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Friday was the 10-year anniversary of the government reopening the Maryborough line to passenger trains - so now's as good a time as any to take a look at the history of the line, how it works today, and what should happen for the future.
The history of the line
The first line to reach Maryborough was the now-defunct line from Castlemaine, which arrived in July 1874 - the same day the current line from Ballarat reached Creswick. This line was extended to Clunes by November of that year, then finally connected to Maryborough in February 1875. By that time the tracks had already been extended north of Maryborough, reaching Dunolly in October 1874 - ultimately this line would extend to Mildura in 1903 and Yelta in 1925, playing host to the Vinelander till 1993 when passenger services were withdrawn. Furthering Maryborough's status as a hub, a short branch line to Avoca was opened in 1876, which was extended to Ararat in 1890.
The entrance to the ticket hall at Maryborough Station
The current grand station building was completed in 1890. It is a magnificent station building, comparable to Ballarat's station, and much nicer than Spencer Street Station in Melbourne was at the time. This fact led to a lot of conjecture as to why such a small town got such a grand station - rumours abound that it was a bureaucratic mixup, and that it was supposed to be for Spencer Street or for the much-larger settlement of Maryborough in Queensland. These rumours probably aren't true - essentially it seems that they just got a bit hyped up over the railway mania of the time, and overestimated how big Maryborough would ultimately become.
Mark Twain visited Maryborough in 1895, and there are many quotes attributed to his visit (some of which may be apocryphal). Probably the most famous quote is "Maryborough is a railway station with a town attached", although I've also seen this reported as "Where is Maryborough? Behind the station." (I'm unsure whether these are correct and incorrect versions of one quip he made, or if he made functionally the same joke in two different ways on two different occasions.) He's also quoted as saying "It's perfectly elegant. And the clock! Everybody will show you the clock. There isn't a station in Europe that's got such a clock." That SMH article suggests this quote means the clock "caught his fancy" but, as lovely as it is, when you look at its contemporaries like Amsterdam Centraal or St Pancras, you have to wonder whether these favourable comparisons to Europe weren't a bit facetious.
Throughout the era of railway decline in the second half of the 20th century, passenger and freight services both fell away. Passenger services ceased in 1993 as part of the Kennett cuts that also claimed Ararat's service. Freight continued beyond that time, but it was in terminal decline. When the mainline between Melbourne and Adelaide via Ararat was Standardised in 1995, the Ararat-Maryborough line was Standardised as well, while a short section of the Yelta line from Maryborough to Dunolly was converted to Dual Gauge - but this was pretty short-lived, with the Ararat-Maryborough line closing in 2005 and the DG tracks only used for Broad Gauge freight after that. The Maryborough-Castlemaine line had some freight movements in this period, but it too closed in 2004.
The modern era
Maryborough is in the marginal seat of Ripon, and local MP Joe Helper had flipped the seat for Labor in its landslide 1999 election victory in no small part on the basis of a promise to return passenger trains to Ararat - a project completed in 2004. The Bracks/Brumby government was quite keen on regional rail in general, and with Ripon still very marginal, it was announced in 2008 that the Maryborough line would also have trains returned. After several years of works to the tracks themselves, and building a new platform at Creswick station (adjacent to the old goods shed, leaving the old passenger platform out of use), passenger trains returned to Maryborough on 24 July 2010, around 17 years after the Vinelander had ceased.
Initially, Talbot station didn't reopen with Creswick, Clunes and Maryborough, but the Coalition made an election promise from opposition in 2010. The Coalition ended up losing the seat but winning government, and set to delivering on their promise once they entered office. Somewhat similar to Creswick, the existing heritage station wasn't used - the platform is now fenced off, with a bunch of plants and memorabilia on the platform and around the station building. Instead a new modern platform, with DDA-compliant ramps and so on, was built just Down the line from the old station.
The line speeds are also fairly low. Trains between Melbourne and Ballarat are mostly limited to 160km/h; on the Ararat line, this is reduced to 130km/h for most of the way, with a little bit of 115km/h - which overall makes for a trip that is about 10 minutes faster than driving a car, even with the need to stop at a few stations. But the Maryborough line starts off with a short section of 80km/h track, then speeds up to 100km/h. When you factor in the stops at stations, this means it's actually a few minutes slower than driving - and it's even slower than some road coaches!
Despite a fair amount of money going into the actual infrastructure - revamping the line and reinstating closed stations - this wasn't really backed up by either Labor or the Coalition when it came to services. Initially there were just ten services per week - one service from Maryborough to Melbourne (via Ballarat) in the morning, and one heading back the other way in the evening, on weekdays only. Services were timed fairly well to allow people to commute from Maryborough (or Clunes or Creswick) into Ballarat for work or studies - the morning train arrived around 8am, allowing enough time to get a connecting bus out to Federation University before 9am, for example, and the evening train left shortly before 6pm for the same reason. However for Melbourne travel, they really weren't suitable for commuting - arriving shortly before 10am and leaving around 4.30pm, they were ok for a day of shopping but not really usable for workers.
At that point, there were no counter-peak services on weekdays, and no services at all on weekends. So if you wanted to take a day trip to Maryborough - whether for work or leisure or anything else - you basically couldn't. The main exception to this was the one weekend a year when Clunes Booktown was on - they arranged with V/Line to run special shuttles back and forth between Ballarat and Maryborough all day Saturday and Sunday, to allow people to get to the festival by public transport. This was a great move by Booktown, and I used it religiously - not only to get to Booktown itself, but to explore the line more generally. For example, one year I took the morning train to Maryborough, had lunch and explored, got the next train back to Clunes, wandered around the festival for a few hours, and got the last train of the day back to Ballarat.
Things have improved slightly in the last ten years, but there's still a long way to go. There is now a mid-morning service to Maryborough of a weekday, which arrives just before lunchtime, and a mid-afternoon service to Melbourne that leaves just before 3pm. This is something of a step in the right direction but is still not all that useful - although admittedly when you include the small number of coach services that connect Maryborough to Ballarat and Castlemaine, it is at least kind of possible to do a day trip for leisure, even if work is still impossible. There is also one service per day of a weekend now - allowing Maryborough passengers to go to Melbourne for the day, but not Melburnians to visit Maryborough for the day.
Murray Basin Rail Project map (via VAGO)
From a freight perspective, things were looking good in 2014 when the Murray Basin Rail Project was announced by the Coalition - the line to Mildura and those that branched off it would be Standardised and improved, which would mean higher reliability and line speeds on some of the branch lines, better connection to the interstate SG network, better access to ports, and so on - this would include reopening the Maryborough-Ararat line. By improving the profitability of freight along the line it also, to some extent, would help the case for returning passenger trains to Mildura. Luckily the incoming Labor government didn't bin the project, but unluckily it hasn't really gone to plan. It deserves a post of its own, but due to some fairly major stuffups, the project was essentially half-completed, and in many cases the reliability and line speeds are worse than they were at the start.
What does the future hold?
Right now there's no really firm commitments from anyone to do anything substantial. At the 2018 election, the Coalition pledged to return passenger trains to Dunolly, St Arnaud and Donald, but they were defeated so that hasn't gone anywhere yet. We'll have to wait and see who pledges what in 2022.
The Victorian and Federal governments both seem broadly keen to finish off the Murray Basin Rail Plan, but the talks don't seem to have gone very far in terms of who should pay for it, or whether the scope might be reduced in order to get it over the line. This is in part because of finger-pointing over who is to blame for the problems thus far, but to my mind they need to stop point-scoring and just come to an agreement on how to fix the problem. It's a project that will generate big economic benefits for the state's northwest, will create jobs during construction, and will help emissions by getting trucks off the roads - it's exactly the kind of stimulus project we need right now, and one that would help an area that a lot of other stimulus projects might not.
It would be nice to make some improvements to the infrastructure to get the line speed for passenger trains up to 130km/h like the Ararat line, or at the very least 115km/h. My understanding is that this would chiefly be a case of upgrading the track itself from Class 3 to Class 2 - I believe they've already done some work upgrading level crossings so that wouldn't be an issue. However, this is complicated by the question marks around what's happening with the MBRP - if the Ballarat-Maryborough line is converted to Dual Gauge this will likely mean speed limits for BG trains need to be imposed, even if the track quality is high. So this is sort of in the too-hard basket for now.
Talbot Farmers Market (via Epacdon)
Obviously nothing's going to happen mid-COVID, but once we come out of this and people start moving around more, the highest priority simply has to be running more trains, more often. To my mind, the first order of business would be to add a weekend morning service to Maryborough, and an afternoon/evening service from Maryborough, so Melburnians and Ballaratians can visit places along the line for a day trip (or for like a "head up Saturday morning, come home Sunday evening" weekender). This would be particularly relevant for Talbot, which has a population of 442 and which is the least-used station in the state most years - but which has markets on the third Sunday of the month that draw thousands of people, none of whom can currently get there by train.
The next step would be to add extra morning and evening weekday services which could be used for Melbourne commutes. Then you'd want to add one or two middle-of-the-day services just to fill the gap and make all the services more useful for a variety of trips. Ultimately you'd want the timetable to look something like Ararat's - the distances and the populations are very similar, so you could expect that providing a similar service would lead to similar increases in passenger numbers. And to be honest, Creswick has such close economic ties to Ballarat it sort of functions as a satellite suburb - heaps of Creswick residents work, study and shop in Ballarat, and it's on our bus network - so if the service were upgraded I can imagine the passenger numbers from Creswick dwarfing comparable stations very soon after.
I was quite skeptical about bringing trains back to Maryborough at first, but ten years on I'm very much a convert. It has the same chicken-and-egg problem that often exists with public transport - they run a bare-bones service, so very people use it, so the passenger numbers are too low to justify service improvements, so it remains a bare-bones service that few people use. But if they got ahead of the game and ran the service more frequently, I genuinely think it could be a real success story. As always - build it, and they will come.
Much of the information on line openings and closures was found on VicSig. Information on line speeds comes from V/Line.
This article first appeared on the-iron-road.blogspot.com
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