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Train passengers travelling between Melbourne, Albury-Wodonga and Sydney could experience a return to notoriously slow and bumpy journeys unless Victoria agrees to start paying for track upkeep.
The Andrews government and the Commonwealth-owned Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC) are locked in a dispute over maintaining the North East Rail Line, just two years after finishing $285 million of upgrades to make trains faster and smoother.
V/Line and Melbourne-Sydney XPT trains previously had speed restrictions along most of the corridor because loose sleepers could not support the track properly, causing trains to jolt violently and inflicting injuries on some drivers.
The Commonwealth contributed $244 million of the cost of upgrading the tracks to the same “class 2” standard of other V/Line tracks around Victoria, enabling the introduction of newer VLocity trains and cutting Melbourne-Albury travel times by 30 minutes.
But the ARTC – which leases the tracks from Victoria and manages them for freight operations – now says the state is refusing to help pay to maintain the line at that higher standard. If Victoria does not step up, the ARTC says it will let the tracks degrade to the lower “freight standard”, which is suitable for its own needs.
The stand-off is revealed in a letter, which this masthead has obtained, from Federal Infrastructure Minister Catherine King to independent Indi MP Helen Haines.
Victoria and the Commonwealth are at loggerheads over maintenance of train tracks to Albury/Wodonga and Sydney. Credit: Luis Ascui
King says in the letter that the ARTC has asked Victoria for a “reasonable increase” in access charges to “enable ARTC to maintain the [line] to the higher class 2 standard required by V/Line to continue operating VLocity passenger services”.
“While ARTC has continued to commit additional funding to maintain the [line] to the Victorian class 2 standard, the Victorian government has not deviated from the historic position to not contribute to an increase in ongoing rail access charges and line maintenance fees,” the August 23 letter says.
King said recent inspections showed the rail tracks remained in good condition.
“However, in the absence of further funding being provided by the Victorian government, the track will be maintained at ARTC’s freight track standard,” she said.
John Dunstan, from the Border Rail Action Group, said passengers would start to experience bumpier and slower journeys unless Victoria came to the party.
“If it deteriorates to anywhere near as bad as it was before, they’ve got massive problems,” he said.
“It’s just so stupid to spend $300 million or so on capital works and then turn around and let it deteriorate again and come back to the way it was – you’ve wasted your money.”
Dunstan said the ARTC was only involved in freight operations, so had been covering the additional maintenance costs until now for Victoria’s benefit “out of the goodness of [their] hearts”.
An Andrews government spokesperson said the ARTC was responsible for maintenance of the North East Rail Line under the terms of its lease.
“We’re continuing to work with the ARTC under the current lease – and the track is currently in good condition,” the spokesperson said. “We’ve given passengers on the Albury line what we promised – new trains and faster, more reliable services.”
Dunstan said V/Line and XPT trains had their suspension systems “absolutely smashed” by the degraded tracks before the upgrades, contributing to poor reliability because they were frequently taken out of service for repairs.
Train drivers complained of back and neck pain from being jolted around the uneven tracks and, as this masthead reported in 2020, one driver suffered internal bleeding in her breasts and muscular skeletal injury to her chest wall.
An ARTC spokesman said the group operated under “commercial principles and would require a contribution from the Victorian government, as the operator of passenger services, to maintain the line at a class 2 standard”.
“ARTC continues to engage with the Victorian government on funding of maintenance,” he said. “In the interim, ARTC has committed additional funding to keep performance standards of the line.”
Meanwhile, V/Line is trying to address overcrowding on some lines after the introduction in March of a $10 daily fare cap to travel anywhere on its network sparked a surge in passenger numbers.
Last weekend, it began a trial allowing all seats on Albury line trains to be booked, giving more passengers certainty they won’t have to stand for the 3½-hour journey.
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