Notwithstanding brief and partial experiments with franchising over the decade between 1994 and 2004, public transport services in regional Victoria remain under the quasi-nationalised model that has prevailed throughout their history.
Strategic and tactical planning of regional services is currently undertaken by several Regional Service Planners within the Office of the Director of Public Transport, each responsible for a particular portion of the state. The results on the ground are patchy and vary in quality from region to region. Some regions have recorded substantial increases in rail patronage, largely as a result of increased regional rail frequencies (again a political commitment, rather than an actual planning initiative). Other regions (notably Geelong) are still caught in the vicious cycle of postwar decline and no solutions are forthcoming from the bureaucracy.
Actual patronage figures are treated as commercial-in-confidence, so public knowledge of progress in mode share is limited to what information is volunteered by the Department. Nonetheless, there are no signs on the ground that patronage is increasing anywhere other than on the upgraded ‘Regional Fast Rail’ services; in particular, most town bus and regional coach services that could carry many more passengers are neglected by planners and poorly patronised as a result. Just as in Melbourne suburbs, the poor standard of these services is a large factor in the stress placed on railway station car parks.
The same problems with poor information and general neglect of passenger needs that are seen in Melbourne are present too in country Victoria, where their effect is amplified due to the longer waiting times and distances involved. For example, in early June 2007 buses were replacing trains between Seymour and Albury while planned repairs were being carried out on a rail bridge, but then a derailment at Seymour on 5 June (the same day as the Kerang level crossing disaster) led to an unplanned replacement of trains with buses between Melbourne and Seymour. Instead of one continuous bus trip being provided from Melbourne to Albury, passengers were taken in one bus to Seymour and then forced to wait 45 minutes for a second bus. In most cases passengers were not told about the replacement buses, even when buying their tickets; nor was any signage provided at Seymour explaining how to change buses. One bus driver even had to ask directions from passengers! The journey from Melbourne to Albury took two hours longer than usual, and anecdotal accounts from passengers indicate many would have forfeited their fares and gone back to their cars had they known about the bus arrangements in advance.
In Geelong, a ‘G21 alliance’ of local government, community groups, business, statutory bodies and State Government was formed in 2002, with one of its objectives being the development and implementation of a regional public transport strategy. By May 2007, the group had become so frustrated at the inaction from the Department of Infrastructure that many of its members were threatening to leave the alliance unless the public transport issue was dealt with. The frustration related to the Department keeping secret a 2006 report on public transport issues in Geelong, and failing to act on obvious system shortcomings including incomprehensible bus stop locations, lack of interchanges and absence of timetable information.
The core issue is that the G21 regional public transport strategy-action plan has not been delivered by the State Department of Infrastructure despite the draft being completed in late 2005 and numerous offers and attempts to progress the issue not being successful. What started as a collaborative process to develop the public transport strategy that could be used as a “model for regional Victoria” has deteriorated to a tension filled relationship with no outcome and negative consequences for G21 being: significant time wasted…and questions as to where any further investment is warranted.
(Minutes of G21 alliance meeting, 25 May 2007)
In response to the failure of this process, and similar to the recommendations advanced here for metropolitan Melbourne, the PTUA’s Geelong branch has proposed the creation of a public planning agency for Greater Geelong, as a pilot project for moving the governance of regional services closer to the Transport Community model more generally. For more information, consult our separate policy document A Regional Public Transport Authority for Geelong.