Is Mildura passenger rail feasible?

I first raised the absence of passenger rail services in June 2020, noting that Mildura is the only major centre in Victoria that remains condemned to very limited public transport options. Ironically the response from the minister at the time was to decline this call because the government was focused on completing the Murray Basin Rail Project. Well, here we are two years later, and this region has neither.

Mildura Council’s scoping brief, commissioned in 2019, was the basis for developing a study. I met with the CEO of Mildura Rural City very recently, and I congratulate them for being one of five councils that formed the North West Victoria Regional Passenger Transport Study. The report notes the population of the region is forecast to grow to 94 000 residents by 2031 and identifies 19 initiatives to improve the region’s passenger transport system. Reinstating the Mildura passenger train service is number one on the list of their priorities. This study notes the heavy financial burden that north-west Victoria shoulders compared to other geographical areas, including not having the economies of scale to encourage private investment and the relatively small revenue base of local government to manage the expensive maintenance of roads, transport networks and infrastructure. Yarriambiack and Buloke shires, which also formed part of this study, know these issues only too well.

Specific to public transport, people in the north-west have lower access and service levels but pay proportionately more, and the subsidy schemes and accessibility provisions available in metropolitan areas may not be available for people with a disability. Typically public transport, either via coach or a combination of coach and train, can take around 9 hours from Mildura to Melbourne. A plane is markedly quicker, taking around 80 minutes, but five times the cost. Since passenger rail services were removed from Mildura in 1993, residents have been further challenged by the lack of affordability and access to health services. We are not a Third World country. This delays people in seeking treatment, including preventative treatment for minor ailments before they become more serious, and ultimately contributes to poorer health outcomes. We have seen this on the north-east line as well, with more than a decade of delays and track work. Residents finally welcomed the rollout of one new VLocity train this year, only to see it pulled from service a month before the whole fleet was due to be replaced.

At the very least stakeholders are calling for the government to revisit feasibility studies and ensure this process includes consideration of the social equity benefits, remembering that Mildura is one of the five most socially disadvantaged local government areas in our state and geographically remote.