VICTORIA’S major political parties have been told investment in passenger and freight rail would be needed to secure the support of Mildura MP Ali Cupper in the event of a hung parliament later this year.
Ms Cupper this week announced a “Mind the Gap” campaign, which she said would call on both Labor and the Coalition to commit to passenger rail for Mildura and “a new deal” for freight following the pared-down Murray Basin Rail Project.
She said it would also make clear her priorities if she was re-elected at the November state election and held the balance of power.
“The big parties are on notice that the price of my support in a hung parliament would be rail,” she said.
Mildura’s passenger train service was axed in 1993 under Liberal Premier Jeff Kennett and successive, mostly Labor, governments have not returned it.
During the current term, Labor have instead promoted the number of coach services available from Mildura.
Meanwhile, Liberal leader Matthew Guy earlier this year avoided reaffirming his party’s 2018 election commitment to spend $80 million on level crossings as a precursor to bringing back passenger trains.
Ms Cupper said she had put to the government Parliamentary Budget Office costings showing the start-up bill for a shuttle service from Mildura to Maryborough being in the vicinity of $20 million.
The costings assumed regauging of one train from existing rolling stock and station upgrades, to run three services that would link up with Maryborough to Melbourne trains.
Ms Cupper painted a picture of a disinterested government.
“Why are we even arguing about this? Why are we being stonewalled? Why is this even a conversation? We took that costing to the government … and they said that’s not accurate,” Ms Cupper said.
“I said ‘that’s fine … what is accurate?’
“(The government) said ‘Oh look, you wouldn’t be able to do it for less than $100 million, maybe $150 million’.
“That is still nothing. To restore connectivity and equity to the people of north-west Victoria, that is still nothing.
“The reason they won’t do it is because of the ongoing operational cost and it’s a little bit similar to Mildura Base Public Hospital.
“When they’ve gotten away with not having the responsibility and being able to do something for way cheaper for so long, they just don’t want to change it.”
The government has argued eight crossing loops would need upgrading along the line, stations would need to be rebuilt and new trains would need to be purchased before passenger trains can be considered.
Ms Cupper said Mildura was the only major regional city in Victoria without passenger trains, had a substantially larger population than the still-serviced Swan Hill and was also less isolated than Broken Hill, where the NSW Government maintain a Sydney service.
She said it represented a “dereliction of duty” and “decades of missed economic opportunities”.
On freight, Ms Cupper said in the government’s mind the Murray Basin Rail Project was “complete”, despite the end result being a far cry from the original scope.
She said that was why her focus would instead be on a “new deal” with an aim of full standardisation.
“I want the whole network standardised, I want the original vision of that project to be realised,” she said.
“Talking about completing the Murray Basin Rail Project is what the big parties want, because if we keep talking about that, they’ll go ‘oh, yeah, completion of the project, it’s done’.
“We need to change the conversation. We need to say what comes next.”
Ms Cupper said the original project had suffered from severe undercosting and a realistic figure for delivering the original vision from here may be at least $800 million.