The railroad out of recovery: Catherine King’s vision for rail

Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport & Regional Development Catherine King sets out how rail transport could lead Australia out of a COVID-19 recession.

In July 2019, prior to the arrival of COVID-19, governor of the Reserve Bank, Philip Lowe called on governments around the country to invest more in infrastructure. Cutting the official cash rate to a then-record 1 per cent, Lowe said that more spending on infrastructure was needed.

“This spending adds to demand in the economy and – provided the right projects are selected – it also adds to the country’s productive capacity. It is appropriate to be thinking about further investments in this area, especially with interest rates at a record low, the economy having spare capacity and some of our existing infrastructure struggling to cope with ongoing population growth,” he told the Darwin business community.

Much has changed since that speech, but in some ways, Lowe’s words could be read, word for word, again, with added emphasis, as the cash rate is now 0.25 per cent and spare capacity in the form of unemployment has only risen.

To hear how the federal government and opposition are responding to this call for an infrastructure-led recovery, earlier in 2020, Rail Express spoke to Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development Michael McCormack and his shadow, Catherine King. The below interview with King has been condensed and edited for clarity and length. To read Rail Express‘s interview with Michael McCormack, follow this link.

THE ROUTE AHEAD FOR INLAND RAIL
It’s a project that all major parties support, however Inland Rail has been a headache for the government and the Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC) since objections have been raised to the route over floodplains in northern NSW and Queensland. With the rail industry looking for certainty over the project, governments are hoping to increase the project’s momentum.

Rail Express (REX): Labor has brought up some concerns with Inland Rail in the past, particularly around the section over the Condamine River floodplain in Queensland, how confident are you in the delivery of this project, particularly that section in Queensland?

Catherine King: Labor supports Inland Rail and in fact we put the first billion dollars into the project to actually get it started. I’m surprised the government has taken the notion of Inland Rail very literally with it not having any connection to the Port of Brisbane or the Port of Melbourne. They are important, difficult, and challenging issues to sort out but you can’t just build Inland Rail with no connectivity to either port. These projects are complex and we know that you’re never going to please everybody and there are issues around having to procure land, having to dissect across farmland, but one of the things that I’ve learnt as being a long time local MP and also having portfolios like this before is that you have to get the consultation right and when you’ve got such a big community expressing significant concern about the sort of hydrology work that has been done by the government and a lack of transparency about how the decision was made, you’ve got a problem.

REX: How would Labor look to extend Inland Rail or make those connections to other freight networks around Australia?

King: If we were fortunate enough to be in government in 2022, we don’t know what plans would be in place but what I would like to see is the start of a discussion about it. At the moment all we know about it is there’s going to be significantly increased trucks going through Acacia Ridge but no plan or discussion about what some of the alternatives are. The government needs to start that work now because without those connections Inland Rail doesn’t make as much sense as it should.

Catherine King
Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport & Regional Development Catherine King.

A LEVEL PLAYING FIELD FOR FREIGHT
Without freight rail continuing to operate throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Australia’s supermarkets shelves would be empty and commodities would be sitting at farms and mines, never making it to market. To ensure that this critical link in the logistics chain continued to operate, governments stepped in, allowing freight to cross otherwise closed borders. In May, the ARTC provided some financial relief for rail freight operators by extending payment terms for current access charges and deferring a consumer price index increase that was scheduled for July. Rail freight operators are still concerned however, with more empty containers being transported by sea, and a lack of competitive neutrality with road freight.

REX: Would you want to go back and have a look at competitive pricing neutrality between rail and road, and access charges?

King: That wasn’t part of our policy at the last election but we’ve just seen an extraordinary effort in terms of all our freight and logistics companies, whether it has been rail through to what’s happened in the trucking industry.

I think there’s a much stronger appreciation about the role that our freight and logistics companies play and we support the government’s pausing of some of those fees and charges in order to make sure that we get through this crisis. As a nation, what’s the most efficient way of delivering our freight? It’s important to ensure that we don’t pick one over another that we make sure that there is a reasonably level playing field for both but what we want to focus on is ensuring that we have the most efficient system that we possibly can whether it is road, whether it is rail, or whether it’s via shipping and our ports.

THE FASTER OR HIGH-SPEED RAIL DILEMMA
In a speech delivered to shadow cabinet in May, Anthony Albanese reaffirmed Labor’s commitment to building a high-speed rail link between Melbourne and Brisbane, via Sydney and Canberra. As a nation-building project it would certainly be iconic, but could COVID-19 actually turn Australia’s long held dream of high-speed rail into reality?

REX: High-speed rail proposals obviously have a long history in Australia. Why did Labor feel like now is the right time to return to the project?

King: Well I think we’ve never left the project to some extent. We’ve been pushing high-speed rail as a visionary rail infrastructure project for the nation for a long period of time, and obviously when we had the opportunity to hold the government benches started to progress the business case for that.

REX: Labor took the policy of a billion dollars for land acquisitions along the corridor to the last election. Is that something the party is still committed to at a federal level?

King: Well obviously we’re reviewing all of our policies at the moment, we’re two years out from the next federal election and we’ll have a bit to say in the lead up to the next election in terms of our transport policies including rail. Obviously money is going to be pretty tight this time around for both sides of politics, given the COVID-19 crisis, but we’ve laid a marker down pretty clearly that we think high-speed rail is an important long-term economic opportunity for our nation and shouldn’t be one that’s lost.

REX: There’s also a number of proposals for faster rail. How would Labour see a program of high-speed rail interacting with the current businesses cases focused on faster rail on similar corridors to those the high-speed rail line would follow?

King: Faster rail can be anything from substantial corridor improvements, improvements in rail technology, through to more expensive projects of duplication and looking at improving some of the regional rail networks. It doesn’t have to be either or but what you have to do is be serious about it. There’s lots of potential for regional rail improvements and we should be looking at that all the time.

REX: One of the stumbling blocks for high- speed rail has been that price tag but there are alternative funding methods such as value capture that are used to get projects like these off the ground. Would you be looking at these as a way to fund a high-speed rail project?

King: One of the things that coronavirus crisis has shown us is that we’ve lacked any large scale, iconic infrastructure transport project and Anthony in his vision speech wanted to particularly go back and highlight high-speed rail because of a couple of things. One is the investment potential that it has, but also the nation building potential that it has, in terms of developing a much stronger sense of regional and decentralised towns from Melbourne from Sydney, all the way up to Brisbane.

REX: Another element of Anthony Albanese’s speech was calling for the local manufacturing of rollingstock. Albanese nominated successes in Queensland, WA, and Victoria. How would Labour seek to expand this to other states and for builds to continue happening in those states that already have a manufacturing capability?

King: My hometown of Ballarat is a railway town. We still have our railway workshops here, many of the X’Trapolis trains are built here as well, and they’re really important skilled manufacturing jobs for our region. Part of the problem for many of those manufacturers has been that the procurement is really patchy. Each state and territory government does that separately, they may procure three trains here, they may do 50, and the manufacturers in my own constituency tell me it’s that long term pipeline of projects that keeps those railway workshop doors open.

COVID-19 has taught us that our manufacturing does have enormous capability, but it does need support. One of the things we announced in the 2019 election campaign was that we felt there was a need to have a national rail procurement strategy to actually start to look at how you can smooth out some of those lags that occur in rollingstock procurement so that we can continue to still have those terrific railway workshops here. We’ve got a great history of it, and we don’t want to see railway manufacturing go the way of the car industry. You need a plan to support it, to keep it here and to keep local jobs here.

REX: Would you support or encourage quotes or targets for locally manufactured rollingstock like there are in Victoria?

King: As a Victorian I’m very attracted to the plan that the Victorian government has in relation to local procurement. Federally we are subject to trade law as well so we always have to be conscious about that but I am a big fan. Many people have decided that we should be manufacturing more things that we are capable of manufacturing in this country and I’m a big fan of local content and local procurement.

Canberra COVID

Election results keep rail on track in ACT and NZ

Election results over the weekend have reconfirmed the pipeline of rail projects on both sides of the Tasman.

In the ACT, where the Labor-Greens coalition government was returned with a likely increased number of representatives in the legislative assembly, future progress on the Canberra light rail is confirmed.

Prior to the election the opposition Liberals had cast doubt over the second stage of the project, suggesting that a connection to Belconnen should be built instead of the currently planned extension to Woden. ACT Labor has said that once the extension to Woden is complete, work will begin on a line from Belconnen to the Airport.

Public Transport Association of Canberra chair Ryan Hemsley said that light rail was a key election issue in the capital.

“Saturday’s election results have re-confirmed the trends we saw four years ago, with strong swings towards the government in Murrumbidgee and Brindabella cementing light rail as a vote-winner,” said Hemsley.

“In contrast to the pro-light rail policies offered by Labor and the Greens, the Canberra Liberals offered half-hearted and at times inconsistent support for the extension of light rail to Woden.”

Light rail also made an appearance in the New Zealand election which saw the Labour Party returned with a parliamentary majority. The party, which had previously governed in a coalition with the Green Party and NZ First, has committed to progressing the Auckland light rail project from the city centre to Māngere and the Auckland Airport.

The party has committed to continue investing in KiwiRail, which has received large cash injections in recent budgets to improve New Zealand’s rail infrastructure and freight services. Upgrades to Wellington’s commuter rail network are also part of the party’s platform.

Under investment in Auckland’s rail network was revealed earlier this year and led to a city-wide restriction on services. The most recent works have seen a 10-minute frequency returned to the Eastern Line and improvements between Otahuhu and Newmarket on the Southern line. Further work on the Southern Line between Homai and Pukekohe will continue for the next three weeks.

KiwiRail chief operating officer Todd Moyle said works have been completed efficiently and on schedule.

“During the first closure on the Eastern Line the teams met their target of replacing 20 km of rail and more than 3500 sleepers on the 10km between Panmure and the city centre,” he said.

“We are continuing to work with Auckland Transport to review our progress and plan the way ahead. We have agreed a programme of rolling line closures across the network is the best and most efficient way to progress this work over the coming months. For the next month our focus will remain on the Southern Line.”

Further network closures are planned for the Christmas period when patronage decreases.

Albanese launches Labor’s Rail Manufacturing Plan

A National Rail Manufacturing Plan would be formed to ensure that federal money spent on rail projects in Australia leads to local manufacturing of rollingstock if Labor was elected federally.

Opposition leader Anthony Albanese used his budget reply speech to announce the plan, which could identify and optimise the opportunities to build freight and passenger trains in Australia.

Included in the plan are measures such as the establishment of an Office of National Rail industry Coordination (ONRIC) to audit the adequacy, capacity, and condition of passenger trains and develop priority plans. Labor would also reinstate the Rail Supplier Advocate to help small to medium sized enterprises find national and export opportunities and create a Rail Industry Innovation Council to spur more local research & development.

Labor estimates that the plan would create up to 659 full-time jobs, and boost Australia’s GDP by up to $5 billion.

Australasian Railway Association (ARA) CEO Caroline Wilkie said a coordinated approach to rail manufacturing would help local industry and governments.

“Rail manufacturers currently have to navigate a very fragmented market to address different approaches between state and territories,” Wilkie said.

“This severely limits the industry’s ability to gain the scale it needs to create efficiencies and foster more innovation in the Australian market.

“Policies that support a strong Australian rail manufacturing sector will ultimately lead to better deals for governments and create more jobs in the process.”

Local manufacturers of rollingstock also reacted positively to the Labor plan. Todd Garvey, Head of Sales Australia and New Zealand at Bombardier Transportation said that coordination would ensure that Australia’s rail manufacturing industry continues to thrive.

“Bombardier was encouraged by the focus on our industry in the budget reply speech by the Opposition Leader on October 8. In particular, the establishment of the ONRIC within the Department of Industry and the commitment to ‘manufacturing trains here’ in Australia.”

Garvey noted that Bombardier’s factory in Dandenong builds trains and trams not only for Victoria, but other states including South Australia.

The ARA has been pushing for consistency across state governments in rollingstock and signalling tenders to better leverage existing local capabilities.

Around Australia, the rollingstock manufacturing and repair industry generates $2.4bn and employs over 4,000 people, half outside metropolitan areas. Garvey highlighted that Bombardier’s presence in south east Melbourne supports a wider manufacturing ecosystem.

“In Dandenong we employ over 200 manufacturing workers and support a vibrant rail supply chain in south east Melbourne. This supply chain supports our carriage building, welding and fit out for our trams and trains. This is important, our local content on the VLocity trains is 69 per cent and around 55 per cent for our E-Class trams. Not only this but in Victoria alone we have a significant servicing and maintenance business operating out of West Melbourne, Geelong and Ballarat East.”

Wilkie said that a focus on innovation now would set up Australia’s rail manufacturing industry for the future.

“Investment in R&D and innovation leads to a better infrastructure network for Australians and improved efficiencies for industry,” she said.

“Government and industry must work together to advance rail technology and innovation adoption, based on clear policy settings that provide the certainty needed for long term investment.”

Garvey said that in Bombardier’s case, local manufacturing was building a skills base for quality Australian manufacturing.

“Bombardier is committed to building rail cars in Australia. Not only are we committed to this industry but also to the next generation. We have apprentices at Dandenong and a commitment to diversity. Our on-site welding school is testament to this fact and we will not stop making trains and trams to the highest quality Australian standards.”

Chinese high speed train. Photo: Bombardier

Albanese puts high speed rail at the centre of COVID-19 recovery

Anthony Albanese will argue for high-speed rail to be a central part of the rebuilding of Australia’s economy following coronavirus (COVID-19), according to reports.

In a speech to be delivered to the shadow cabinet on May 11, Albanese will say that a high-speed rail project along with decentralisation should be pursued by the federal government as a way to recover and create a more resilient nation.

In a draft of the speech, Albanese is expected to combine a commitment to high-speed rail with local train manufacturing.

“We must invest in nation-building infrastructure including iconic projects like high-speed rail and we should be building trains here,” Albanese is expected to say.

“Government procurement policy in rail manufacturing has produced superior outcomes to imports and created regional jobs in Queensland, Victoria and Western Australia.”

In 2019, Labor took a $1 billion land acquisition policy for high-speed rail to the federal election, however the Coalition has not pursued high speed rail during its time in office.

The speech by the federal opposition comes after Treasurer Josh Frydenberg outlined his plans for post-COVID-19 recovery. In a speech to the National Press Club on May 5, Frydenberg said that the government would maintain its $100 billion ten year infrastructure pipeline, but did not nominate particular projects. Frydenberg did, however, note that the current pandemic should not lead to protectionist policies.

In April, shadow transport spokeswoman Catherine King had nominated high speed rail as a “economic game changer” and indicated federal Labor’s continuing support for a high speed rail network linking population centres down the Eastern seaboard. King also noted that investment in high-speed rail would encourage economic growth in regional communities.

At the time, federal Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development Michael McCormack said that the government’s focus is building the Inland Rail project and pursuing faster rail projects.

Labor pushes for high speed rail investment

High speed rail could once again be on the table, with federal Labor transport spokeswoman Catherine King describing the project’s potential as an “economic game changer” for Australia after the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

In comments reported in the Sydney Morning Herald, King said that building a high-speed rail network along the eastern seaboard would be able to cut travel times.

“High-speed rail has the potential to revolutionise interstate travel, allowing travel between capital cities in as little as three hours,” King told the Herald.

With regional areas also reeling from the impact of the bushfires earlier in 2020 and late 2019, King noted that the project has the potential to inject economic activity into regional economies, as Inland Rail is currently doing.

“If the government is interested in creating jobs and boosting regional economies, it should seriously consider investing in high-speed rail now,” said King.

Federal Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development, Michael McCormack, told the Herald that the government was not looking into high speed rail at this time.

“While I have long been an advocate for high-speed rail in Australia, given the significant costs outlined in the reports conducted between 2010 and 2013, my focus is currently on delivering the inland rail and faster rail proposals which the federal government has committed to,” said McCormack.

In 2019, Labor took to the election a $1 billion promise to set aside land for an East Coast high speed rail corridor.

Between 2010 and 2013 the Australian government looked into the possibility of a 1,748km route from Brisbane to Melbourne via Sydney and Canberra. With a speed of 350km/hr this would make the travel times between Sydney and Melbourne and Sydney and Brisbane below three hours, the threshold for passengers to swap from air to train travel according to the Australasian Railway Association.

The route alignment mapped out in 2013 also included regional stops such as in Wagga Wagga, Albury Wodonga, Shepparton, Newcastle, Coffs Harbour, and Grafton. The cost of linking Sydney and Melbourne with high speed rail would be roughly $50bn and the total cost would be $114bn in 2012 dollars, however with a positive return on investment.

Suburban Rail Loop starts next phase at Box Hill

The Victorian Government is carrying out geotechnical work on the Suburban Rail Loop project, signalling the start of extensive ground works. 

The geotechnical work encompasses borehole drilling to depths of between 30-60 metres at the Box Hill site, with samples to be analysed over the next fortnight for soil and rock composition and stability. The work is intended to identify suitable locations for the underground stations.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews and Transport Infrastructure Minister Jacinta Allan were in attendance at Box Hill to announce the next phase of the project as it moves towards its anticipated 2022 construction start date.

“We said we’d get the Suburban Rail Loop started and that’s what we’re doing – with geotechnical work now underway in Box Hill,” Andrews said.

The $50 billion Suburban Rail Loop, part of Victoria’s Big Build program, is intended to connect Melbourne’s middle suburbs through an underground 90-kilometre rail link running from the Frankston line to the Werribee line via Melbourne Airport. 

The project, which is planned to incorporate several new stations looping from the southeast to the northwest of the city, may not be fully completed until the 2050s. Andrews stated that the project would change the way people move around Melbourne, “slashing travel times and better connecting people with jobs, education and other vital services, wherever they live”.

The expensive project received a funding blow following Labor’s defeat at the federal election in May. Former Labor leader Bill Shorten promised $10 billion for the project in the event of winning the election, including $300 million in matched funding with the Victorian Government, but this failed to transpire due to his loss to Liberal leader Scott Morrison.

Victorian Government launches trial of plastic rail sleepers in Melbourne

The Andrews Labor Government has begun an 18-month trial of railway sleepers made from recycled plastic.

Minister for Environment Lily D’Ambrosio and Minister for Public Transport Melissa Horne were in attendance as the first of 200 Duratrack plastic sleepers was laid today at Richmond train station in Melbourne.

“We’re embracing new technology to tackle the problem of plastic pollution in our community,” D’Ambrosio said.

“This project is a great example of the circular economy we’re creating through innovation and rethinking a product we use every day.”

The sleepers are produced using a mix of polystyrene and agricultural waste such as cotton bale wrap and vineyard covers by Mildura-based business Integrated Recycling, which developed the product in association with Monash University over a two-year period. 

The Duratrack sleepers are built to a potential life cycle of 50 years at half the cost of timber sleepers. Integrated Recycling also cites benefits such as reduced replacement cycles, the ability to integrate with existing sleepers, a weight comparable to timber sleepers and non-conductivity. Each kilometre of track that uses the sleepers translates to roughly 64 tonnes of plastic saved from landfills.

Integrated Recycling has already received approval to use the sleepers on Melbourne’s metro network, which have been implemented on four tourist railways including the Puffing Billy railway in the Dandenong Ranges.

“It’s exciting to see innovative, environmentally friendly technology rolled out at one of Melbourne’s busiest train stations,” said Minister for Transport Horne.

Anthony Albanese. Photo: Shipping Australia

Albanese announces picks for shadow cabinet

Opposition leader Anthony Albanese has announced Labor’s new Shadow Ministry, which meets for the first time in Brisbane on Tuesday.

Albanese on June 3 referred to the surprise Liberal-National election victory on May 18 as a “wake-up call” for Labor, and stated that his team would be “more than a match for the Morrison Government’s frontbench”.

“In the days and weeks that follow that meeting, Shadow Ministers will disperse into communities across the nation to listen to Australians about why only one in three voters gave Labor their first preference at the election on May 18,” Albanese said in a statement.

Notable among Albanese’s picks are Richard Marles as his deputy and shadow minister for defence; Penny Wong as shadow minister for foreign affairs, home affairs and immigration and citizenship; Jim Chalmers as shadow treasurer; and Chris Bowen as shadow minister for health.

Albanese’s choice to replace his previous position of shadow minister for infrastructure, transport and regional development went to Catherine King, who has been federal member for Ballarat since 2001.

King served as Labor’s shadow health minister for six years, a role that will now be filled by Chris Bowen, the previous shadow treasurer.

“It was a great honour to serve as Labor’s shadow health minister for six years and I’ll always be proud of the ambitious health agenda we took to last month’s election,” King said on her Twitter feed. “I wish my friend [Chris Bowen] all the very best in the role.”

Albanese stated that his ministry included an even distribution of men and women (including the Shadow Cabinet Secretary) and a mix of new and experienced ministers.

Former Labor leader Bill Shorten, who stood down after the election, retained a place in the cabinet in a dual role as shadow minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme and for government services.

“The shadow cabinet announcement, I think person for person, is far superior than those who sit on the government benches,” Albanese told press at a conference in Launceston, Tasmania.

“The recognition of that is the mass exodus that has happened on the government benches. They will suffer from the loss of Malcolm Turnbull, Julie Bishop, Christopher Pyne, Kelly O’Dwyer they’ve lost some of their best people.”

Labor reveals state budget ‘transport blitz’ for Victoria

The Victorian Government has unveiled plans to commit record funding for road and rail projects across the state in what it has referred to by Premier Daniel Andrews as a “blitz” for suburban transport.

“From fixing a pothole at the end of your street to the biggest transport projects in Victoria’s history – this Budget will get you where you need to go,” Andrews said.

The plans constitute part of the Victorian Budget for 201920, incorporating a $27.4 billion pipeline of works.

This includes $15.8 billion for the creation of the North East Link; $6.6 billion to remove 25 more level crossings (of a total 75) as part of the ongoing level crossing removal project; and $3.4 billion to deliver upgrades to the Sunbury, Cranbourne and Hurstbridge lines.

In all, the Sunbury line will receive a $2.1 billion boost, Cranbourne $750 million, and Hurstbridge $547 million.

Sunbury will also receive new high-capacity trains that will boost passenger capacity by 113,000 people.

The first of the 65 high-capacity trains previously announced in 2016 as part of the Labor Government’s High Capacity Metro Trains Project, is set to start on the Cranbourne and Pakenham lines this year.

Cranbourne will benefit from line duplications (doubling capacity during peak hours) and Hurstbridge will receive station upgrades at Greensborough and Montmorency.

The government has also set aside $615 million for regional public transport deliveries, including $340 million to purchase up to 18 new three-car V/Line VLocity trains, which the government said would bring good news for manufacturing and supply jobs in Dandenong, which hosts the assembly plant where the trains are built.

$111 million on training, recruitment and upskilling of train drivers in preparation for the new trains and services.

Three new stations will also be built at Goornong, Raywood and Huntly in the Bendigo area for a combined cost of $49.6 million and $150 million will be provided to fund new car parks at some of the busier stations in Melbourne and regional Victoria through the Car Parks for Commuters Fund

Following on from promises made before the state election in March, Labor will build 11,000 new spaces at stations across the state, bumping the current total number of spaces by 20 per cent to 66,000 stations in order to help relieve pressure along the lines.

An incentive scheme designed to reduce truck numbers on local roads by shifting more freight to rail will also be extended with an $8 million investment. Minister for Public Transport, Ports and Freight Melissa Horne said, “We promised to get trucks off local streets and that’s exactly what we’re doing.”

Outside of rail projects, the Andrews Labor Government will also put aside $608 million for road upgrades (including $425 million on regional roads) and $45.4 million for the development of bike and pedestrian paths, including new bike paths on St Kilda Road.

$205.1 million will be spent on increasing train and bus services generally, with the latter to be rolled out in Melbourne growth areas such as the north and south-east of the city.

“These projects should have been built years ago,” said Minister for Transport Infrastructure Jacinta Allan. “We can’t change that, but we can keep our promises and keep delivering the projects Victorians voted for and need – and that’s exactly what we’re doing.”

The Labor Government has spent $46.7 billion on state transport in the last four years, including its ongoing work on expensive projects such as the aforementioned level crossing removals and the $11 billion Metro Tunnel development, an underground rail line connecting the Sunbury line in the northwest to the Pakenham and Cranbourne lines in the south east.

V/Line train. Photo: Victorian Government

V/Line to benefit from influx of new drivers

V/Line has revealed plans to boost driver numbers in Victoria by 20 per cent by the end of 2020.

The move is in keeping with promises made by the Andrews Labor Government to increase regional rail reliability by increasing the number of services by 40 per cent.

The group, which is responsible for regional rail services to towns in Victoria such as Ballarat, Bendigo and Geelong, stated that it had trained around 30 fully qualified drivers in the last year. A further 120 trainees are currently completing an intense training course.

The course includes on-the-job training, classroom work and driving practice using train driving simulator systems. Member for Northern Victoria Jaclyn Symes said that the “fresh crop” of drivers would help to improve reliability in the short term and support the network for years to come.

“We’re providing a massive boost to driver numbers by the end of next year, which will mean more reliable services, less cancellations, and more local jobs,” said Minister for Public Transport Melissa Horne.

“As our regional cities continue to grow – we’re investing in the people and infrastructure to help keep our regional network moving and get you where you need to go safely and quickly.”

In addition to the training ramp-up, the state government recently started works on the first stage of a $7.2 million sleeper replacement program on the Seymour V/Line, which is due for completion by June 26.

Certain evening trains on the Seymour line are being replaced by coaches for a two-week period until May 23 as a result of the ongoing maintenance. These coaches will also replace certain evening trains on the line from May 26 to June 6.

The works form part of wider track maintenance investment in Victoria by Labor on the Seymour and Shepparton lines, which will see 55,000 life-expired sleepers on the two tracks between Donnybrook and Seymour replaced in 2019.

V/Line also carried out works to install new boom gates, bells and flashing lights at the Ewings Road level crossing at Avenel and the High Street level crossing at Barnawartha between March and April this year.