided by Mt Alexander Transit. I cannot drive and so Public Transport is pretty much it for me at the moment. Trains which are supposed to connect with buses are quite often 10 or 15 minutes late and that's it, the bus has gone and I have to call a taxi, $40 for the 18km trip to Maldon. Does VLine re-emburse me for that? No.
Each time one of these issues arises Vline's response is the same. No effort is made to run trains while the problems are sorted as would have happenned in times gone by - trains are stopped and replaced by buses (if we are lucky) and the old mantra is rolled out - "VLine will never compromise safety".You can't just keep cancelling services ad nauseam under the guise of safety. People need to get to work, to doctors appointments, meetings, school, university etc. No one is accountable for this mess, the Government refers you to Vline and Vline just say "we will never compromise safety". It is a pathetic joke, the poor customer is left wondering how much more we have to endure. I have spoken to commuters who travel to Melbourne 4 or 5 times a week and they say that at the moment they get on a train expecting something to go wrong. The man I sat next to on the way from SC to Castlemaine on last Tuesday's 17.30 Down Bendigo said "I hope it's better than last night, I got home more than an hour late". And this on a so called Express service.
I have no idea what the fix is but I doubt that anyone in Vline or the government is even working on one. They simply don't care. I think they got caught out by the growth in passenger numbers after the RFR project and are "load shedding" passengers to try and make the system more manageable.
Annecdotally passenger numbers have dropped on the services that I use. The 5.31 Southern Cross to Bendigo service was standing room only last year, now there are vacant seats even after Footscray. I know people who have stopped using the train and now drive from Maldon / Castlemaine to Melbourne for work, theatre etc. This means more cars on the freeway, more traffic and more congestion both on the Calder and in Melbourne.
Something needs to be done about VLine. I think their culture is so badly broken following the wheel wear issues that it cannot be repaired. It is time to take the responsibility for running the network from them and give it to someone else, be it PTV, Metro or a new alternative before the system completely collapses.
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