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Yes, minister, as double-talk obscures truth about trains

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I’ve often marvelled at how the government has been able consistently and, in a disciplined manner, to portray images intended to burnish infrastructure credentials. There is rarely a news bulletin where a minister or government backbencher is not decked out in a hi-vis vest, work boots and hard hat. As a lesson in media management, it’s certainly been a bravura performance. But is the visage now giving way to cracks that only careful design oversight and astute contract management of projects could have avoided?

Take this week’s announcement by the government of timetable changes that will see 93 services along the Pakenham-Cranbourne line take longer, and many up to five minutes longer. Only a few services will be faster, albeit slightly.

Yet another hi-vis photo opportunity for Premier Daniel Andrews and Minister for Transport Infrastructure Jacinta Allan.

Yet another hi-vis photo opportunity for Premier Daniel Andrews and Minister for Transport Infrastructure Jacinta Allan.Credit:Justin McManus

After more than $2 billion was spent on line upgrades over the last four years, it’s a bizarre outcome that was made all the more mystifying by a press conference held by Public Transport Minister Melissa Horne on Wednesday. The minister said, in words that would have made Sir Humphrey Appleby proud: “What is good news for passengers and good news for commuters is that the timetable will reflect their experience.”

All said with a look of resignation suggesting the minister knew this would cut no ice with anyone. You have to wonder whether the media strategy insulted more people than news of the actual travel time extension infuriated.

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After this week, no one in the government should be thinking that public reactions to this kind of news are going to be restrained in the future. With the public craving authenticity, this novel use of language can only alienate more people than it might placate.

After being told the infrastructure is coming, and having seen so much spent on purported upgrades and new builds, revelations that travelling times will deteriorate just fuel frustration.

The evidence suggests that a preoccupation with accelerating capital expenditure to build a narrative around action has overshadowed a desperate need for operational investment that feeds directly into improved rail services. The public needs both.

Also troubling in recent weeks has been the story around V/Line. Poor punctuality across much of regional Victoria, along with ageing rolling stock, makes growing disenchantment no surprise, according to recent customer satisfaction data.

If people in regional Victoria are being told things are better, why for example, are commuters on the Ballarat line so often standing – from Caroline Springs and even earlier? As additional stations come on line, even more commuters will be standing from very early in the service with little hope that anything in the near term will alleviate mounting inconvenience and discomfort.

The effectiveness and adequacy of investments on public transport infrastructure don’t just affect commuters.

How well connected our state becomes bears on how well we manage population growth and make our regions sustainable with efficient and accessible freight and logistics industries. It affects our entire state.

That’s why the debacle over the Murray Basin Rail Project is so serious. Victoria has simply run out of money to contribute to its completion.

With an initial budget of $440 million, shared roughly equally between the Commonwealth and Victoria, which was supposed to massively upgrade the state’s north-western regional rail freight network, the project is effectively stalled. Still more, the works so far have made travelling times worse across parts of the project.

Over the next few years, commuters and the broader public are going to be more exacting in wanting to see the actual dividends from infrastructure investments and the endless disruptions they’ve endured on the promise of better performance metrics. It would be churlish to deny that there have been infrastructure improvements in recent years, but we’re looking for more than a glass that’s half full. And if it’s not, just don’t try to tell us it is.

John Pesutto was Victoria’s Shadow Attorney General from 2014 to 2018 and is a senior fellow at the School of Government at Melbourne University.

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