By JOHN DOOLEY

MORE than six years after work started, the $440million Murray Basin Rail Project (MBRP) to upgrade Victoria’s regional railway lines and greatly enhance the movement of freight across the State ground to a halt last year when the State and Federally-funded project ran out of money.

Since then, there have been calls to seek further assistance from the Federal Government to enable the State to complete the project, with a further $300-$400million likely to be required to fund the works.

Mildura Rural City Councillor and Deputy chair of the Rail Freight Alliance, Glenn Milne, has been vocal in his calls for the stalled project to be completed and this week stepped up his criticism of Member for Mildura, Ali Cupper, saying she needed to do more to persuade the State Government of the vital importance of getting the project on track again.

“It’s a priority for Mildura and the local Member hasn’t been saying much on the subject, when she should have a loud voice and it was supposed to be one of her priorities,” Cr Milne said.

“She is calling for the return of a passenger rail service of a kind, well you have to have the rail line and crossings fixed first before there is any remote likelihood of passenger rail returning to Mildura.”

Last week Ms Cupper put out a statement calling on the Andrews Government to invest in crucial infrastructure as part of the State’s recovery program post COVID-19. In it she called for the building of the rail infrastructure to allow for the return of a passenger rail service to Mildura, together with other key projects, including funding for the $10million shortfall for the Mildura South Regional Sporting Precinct.

“I have been calling for the restart of the project (MBRP) and it’s critically important for the Government to prioritise this,” Ms Cupper said.

“It’s fundamental to our region’s economic success and certainly more important than ever as part of the recovery from the current situation. In terms of my efforts to bring this project to the fore and advocate for its completion, I have regularly raised the Murray Basin Rail Project in Parliament, including in Question Time, asking either the Premier or Minister for Transport Infrastructure, Jacinta Allen, to provide answers on where that project is at.”

Ms Cupper said that Cr Milne’s comments about her and also his criticism of the Government on social media wasn’t helping our region’s advocacy on this issue.

“He’s the Deputy chair of the Rail Freight Alliance, I would have thought that requires him as a prominent figure in this space, to work constructively with the both the Federal and State Governments,” she said.

“What’s clear is that there has to be a collaboration, but his partisan approach, and particularly the way he refers to senior State Government Ministers on Facebook, I would suggest, could potentially have a detrimental impact on moving this project forward.

“At very least it will have a detrimental effect on his organisation’s relationship with the people in Government who matter and potentially alienate the RFA from Government.”

Cr Milne, PICTURED, hit back at the Member for Mildura’a comments saying that his attitude toward Government on this issue was totally justified and wasn’t only his view, the Victorian Auditor-General’s own report was scathing of the Andrews Government.

“I’m critical of the Government because they need to put funding into this area now,” he said “Sitting back, saying nothing, doesn’t help at all and saying that about me is a ‘cop-out’.

“You have to front the Government and ask them where the money is and in my view Ali hasn’t done that effectively. That’s not just my opinion, the State Auditor-General has said that the Government have failed.

“Ali needs to actually call them out and say ‘Where’s our money − treat us fairly and fix the railway line that you messed up.’ If the Government mismanages projects, then why are we not allowed to say that? They quite clearly, between themselves and V/Line, mismanaged the Murray Basin Rail Project.

“To say that I shouldn’t be vocal and say anything about them on this issue – well how are you going to get them to fix it?”

In March, the Victorian Auditor-General delivered a damning report on the State’s handling of the MBRP, describing it as “deficient” and “inadequate”.

The project to upgrade western Victoria’s Murray Basin freight corridor remains half-finished, six years after it was announced. The report also singled out V/Line for what it called “deficient project planning, cost estimation, and scoping” during the $440million project, with hundreds of kilometres of rail track upgrades incomplete, and where work has been completed, detrimental restrictions to speed and weight remain in place.

According to Cr Milne, the Federal Government has asked the Andrews Government to provide them with a business plan outlining what is required to complete the MRBP, which would include the completion of the dual-gauging and also the upgrade to the Sea Lake and Manangatang lines.

“However, to this point in time, the state has failed to provide this to the Government and it’s well and truly too late for their budget now,” Cr Milne said.

“A project that ticked all the boxes and was going to be a win-win for everybody has gone pear shaped thanks to the incompetence of the Transport Minister and her Government.

“The other disappointing thing is that the state is saying that they are going to spend $25billion of borrowed money to stimulate and preserve the Victorian economy post the COVID-19 crisis, and still there hasn’t been any mention of continuing with the Basin Rail Project – and that’s a real concern. We’ve had good rain recently, and it’s a fantastic start to the season, and hopefully it’s going to continue and we’ll have a bumper crop – which means we will need the freight rail line to be up to standard.

“The railway line is going to be under enormous pressure and to have the journey taking an extra six hours getting to Melbourne and back, is unacceptable. There are just so many reasons why the railway line should be fixed – so just fix it!”