By JOHN DOOLEY
WHEN it was announced, the Murray Basin Rail Project was hailed as a win for the stakeholders and politicians who had lobbied hard for the upgrade of the line linking Mildura to Melbourne.
Fast forward almost four years and the $440 million project has stalled, with any hopes of seeing it completed seemingly derailed with no additional money allocated in last week’s Federal Budget.
Member for Mallee Anne Webster expressed disappointment that completion of the basin rail project is still unfunded and puts the blame at the feet of the Andrews Government.
“The Federal Government threw very good money at the project and the Victorian Auditor General’s report was scathing of the Victorian State Government’s management of that project,” she said.
“I am totally behind the project being completed as it was originally intended, but because the Victorian Government is sitting on its hands and the business case, there is little that we can do.
“We are asking the State Government to release the business case so that stakeholders can provide feedback and then the Federal Government can look at what further support it can provide.”
Mildura MP Ali Cupper was surprised no money was on the table in the budget, adding the State and Federal Governments now needed to explain what was happening with the project.
“I don’t care who funds it – we just need it funded,” she said.
“My understanding is the updated business plan was delivered by the Victorian Government to the Federal Government many weeks ago, but the plan has not been made public.
“Our farmers and industry groups are relying on this project to be completed in full, so I’m calling on the governments to step up, fund it, and get on with completing it.”
Cr Glenn Milne, who has put the Basin Rail Project front-and-centre in his council election campaign, expressed disappointment too.
“I am continuing to campaign strongly for the completion of this project and it’s disappointing that the Federal Government hadn’t put some money into it in the budget,” he said.
“The real issue, however, still remains that there is work to be done to get the State Government to actually put money into their budget because it is a State line. This project is vitally important for our community
– for the economics of this community – we need strong rail freight connections together with road and air freight. Nothing on this line is going to happen until the project is finished and that includes any thoughts of a passenger train until they fix the actual track.”
In 2016 the Federal Government granted the Victorian Government $220 million to fund 50 per cent of the Murray Basin Rail Project. The completed project was set to drive economic growth, create jobs, and provide a major boost to the transport industry, agricultural sector and regional communities. The standardising and upgrading 1055km of track, was heralded as supporting freight mode shift from road to rail, removing around 20,000 truck trips from our roads to ports and improving safety for Victorian communities.
The upgrade of the Mildura line also included track strengthening to increase the axle loading from 19 tonnes to 21 tonnes, so more goods and produce can be moved by rail.
As part of its Mildura Future Ready plan, Mildura Rural City Council included the return of a passenger rail service between Mildura and Melbourne, which it said would significantly reduce the impacts of Sunraysia’s isolation, particularly for low income earners, the elderly, young people without a licence and people with a disability.
UNDER PRESSURE: Victorian Minister for Transport Infrastructure, Jacinta Allan.
It would also provide another way for tourists to visit the district. Collectively these benefits would improve the social, health and economic wellbeing of our population and stimulate Sunraysia’s economy through jobs and population growth.
Proponents of a passenger rail service resuming for Mildura have had their hopes further dashed with the basin rail project remaining incomplete, but even if it was to be finished, many hurdles still remain before a viable service can run.
The problem for the passenger train, is that on the Mildura to Maryborough line there are still a large number of level crossings which require a lot work to be done to accord with the standards required for a passenger rail service.
In the wake of the train accident at Kerang in 2009, authorities introduced the Australian Level Crossing Assessment Model. This assessment tool was used to identify key potential risks at level crossings and to assist in the prioritisation of crossings for upgrades.
The authority came up with a lot of recommendations and today that’s the measure by which V/Line determines what level crossings need to be upgraded and where.
At present the Mildura line is safe for a freight train to travel at up to 80kmh, however if a level crossing isn’t protected by flashing lights and boom gates, the train has to slow to 50 kmh per hour and can’t increase speed until the last wagon has passed through the level crossing. There are 130 level crossings between Mildura and Maryborough that the trains have to slow to that speed.
To find a solution to provide capacity for a 24-hour turnaround for freight, the issue of the level crossings will need to be addressed as will the necessity to build some passing-loops.
There are a number of locations along the route where passing-loops can be installed to allow trains to pass without having to wait, which currently restricts the time table and free movement of trains.
Passing loops are already present at grain-silos along the line, but their length is inadequate to accommodate the long freight trains, which requires the loop to be at least 2km long.