Western Victoria passenger train campaign continues 30 years after Kennett closure

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Jan Hassell’s poor eyesight means she cannot drive, and she also suffers from epilepsy and a nerve condition that makes sitting too long very painful.

But the retired nurse has no choice but to travel an hour from her home in Horsham to Nhill, to visit her elderly parents, by bus.

Her sister, who owns a farm with her husband in Balmoral, sometimes drives her to her parents, but it’s a four-hour return trip as Balmoral is an hour south of Horsham.

Jan Hassell protested against the Kennett government’s abolition of passenger rail transport to the Wimmera.(ABC Wimmera: Alexander Darling)

If Mrs Hassell chooses the V/Line bus, she must spend the night in Nhill before the next bus crosses town to take her home.

She is one of many residents in western Victoria who are keen for regular passenger trains to return after the Kennett government halted service in 1993.

“I was very upset knowing that I would never get a driver’s license and that I would either have to use public transport or rely on other people to get me from A to B, which I don’t. don’t like to do because it pisses them off,” Ms Hassell said. said.

“That’s when I found out I couldn’t sit still for long periods of time on a bus because of sciatica.

“While on a train you can get up and walk around. It’s a lot more comfortable, more leg room. It would mean my sister could go straight from Balmoral to see mum and dad.”

A shiny golden plate engraved "Bringing Trains Back to the Victorians" mounted on a red brick wall.
A plaque from 2004, when daily passenger trains were returned to Ararat, remains on the platform of this station.(ABC Wimmera: Alexander Darling)

Gauge the problem

Today, Ararat is the end of the line for trains traveling west from Melbourne after the Bracks government reintroduced passenger services there – along with Bairnsdale in East Gippsland – in 2004.

There are tracks beyond town but they are standard gauge, too narrow for V/Line services which run on broad gauge tracks.

The Overland stops in the Wimmera four times a week – twice towards Adelaide and twice towards Melbourne – but must use the standard gauge line which passes through Ararat and Geelong.

It bypasses Ballarat entirely, where Wimmera residents go for medical appointments and other services not available anywhere else in the region.

The Overland depends on subsidies to be viable.

A woman in a dark coat and cap with a white handbag is talking to another blonde woman in a burgundy coat.  They are on a platform.
Passenger rail activist Helen Woodhouse-Herrick (left) talks to a passenger.(ABC Wimmera: Alexander Darling)

Nhill’s Helen Woodhouse-Herrick was among the successful campaigners in 2020, who won three years of funding from the Victorian Government to sue the Overland.

But she added that another downside was that he arrived in the Wimmera at inconvenient times for commuters.

“You are going from Adelaide to Melbourne on a Sunday but then you have to get home the next morning at 8am on Monday, otherwise you have to spend four nights in a hotel to catch the Overland return on Friday,” he said. she declared. said.

A yellow and purple train at a station.  On the building to the right is a sign saying Ararat A
A train in its wide gauge siding at Ararat.(ABC Wimmera: Alexander Darling)

“A lot of people are pensioners, disabled, a lot of them can’t afford four nights in a hotel. They come down to Melbourne and make their appointments, and they want to go home. [the] the next day. We need to benefit from an additional service or a schedule change.”

Ms Hassell is among those traveling to Ballarat and Melbourne for medical appointments.

In the past, she had to stop seeing certain specialists – ophthalmologists and neurologists – because reaching them became “too difficult”.

“I had to get on a bus, then change from a bus to a train and [then] walk from Flinders Street or take a taxi to the specialist. And then I have to stay overnight most of the time because the service was running again until the next day,” she said.

Get back on track

Campaigners like Ms Woodhouse-Herrick and the former Mayor of Horsham, Mark Radford, say another solution could be to introduce daily shuttle trains from Horsham and Nhill to connect with existing services from Ararat.

“The bus service is not suitable for a young family, especially young families with pushers, the elderly,” Mr Radford said.

A diagram showing the current rail situation in western Victoria.  A purple line is the route the shuttle service takes.
Mr. Radford’s shuttle proposal.(Provided: Mark Radford)

“I would be quite confident that people all along the line would use the service. The shuttle idea is a stopgap measure until more expensive things happen, including recalibration lines.

It presented a service proposal to the Victorian Department of Transport in 2020. The plan included a timetable with five return services between Horsham and Ararat each weekday between 5am and 10pm.

“Even the idea of ​​having an additional service to the Overland would help, but it’s still not the final solution to have a regular daily passenger train service from Wimmera to Melbourne.

Two men and two women (smaller and in the middle) smile at a camera.  A woman is holding a document titled "Climb on board"
In 2019, Northern Grampians Mayor Kevin Irwin, Southern Grampians Mayor Mary-Ann Brown and Mark Radford (far right) meet with then Transport Minister Melissa Horne.(Provided: Mark Radford)

“Horsham is a regional centre, and public transport is a key issue in attracting people to regional centres. This would have an instant effect on tourism.”

Track upgrades, turnaround facilities, and recalibration of train axles to run on standard gauge were needed before shuttle trains could even run on the then western rails. victorian.

The Parliamentary Budget Office estimated the whole thing would cost $47 million, a fraction of the $200 billion for Melbourne’s commuter rail loop or the removal of a level crossing.

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Play the video.  Duration: 6 minutes 42 seconds

Feared Victoria’s commuter rail loop project could result in massive cost explosion.(Elias Clure)

“It’s a bit unfair,” Ms Woodhouse-Herrick said.

“We’re all supposed to be off the same purse, but we don’t get anything that way.”

Ms. Hassell agrees.

“I can understand from the perspective that there are more people living in Melbourne, but people in the countryside cannot be overlooked. They still need to be able to move around,” she said.

“There are certain things that are essential services that you lose money on, whatever they are. It’s not a for-profit type of business.”

A diesel train with the words Pacific National on the front arrives at a station.  A woman in black beam and waves to him.
The Overland is a major service linking Horsham with Adelaide and Melbourne.(ABC Wimmera: Gillian Aeria)

Where are the parties

In 2018 the Opposition pledged to fund a business case for the return of passenger rail service from Horsham and Hamilton, and to bring trains back on the Mildura line, which were also discontinued under Kennett in 1993.

Opposition Leader Matthew Guy has yet to reaffirm that commitment.

“We haven’t announced it yet, but I’m certainly more than happy to watch it,” Mr Guy said in August this year.

Premier Daniel Andrews said his government relies on the Department of Transport rather than the Parliamentary Budget Officer for matters like this.

“We’ve made investments at every level, we’ve upgraded every regional passenger line across the state. We’re not closing train lines across the country, we’ve opened some that previous governments closed,” he said. said Mr. Andrews. the week.

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