PTUA are a group of volunteers campaigning for better public transport in Melbourne and around Victoria, Australia. The PTUA fights for better public transport services. Some of the things we have achieved for include all-night services every New Year’s Eve, more services on weekends, and keeping up the pressure on government on peak hour train problems.
The Andrews Government should be putting gigantic new transport projects on hold while it properly assesses their value and takes stock of the state’s fiscal capacity, according to the Public Transport Users Association.
In the wake of the weekend’s Federal election result there is ample scope for Victoria and Canberra to work together on what all can agree are valuable initiatives, such as Airport and Geelong rail, while continuing to pluck the low-hanging fruit of everyday service improvements, the PTUA says.
But the result is a “reality check” for promises of vast sums on other projects whose merit hasn’t been adequately demonstrated.
“Last week the government could be forgiven for thinking it had its hands on the Holy Grail – a Commonwealth-State unity ticket on massive infrastructure for Victoria,” said PTUA President Dr Tony Morton. “But now that sugar rush of cash for huge projects is no longer on the table. So the Premier, Treasurer and Ministers need to refocus on what they can do with their own resources, as well as their substantial points of agreement with the Federal Coalition.”
The Morrison Federal Coalition Government and Andrews State Labor Government have bipartisan agreement on a train line to Melbourne Airport, a project Dr Morton described as “obvious and well overdue”. There is also agreement on improving train service to Geelong, although the Coalition prefers to see this as a ‘high speed rail’ project while Labor prefers to focus on improvements to reliability and capacity. “We’ve called on both parties to focus on what passengers are asking for, and for a long time that’s been not so much how fast the train is but how often it runs and whether you can get a seat. We’re hopeful the parties will find common ground soon enough.”
But Dr Morton said it was clear the state would rely on its own resources for any project beyond that, and those resources are becoming ever more constrained. “Real estate isn’t guaranteeing that stamp duty bonanza for big infrastructure spending any more,” he said. “This is not just about transport but also essential funding for schools and hospitals and police. The government would be well advised to put further big projects on hold for now, and concentrate on building a proper triple-bottom-line case for future capital works.”
Projects the government is advised to ‘go slow’ on include the $16 billion North East Link and the $50 billion Suburban Rail Loop. This would provide a pause to reassess other projects with the potential for greater benefit, such as the Melbourne Metro 2 rail tunnel from Newport to Clifton Hill, and a more thorough rollout of high-capacity signalling and rail freight initiatives.
“If we don’t shift our emphasis from big roads to a bigger better rail network, Melbourne itself will be irreparably damaged and will have to keep spending hand-over-fist to further entrench LA-style three-hour commutes,” Dr Morton said. “And when it comes to rail there’s more work to do yet to build up the west side to match the east. The western suburbs are now one of our biggest growth areas yet still a public transport desert.”
Meanwhile, much more attention was needed on local suburban buses, walking and cycling, Dr Morton said. “Half of all journeys in Melbourne are over short distances across one or two suburbs. In the inner city it’s easy to jump on a tram, but nowhere in Melbourne do buses provide anywhere near that quality of service, the way they do in lots of European and Canadian cities. In fact our buses have deteriorated in recent years, becoming slower and less reliable. Meanwhile, provision for on-road cycling is a joke.”
“We’d welcome a new effort at providing local buses that are fit-for-purpose and giving them more priority amid the single-occupant car traffic. And alongside that, funding for better footpaths and for separated bike lanes. These needs are too often lost amid the talk of big shiny things.”
Dr Morton kept the last word for a small band of Coalition MPs and their ‘desperate spruiking’ for the East West Link tollway. “Honestly, every time the Coalition has tried to sell that destructive boondoggle to the electorate they’ve had a swing against them – most recently on Saturday while the rest of the country had swings toward the Coalition,” he said.
“If the Coalition wants a big transport project they can own, why not promise that $4 billion for Doncaster Rail? After all, that was the headline project the last time the Coalition won an election in Victoria. We can even help them make sure it stacks up with benefits worth a lot more than 45 cents in the dollar. Sometimes you can actually give the people what they want without wasting money.”
The $10 billion pledge by Federal Labor toward Melbourne’s Suburban Rail Loop is a massive vote of confidence in restoring Melbourne’s reputation as a liveable city and responding to the climate emergency, but the size of spending underscores the urgent need for a coherent, community-led transport plan, according to the Public Transport Users Association.
The PTUA was “dumbfounded” at the Coalition’s determination to back the East West Link, a project that had already lost their State colleagues two elections, and that “even transport models originally designed for the express purpose of justifying big new roads” found would only return 50c of economic benefit for every dollar spent. The Coalition could better demonstrate its traditional economic credentials by throwing its weight behind suburban rail and bus projects, the PTUA said.
“Our public transport system needs to be ready to accept millions of additional passengers just in the next decade as the city grows and becomes less car-dependent,” said PTUA President Dr Tony Morton. “That demands action at all scales, from big city-shaping infrastructure to reform of local bus networks.”
At the same time it’s vital to ensure a robust economic, social and environmental case for proceeding with major initiatives, Dr Morton said. “Infrastructure investment is both necessary and popular. But because of that, politicians are motivated to assume any amount of spending on capital works is a good thing, and blow vast sums of money on the wrong projects.”
Dr Morton noted the Victorian Government originated the Suburban Rail Loop concept, but also wants to spend $16 billion on the North East Link tollway and a massively expanded Eastern Freeway. “The government’s boosting public transport, yet planning for people not to use it,” he said.
Governments are fatally conflicted, said Dr Morton, because of an over-reliance on ‘modelling’ not only to attempt to quantify benefits, but also to make implicit value-judgements about the kind of transport system a city like Melbourne ought to have.
“Transport models were created in the 1950s for the purpose of justifying freeway projects in US cities,” said Dr Morton. “It’s unlikely a single one ever lived up to what the model claimed, but it’s been rare for anyone to follow up claims versus reality after one is built So while we’ve learned that every big new road project generates new traffic and there are no long-term ‘congestion busting’ benefits, the models still fail to properly account for this.”
“Rather than have infrastructure fed to them by an algorithm, governments should have a plan – one based on an explicit choice. Do we want more people driving or more using public transport? Do we want to be like Los Angeles and Houston, or do we want to be more like Paris and Vienna? Do we accept the permanent and irreversible environmental damage big roads cause, or do we embrace life in a city that takes environmentally friendly alternatives seriously?”
“Currently, our governments still act as though only they, and not us, are entitled to answer that question.”
“Every opinion poll that put the options head-to-head has found a majority of Australians would prefer that public transport improvement have priority over new roads. Our politicians need to listen, stop spending billions on motorways, and start ensuring that every Melburnian has a genuine option of reliable, frequent, fast public transport in their suburb,” concluded Dr Morton.
The Public Transport Users Association (PTUA) has welcomed the commitment by the federal government to fully fund its share of the planned duplication of the rail line from South Geelong to Waurn Ponds.
PTUA Geelong Branch convener, Paul Westcott, said that the project had been on the agenda ever since the opening of Marshall station in 2004. “It is very gratifying to see that a start can be made on the duplication, with both side of politics now committed to it”, he said.
“Not only will it enable more frequent rail services to be run to the growing southern suburbs of Geelong, it will also pave the way for more trains on the Warrnambool line.”
Mr Westcott singled out the federal member for Corangamite, Sarah Henderson, for credit. “In 2015, after consultation with the PTUA, she became the first politician to advocate for the duplication project, despite the fact that the then Abbott government was opposed to providing federal money to passenger rail.”
“Now here we are, four years later, with an important project which is supported by both sides of politics, federal and state, and is fully funded. It’s a great outcome,” Mr Westcott said.
The Public Transport Users Association has responded with caution to Thursday’s announcement that State transport agencies PTV and Vicroads will be merged into a new ‘omnibus’ Department of Transport.
“In some ways this is just the logical conclusion of a process that’s been underway for some time,” said PTUA President Dr Tony Morton. “But it’s also highly unusual historically, and while we can see theoretical advantages, it’s a matter for debate whether this is the best model for ensuring the public interest is given top priority.”
Both roads and public transport in Victoria have a long history of being planned and managed by statutory authorities independent of the usual government departmental structure. These have included the Board of Works, the Tramways Board, the Country Roads Board, Vicroads, V/Line, and the Public Transport Corporation (PTC). Only the Victorian Railways, established in the 1850s, existed as a government department for a while before transforming into a statutory commission in 1883 and then being folded into the PTC by the Cain Labor Government in 1983.
With privatisation in the 1990s, the PTC ceased to exist and its residual functions were absorbed into the then Department of Infrastructure. This created an asymmetrical situation in transport planning, since Vicroads continued to exist as a statutory authority separate to the Department.
“The whole structure at the time appeared designed to entrench the road lobby,” Dr Morton said. “On the one hand there was this big powerful authority called Vicroads with its own direct line to the Minister and its own road planning function independent of the rest of the government. On the other, the public transport division was buried deep within the departmental structure and devoted all its effort to managing contracts with private operators rather than doing any real network planning or infrastructure development.
“Both the current and previous governments did a lot of good work to rebalance that structure. PTV was created in 2011 to bring a new focus on public transport network planning and independent expertise, to match what Vicroads once achieved. Meanwhile Vicroads itself has been brought more tightly under the Department’s own strategic planning. With this latest change, we understand there’ll be one strategic planning function with roads and public transport on an equal footing. There’s a lot to be said for that and we support this aspect of the change.
“What we’re more concerned to see is that this move doesn’t lead to a loss of subject-matter expertise in either public transport or road traffic management. Both Vicroads and PTV functioned effectively as incubators of that expertise, and it would be contrary to good governance to see that outsourced to short-term contractors or consultants, or to private operators who could have a conflict of interest.
“Absorbing PTV back into the Department also goes against the idea of the public-facing ‘one stop shop’ through which Victorians can engage with their transport system. This goes to the whole question of how transport management fulfils its responsibility to the public under the Transport Integration Act – we can’t expect the Minister to be the first port of call. Without an independent board or steering group, who speaks for the public interest in this new structure?
“The danger is this move is seen as bringing transport planning under more direct political control, at a time when people are keen to take the politics out of planning decisions.
“Related to that is the question of Infrastructure Victoria and its ongoing role. How does its position sit with the desire to bring everything else under one coordinating banner? Why an ‘independent’ voice for infrastructure but not for service planning?
“We will be eager to see the detail of the new arrangements so these important questions can be answered.”
The Public Transport Users Association (PTUA) has welcomed the announcement that the Victorian government will provide additional funding to assist the Overland passenger train to continue running between Melbourne and Adelaide – and has renewed calls for the government to support reinstatement of regular passenger trains to Horsham.
The Overland has been supported by the South Australian and Victorian governments for many years; its future was jeopardised when the South Australian government recently announced it would cut its portion of the funding. Today’s announcement represents an increase in funding from the Victorian government, with the remainder of the shortfall coming from Great Southern Rail, who operate the Overland.
The Overland runs twice weekly in each direction, and stops at North Shore (Geelong), Ararat, Stawell, Horsham, Dimboola and Nhill in western Victoria; it is the only passenger rail service that travels west of Ararat, and is therefore a very important link for those communities. The Overland also serves Bordertown and Murray Bridge in South Australia.
PTUA Ballarat Branch convener Ben Lever praised the Victorian government for working with Great Southern Rail to ensure that the Overland can continue to run in 2019.
“The Overland is the only passenger train that runs west of Ararat, and it serves as a vital link for people who live in places like Stawell, Horsham, Dimboola and Nhill. Not only does it connect these towns to Melbourne and Adelaide, it connects them to each other – and to Bordertown and Murray Bridge in South Australia.”
“Many people in these communities cannot drive, and some struggle to use high-floor coaches – it’s vital to maintain the rail link, and we are delighted to see the Victorian government step up to preserve this service.”
While welcoming the news that the Overland will continue to run, Mr Lever noted that places like Stawell and Horsham needed a higher level of service than the Overland currently provides.
“While it’s great that the Overland will still run, there is still a real need to provide regular rail services to Horsham in the very near future. The Overland provides a lifeline service to these communities, but years and years of cuts mean it only runs twice a week, and has a reputation for slow speeds and poor punctuality – so it’s not an attractive option for most trips.”
“Horsham needs and deserves a serious public transport option – trains that run two or three times a day, 7 days a week, with a modified version of the existing fast VLocity trains.”
Great Southern Rail have committed to a full review of the Overland service, to determine its future beyond 2019. Mr Lever encouraged the Victorian government to take the opportunity to take a holistic view of rail transport in western Victoria, and consider the best options for running V/Line services beyond Ararat.
“Great Southern Rail are primarily a rail tourism operator, running the luxury Indian Pacific and Ghan trains, and they arguably run the Overland on a similar model – running trains infrequently, and providing an enjoyable ride that is more about the journey than the destination. But the people of western Victoria also need to be able to get from A to B efficiently, so they need a regular train service like the rest of the state.”
“Whether that means running a regular passenger service to Horsham while continuing to subsidise the Overland beyond, or replacing the Overland with regular V/Line services to Adelaide, or anything in between – now is the time for the Victorian government to take a serious look at the long-term future of this key rail corridor. Councils in western Victoria have already commissioned a report into returning regular passenger trains to Horsham and Hamilton, and we urge the government to take this work and flesh it out into a proper business case as soon as possible.”
2014-2018 has seen significant public transport investment under Labor, and they have delivered on their major promises. But as Melbourne continues to grow, and demand for regional travel increases, the challenge ahead is to build a public transport network not only copes with patronage growth, but also provides usable services into areas which currently don’t have them.
So how do the parties rank?
1. Greens – in some ways the Greens have the least ambitious transport plan. But it’s full of affordable, commonsense policies. They are the only party to commit to the Metro 2 tunnel, and to frequency upgrades across the train, tram and bus networks – essential for making the public transport network vastly more usable in the short term. Accelerating the rollout of low-floor trams and implementing on-road priority, extending metro services to outer suburbs with high capacity signalling are also important initiatives. The Greens also oppose the major road projects proposed by the other parties, rightly recognising that they will simply generate more traffic.
2. Labor – some ambitious plans in starting the huge Suburban Rail Loop project, alongside continuing the successful Level Crossing Removal Program, and extensive upgrades planned elsewhere around the metro and regional rail networks. They lose points for construction of three major tollways/freeways, a lack of progress on bus and tram upgrades, and for lagging on the rollout of more frequent all-day metro train services – essential for a big city such as Melbourne.
3. Coalition – they’ve backed away from what is probably their best policy, of metro trains every 10 minutes all day, leaving commitments to build three major tollways plus other freeways, and the messy grade separation of road intersections. More positive is commitments to extend metro trains to Clyde and Baxter. Their regional high speed rail plan is ambitious, but would only speed up trains moderately, and there are doubts over whether it could really be delivered in the timeframes promised.