By VINNIE RODI

MILDURA’S passenger train will return under an estimated $19billion Liberal-Nationals plan to transform Victoria’s regional rail network.

Member for Mildura Peter Crisp made the bold pledge on Wednesday, saying The Nationals “will bring a passenger rail service back to Mildura” under the infrastructure project.

However, he was hesitant to put a timeline on the service’s return, saying that completion of the $440million Murray Basin Rail Project, and completing an $80million election commitment to make level crossings safer and extend passing loops, “must take precedence.”

“We have to get the track safe and fit for purpose,” Mr Crisp said during a sit-down interview with the Mildura Weekly prior to Wednesday’s official announcement. “We want to get this done as quickly as we can, but we have to take into consideration that it has to be properly done to be safe.

“First thing we have to do is get the Murray Basin Rail Project back on track, and then we can move to level crossings and passing loops – that $80million commitment will be in our first Budget if we are elected.

“We’re not saying when (the Mildura service will return), and I think that it will be beyond 2020, but we have to be realistic about the work we have to do.”

The election pledge forms part of the Liberals-Nationals $19billion “transformational plan” to connect communities across regional Victoria, and help decentralise the State. The proposed ‘European-style,’ high speed rail network will see Ballarat transform into a regional rail hub, slash travel times across the State, and re-introduce services to outlying areas like Donald, Horsham and Mildura.

Under the proposal, travel time between Swan Hill and Melbourne would be slashed to three hours by 2028, with trains to reach speeds up to 200km/h. The entire $19billion proposal is expected to take up to a decade to complete, and will also include a $633million commitment for 96 new model VLocity carriages.

“We want to put new trains on the track – we don’t want to go with diesel-haul locomotives, we want the long-haul VLocity trains to service this area,” Mr Crisp said. “That will require more comfortable seats, some form of catering… and they will need, because we are in the country, a little bit different protection on the front.

“This is also important for our decentralisation plans… we have to get travel times that will encourage people to live and work in regional areas.”

Mr Crisp said that he anticipated travel from Mildura to Melbourne, once the service is returned, to be “quicker than driving.”

“It has to be,” he said. “When people ask me what would be a sustainable passenger train service, I say one that passes the cars between Mildura and Ouyen. If you’re travelling and you pass the train, are you likely to get on it? But if the train passes you…we want a service that everyone will use. This is the game-changer Mildura wants and needs, and I’ll work with our community to get it done.”

The Mildura Weekly was the first local media outlet to break the news on Wednesday morning via our Facebook page, with the response from the community a mixture of disbelief, doubt, joy and pure scepticism.

Some residents expressed fears the Liberal-Nationals won’t follow through with the promise, while others simply labelled it an election stunt. Other responses expressed excitement and hope, with the majority of residents happy to “wait and see”.

The return of Mildura’s passenger rail service forms a key pillar of Mildura Rural City Council’s Mildura Future Ready Plan, with Mildura Mayor Mark Eckel welcoming the news while also praising Mr Crisp for bringing his Party to the table.

“Peter has been advocating for this for a long time, and it’s fantastic for him to get his Party to agree with him,” he said. “This announcement now puts more emphasis on the fact that the Labor Party hasn’t committed to anything substantial in Mildura.

“This should place additional pressure on them to re-think their strategy regarding regional rail rather than just concentrating on the inner-city – particularly if they going to seriously look at decentralisation. If they are than Mildura has to be on the list.”

Cr Eckel also praised the $80million commitment from the Liberal-Nationals to undertake passing loop and level crossing upgrades.

“This is a vital piece of infrastructure, and something that Peter has been advocating for some time,” he said. “Peter has now put quite a number of issues out there that his electorate will be receptive too, and to be honest, I can’t see his opposition in this area challenging him on those commitments.

“In fact I would like to see the rhetoric picked up regarding the needs of this community, focusing on the issues at hand.”

Fellow Mildura Councillor and Chair of the Rail Freight Alliance, Cr Glenn Milne, also welcomed the announcement, describing it as “fantastic news” for the region.

“While the Rail Freight Alliance is all about freight, passenger rail running on the line does help our argument, because it means the line has to be maintained to a high standard,” he said. “From a Council perspective this ticks the box with Mildura Future Ready, so it’s fantastic.”

Cr Milne said he did hold some concern about the proposal, namely how it will address the Labor Government’s plans to transform the line between Ballarat and Maryborough to dual gauge.

“To have that section of track as dual gauge would knock the speed back to 80km/h,” he said. “We need to get away from broad gauge and get the State standardised.”

Cr Milne also cautioned the community about expecting too much too soon, saying an eight to 10 year timeline was “realistic.”

“These things take time, just look at the Murray Basin Rail Project,” he said. “That project was budgeted for at the last election and still isn’t complete.

“Let’s also not forget that it was the Liberal-Nationals who secured the funds for that project.

“The Labor party has continued it, but let’s not forget that just to upgrade the line under that project has taken four years.”