Controversy hit Victoria’s regional rail mobile connectivity project after a state minister dubbed concerns from left out North East passengers as “parochialism”.
The Victorian government is partnering with the three largest mobile carriers in Australia — Telstra, Optus and Vodafone — to significantly improve mobile connectivity and coverage for commuters using the Geelong, Ballarat, Bendigo, Traralgon and Seymour rail lines.
Promoting the new $18 million initiative on ABC radio, state small business, innovation and trade minister Philip Dalidakis was asked by host Joseph Thomsen why the upgrades in mobile coverage were not going to be extended beyond Seymour to Albury-Wodonga.
“How long is a piece of string?” Dalidakis answered. “You’re focusing on what’s not being done, I want to focus on what we are doing.”
Dalidakis continued, stating that only $18 million was available “to get the best outcome we can”, and that the government thought the money was best spent on the five rail lines chosen.
“I understand the parochialism about extending it beyond Seymour to Albury-Wodonga,” he concluded.
Opposition member for Euroa Steph Ryan was quoted the in local paper The Border Mail, saying the minister’s statements were “outrageous” and dismissive of the needs of North East commuters, while member for Ovens Tim McCurdy was quoted as saying that Dalidakis needed “to get out beyond the tram tracks of Melbourne and understand what’s happening in regional Victoria”.
“When he thinks about regional Victoria he thinks of Ballarat, Bendigo and Geelong and that’s all,” McCurdy said.
Government member for Northern Victoria Jaclyn Symes defended Dalidakis, telling the The Border Mail that the minister was well aware of the problems facing the North East line, and that he was “prepared to look at considering funding to extend [coverage] to Shepparton and Albury-Wodonga lines down the track”.
The state’s regional trains have long had problems with mobile connectivity blackouts. Speaking to The Age, Paul Westcott, regional spokesman for the Public Transport Users Association, said that mobile connectivity problems have plagued the regional train line.
“I think travellers on all regional lines will be able to tell you there are spots depending on which telco you’re with that are a real problem,” he said.
The government’s partnership with Telstra, Optus and Vodafone means that the benefits of extended and improved coverage will be experienced by the customers of all three service providers.
At the time of the project’s announcement, minister Dalidakis called the project “a massive win for commuters on our five busiest regional rail corridors – no matter which network they use, they will see improvements”.
Along with the construction of 35 new mobile towers, the project will implement in-train technology to improve the signal received by devices inside the train from outside mobile towers.
While such technology is already a feature of 30 European rail lines, Victoria’s will be the first to receive upgrades of this kind in Australia.
The new program’s pilot installation of the new mobile reception repeaters is reportedly already underway to boost coverage on the five regional lines from 50 to 95 percent. The government has stated that the repeaters, if successful, will be extended to the entire VLocity train fleet in 2018.
The government expects that the project, once complete, will boost productivity among regional business commuters and thus deliver an estimated $20 million per annum to the Victorian economy.
“Regular commuters spend up to 20 hours per week on regional trains and we need to keep them connected so they can keep in touch with their loved ones and use their travel time productively,” minister Dalidakis said.