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Long-awaited cash for the embattled North East rail line could be committed by the federal government as soon as next month.
New Corp has reported an upgrade to the line will form part of a Victorian infrastructure package worth more than $1 billion, coming out of money from the Port of Melbourne sale.
It would be connected to a train link to Melbourne Airport.
The news comes just four days after federal Transport Minister Darren Chester visited the North East to hear about the issues from passengers, community groups and councils.
Indi MP Cathy McGowan said she was “jumping out of my skin with excitement” at the news of funding.
“If it’s true – because it is budget speculation – regardless, I’m optimistic that we’ll have the money we need … I think clearly discussions have taken place,” she said.
“It’s going to be the game-changer that we need, not only to fix up the train but to get a premium service to allow Albury-Wodonga, Wangaratta, Benalla and North East Victoria to grow.”
Ms McGowan said the $1b figure sounded about the right amount to fund Victoria’s rail upgrade, but had reached out to Mr Chester’s office for an official briefing.
The next step was ensuring the upgrades would actually solve the track’s faults.
“Now the call is (for the Victorian government) to work quickly on the rolling stock,” Ms McGowan said.
The Andrews government welcomed Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's new interest in building a rail link to Melbourne Airport, but played down the project's urgency, arguing it would not be needed for another 15 to 30 years.
Victoria's Public Transport Minister Jacinta Allan said Melbourne's rail network could not support an airport rail line until the Melbourne Metro tunnel was completed in 2026.
"We welcome the Commonwealth's interest in the airport rail link and look forward to working with them to advance a business case on this project, which can't be built until the completion of the Metro Tunnel," she said.
"We also welcome their interest in regional rail, after months of working to convince the Turnbull government that investing in regional rail and public transport was worthwhile.
“We now hope to work with them to get even more shovels in the ground in Victoria's regions."
Ms McGowan said those issues did not stop a quicker upgrade of the North East line.
“We could get ours started straight away, there’s nothing holding us back,” she said.
“It would be nice to have some preliminary money there (in the 2017-18 Victorian budget), we don’t want to wait five years.”
Ms Allan said Victoria was owed $1.45b from the Port of Melbourne sale through the asset recycling scheme.
“It’s been sitting in Malcolm Turnbull’s bank account in Canberra for far too long - we want to see that money unlocked and put to work on Victorian infrastructure projects that create Victorian jobs right now and that’s the tenure of discussions I’ve had with the federal transport minister,” she said.
“It’s quite understandable that councils and communities across rural and regional Victoria have a great desire to see an improvement in their public transport services and we’re really committed to work with them to achieve that.”
Speaking on 3AW on Friday, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull would not confirm funding in the 2017-18 budget, but commended Mr Chester for talking with the Victorian government on the train issues.
“Last week he was out on the North East line, he’s always talking about the benefits of better rail service to cities and to regions,” he said.
“I’m a big supporter of rail and it’s very important to have more rail, particularly in our big cities as they become more densely settled.
“We’re talking to colleagues about our infrastructure priorities, but the budget’s only a month away so I don’t want to be drawn on any specific projects.”
Border Rail Action Group chairman Bill Traill was unhappy with only getting 15 to 20 minutes to meet with Mr Chester in Wodonga on Monday.
He said he hoped the minister would acknowledge comments made by Department of Infrastructure secretary Mike Mrdak during Senate estimates in February acknowledging it could take it “considerably upwards” of the $134 million already spent on the ballast rehabilitation program over recent years to fix the North East line.
“He didn’t answer it, but he didn’t deny it and I think that’s the most we could hope for,” Mr Traill said.
But he welcomed the indication of funding from the federal government, saying a submission to the department would provide Mr Chester with advice on how to use the money.
“The solution is capital funding to do the fundamental work that is required to eliminate the potholes, rather than just rely on the ARTC mantra … ‘regular maintenance’ is clearly failing,” he said.
“There are very compelling reasons for us to have priority.”
This article first appeared on www.bordermail.com.au
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