WHILE Melbourne continues to boom, and the state government feeds billions of dollars into supporting our state capital’s frenzied population growth, we cannot afford to ignore the needs of regional Victoria or the risks of a two-paced economy.

At a time when billions of dollars are being spent or proposed in treating Melbourne’s growing pains with new and extended rail lines, duplication of rail lines, underground rail networks and multi-billion dollar road networks, the rest of us sit idly by waiting and wondering when our turn will come, and when will our fair share of the spending be announced.

Approximately 125,000 extra people call Melbourne home today than at this time last year, and everyone knows this growth is not sustainable, it’s not ideal and that more needs to be done to promote alternatives.

Those alternatives include better employment opportunities, better rail and road links, and more effective promotion of regional Victoria, its attractions and its lifestyle opportunities.

The boom in Melbourne risks overshadowing development in and of the regions. Last week, this paper reported 97 per cent of international tourists to Victoria don’t venture out of Melbourne.

Frankly, that figure is appalling and is something Tourism Victoria and the government, as well as local stakeholders need to work on, or we risk being left further behind.

We don’t doubt the appeal of the Suburban Rail Loop announced by the state government this week, but for commuters on the Bendigo line to share in the benefits of this massive investment, we have to be able to get to Melbourne first, and on time, and more often.

Victorians also deserve to see more of the detail surrounding Australia’s biggest ever transport project, and to have the reassurance that the project’s feasibility and funding have all been properly determined. Without this, alarm bells will rightly ring.

A project of this scale can only be delivered with bipartisan support, given its eventual construction will surely span successive governments just as it will a ring of Melbourne
suburbs. 

The $50 billion-plus price tag for this ambitious project should scare everyone, just as much as it might excite some. That’s at least $10,000 for every man, woman and child living in Melbourne today.

The government needs to invest more in infrastructure that supports regional communities too, and given how flavour of the month transport is – improving the Bendigo to Melbourne rail line is central to this region’s needs.

But some would say improving is not the right word to use when it comes to any examination of the Bendigo rail corridor – perhaps restoring is more apt.

For central Victorians, at a time when more and more of us look to the rail network between Bendigo and Melbourne as an alternative to driving our cars, we need to have confidence that the service we put our trust in will deliver us to our destination on time.

But the pressures upon timetables and on the passing loops north of Kyneton limit the capacity of the system to cope.

The decision to remove one track between Bendigo and Kyneton as part of the original Regional Fast Rail project might have been an easy way for the government to save money and deliver faster trains to the people of this region sooner, but it was always going to be a decision that came back to bite everyone.

What started out as an $80 million election promise for among other things, an 80-minute Bendigo to Melbourne train service, exists today as a 98-minute service at best – that’s 22.5 per cent slower than originally promised, and the entire Regional Fast Rail project cost taxpayers nearly 10 times more than we were originally told it would.

For all the work that’s been done, including the Regional Rail Link project, we’ve already caught up to the benefits we expected to attain, much earlier than was anticipated, highlighting the need for further strategic and prudent investment. Soon.

But despite the shortcomings, the delays and the cost blowouts, there’s no doubt regional Victorians have embraced the improvements to rail that have been delivered over the past decade.

Patronage on the Bendigo line, and every other regional line, has soared, but the popularity of our trains could also end up stifling any effort towards continuous
improvement.

There’s not much point looking back and pointing blame, but there is benefit to be gained by learning from the past.

Victoria cannot afford to make these same short sighted and expensive mistakes in the search for
betterment.

By all means, plan for the best possible service, scrutinise every option, cost every detail, but please, get it right.