Raw deal on regional rail
THE new deal country people got on October 4, 1981 actually became the raw deal. That day marked the closure of 35 country railway stations across Victoria by the Hamer government and the closures continued through the Kirner/Cain government.
The Kennett/Stockdale government, which was intent on shutting the entire network down for freight and passenger services across Victoria, continued to close lines and stations, reduce investment and sell off infrastructure and privatise the freight and passenger services.
Regrettably, the Victorian railways had been stuck in something of a vacuum and motionless advancement of its infrastructure, signalling, rolling stock and locomotives and work practices that went back to the 19th century and for a number of decades as a result of a lack of political courage and will to make major investments in the railways.
In the 1980s the Hurstbridge line still had semaphores for train control from Greensborough and the lack of technological change was spread across the country and metropolitan network.
The Bland Report of 1972 recommended the restructuring of railway management, the closure of uneconomic branch lines, and the replacement of most country rail passenger services with uncomfortable and cramped road coaches. By the start of the 1980s, passenger numbers had fallen to about three million a year due to ageing rolling stock, unattractive timetables operating at poor frequencies and the move to car purchase and independence because of the lack of reliability and punctuality of trains.
After the Lonie Report of 1980 recommended further cuts to the network, many people called for the state government to intervene and to maintain a viable rail system. Alan Reiher became chairman of the Victorian Railways Board in July 1980, with the Victoria Railways having by then been rebranded as VicRail. By February 1981, Reiher's lobbying had resulted in a $115 million commitment from the Hamer government to revitalise country rail passenger services in Victoria – the concept of which originated within the Planning Branch of VicRail. After years of neglect and lack of investment, the $115 million was chicken feed to the actual funds needed to revitalise the railway.
Reiher was previously sacked by the NSW Government when he was the head of NSW Government Railways and moved to Victorian Railways because of his Liberal Party connections.
VicRail pushed hard for the new timetables to be introduced by October 1981, so they would operate throughout the summer before the 1982 Victorian election. The Thompson government, which had succeeded Hamer's ministry in June 1981, lost the 1982 election and was replaced by the Cain government. However, the new deal proved to have bi-partisan political support, and was further expanded by incoming Transport Minister Steve Crabb.
By the time the Kirner/Cain government was voted out, the rolling stock and locomotives had been sold to Malaysian and German interests and leased back by the government and the funds from the sale were used to bolster the perilous state of the government's finances.
The Kennett government bought back the rolling stock and locomotives only to resell them to private rail operators and Freight Australia, who was going to use American know how and show us all how to move freight and run a railway company.
The new deal was a fool hardy backward step and has had diabolical and considerable ramifications on the Victorian regional rail network to this day in terms of the condition of the network, its capacity and the extent of the network that has been adversely truncated, resulting in the use of uncomfortable coaches and impractical coach timetables to cover the majority of the network.
The use of coaches rather than trains has further disadvantaged country towns through the lack of connectedness and exclusion and the removal of passenger rail has impacted on country town economies and increased mental health issues and poverty. The Rural Doctors Association has highlighted these issues and has been lobbying and advocating governments for over 30 years to have passenger rail returned to country towns for residents to access external medical treatments. Their lobbying has fallen on deaf ears.
This is an indictment on the political parties and politicians of Victoria that they permit and allow fellow Victorians to go without services that they themselves would not go without.
The present Public Transport Minister Jacinta Allan is no exception and appears to refuse to meet with community groups and local councils wanting to have a passenger rail service returned to their town. She only offers up additional bus services.
The raw deal lives on in 2018 per courtesy of the intransigence of Melbourne politicians, a city-centric Premier and country politicians who have sold out their constituents and communities.
Regional communities deserve better and a vastly improved passenger rail service across the regional rail network that links major regional cities such as Mildura, Hamilton and Horsham is needed.
The linking of the regional cities of Bendigo via Castlemaine, Maryborough, Ballarat, Bannockburn, Geelong and Melbourne; the expansion of the network and including towns such as Leongatha; and the re-duplication of the Bendigo to Kyneton rail line is also required.
Some of this letter was researched via the publication: Scott Martin and Chris Banger (October 2006). "'New Deal' for County Passengers - 25 years on". Newsrail. Australian Railway Historical Society (Victorian Division). p. 319. I also researched details at the State Library using newspaper stories.
Scott Ramsay, Bendigo