A recommendation to terminate Gippsland trains at Pakenham appears to have been stopped in its tracks, with the State Government vowing it will not implement the proposal.
It comes after huge community backlash over the rail shuttle option recommended by a ‘citizen jury’ organised by Infrastructure Victoria.
“This has clearly hit a nerve in people who have been relatively tolerant of a declining service,” Gippsland V/Line Users Group convenor Natalie Thorne said.
“We will no longer be quiet about issues on our line.”
On Monday, Public Transport Minister Jacinta Allan said the government had “no plans to stop Gippsland trains at Pakenham and make people transfer” to a metropolitan train.
Ms Thorne said the statement was reassuring, but Gippslanders were still unsure how the government planned to fix the eastern corridor “in our lifetime”.
“They’ve got a Regional Network Development Plan but it didn’t seem to get to the heart of problem of how are we going to duplicate the eastern corridor?,” Ms Thorne said.
“We don’t have to keep going over old ground. Let’s start getting on with planning how to duplicate the line.”
Last week it was revealed an Infrastructure Victoria ‘citizen jury’ dismissed the option to construct a dedicated rail track in the south-east corridor as too costly, instead favouring the rail shuttle option to provide “increased services on the Gippsland line that connect with metropolitan services at Pakenham”.
However, it appears the jury’s opposition to the dedicated track has not completely ruled the option out, with Infrastructure Victoria saying it was currently assessing all options as part of the development of its 30-year infrastructure strategy, which is due to be released in October.
The ‘citizen jury’ participants were asked to consider more than 200 options including the ‘Gippsland-Pakenham rail shuttle’ and dedicated track options.
Jury sessions were run by Infrastructure Victoria in Shepparton over six Saturdays earlier this year to provide regional input into the strategy.
However no Gippsland town was represented, as jurors were drawn from towns within 100 kilometres of Shepparton, Infrastructure Victoria saying it was necessary to choose members who could “reasonably be expected to travel to attend every session”.
This process drew strong criticism from local councils, politicians and the community.
At least two petitions have since been launched, one by Member for Morwell Russell Northe and the other by activist group Voices of the Valley; while a Facebook page ‘Hands off The Gippsland Line’ started by Latrobe City Councillor Kellie O’Callaghan has attracted more than 800 ‘likes’.
Infrastructure Victoria chief executive Michel Masson this week defended the consultation process as “robust”, saying it was considering other forms of feedback as well as the citizen jury reports, including an online survey, workshops, roundtables and formal submissions.
Mr Masson said there would be another opportunity for Victorians to have their say when the draft strategy is released.
The Committee for Gippsland and Latrobe City Council were among those who made formal submissions to the process.
The Committee for Gippsland cemented its opposition to the rail shuttle option this week.
It had lodged a submission with Infrastructure Victoria on the 30-year plan, stating Gippslanders should not be forced to disembark at Pakenham.
The group advocated for more services for East Gippsland and construction of a third and fourth rail line to ease congestion once V/Line trains reached Pakenham.
Member for Morwell Russell Northe said Ms Allan’s comments gave no security to Gippsland commuters who wanted a “black and white commitment” to the future of the Gippsland rail service.
Member for Narracan Gary Blackwood said the comments indicated Infrastructure Victoria’s credibility as a lead planning agency was failing.
“A final report is to be delivered in October by Infrastructure Victoria regarding the citizen jury’s recommendations and today’s comments from the minister undermine the integrity of the process they themselves established,” Mr Blackwood said earlier this week.
Victorian Greens spokesperson for transport Samantha Dunn said improving transport links to Gippsland was vital for a transition away from coal.
Labor Member for Eastern Victoria Harriet Shing reinforced the Transport Minister’s comments this week, saying there were no plans to implement the rail shuttle proposal.
“We’re not considering it now and it’s not part of the Regional Network Development Plan we released in May,” Ms Shing said.
She said the government was getting rid of nine level crossings on the Pakenham line and the recent budget included funding for extra off-peak services from Melbourne to Traralgon, regional bus service improvements for the Latrobe Valley, planning for station and car park improvements at Morwell, Moe and Traralgon stations, planning for new crossing loops, and duplicating the single track section between Bunyip and Longwarry.