LEVEL CROSSING REMOVALS

Danny O’BRIEN (Gippsland South) (15:23): I am staggered that I am rising on the first day of a sitting week to speak on a government motion patting the government on its back – a motion, not even a bill, not even a piece of legislation, just a motion.

James Newbury: Is it the budget papers?

Danny O’BRIEN: It is not the budget papers. No, it is not about talking about the budget. The government does not want to talk about the budget.

Jess Wilson: I wonder why.

Danny O’BRIEN: I am not quite sure – well, I am quite sure why. I am very sure why they do not want to talk about the budget. They want to talk about something else that they have spent a lot of money on and had cost overruns on. I am going to do a favour for the member for Sunbury, because the member for Sunbury ran out of time, obviously. He said he did not have time to go through all the level crossing removals, so I thought I would list for everybody all the level crossing removals outside of Melbourne.

Okay, that is done; let us move on. When I looked at the list, I had a bit of a look and saw there are some on the Sunbury line, and I thought, ‘Well, I think the Country Party held the seat of Sunbury in about 1943, so maybe that is as close as we will get to something actually being spent in the country.’

Colin Brooks: Walshy was leader then, wasn’t he?

Danny O’BRIEN: I am going to tell him you said that, Minister. Walshy was not the leader in 1943. I think Kim Wells was in the Parliament, though. My apologies to the member for Rowville, because I am going to cop it for that one too.

Personally, I support in principle what the government has done in removing level crossings. Many years ago when this was underway I was alerted to the fact that there are virtually no level crossings in Sydney because the then government in Sydney removed most of them during the Depression years as Depression work jobs. It is a good thing that the government is doing it, but what I am concerned about is the cost and the fact that this is a multi, multibillion-dollar project that has been entirely metropolitan focused and those of us in regional Victoria have seen none of the benefits – indeed we have seen plenty of disruption and delay and costs heaped on us from this.

When I talk about costs, I am not actually sure what the final costs are. We saw a Victorian Auditor-General’s Office report in 2020 that indicated that the program then had gone from $8 billion to $14.8 billion with the addition of additional crossing removals, so $14.8 billion. If you add up the two pages in the budget papers this year – if you go to the State Capital Program, budget paper 4, 25 more level crossings is a new project being funded at $6.522 billion, and the 85 by 2025 listed under existing projects is listed at $8.8 billion – we are talking a figure of some $15.3 billion, which is getting up to about $140 million in total for each of the projects. What I am concerned about is the spending on that.

We have had arguments for a long time about the waste in this particular program. The Auditor-General has raised concerns about that because the government, as the member for Caulfield indicated, had not done the research, had not done the benefit–cost ratio and had not done the business cases when it launched into what was a very political campaign early on. In the 2020 update, the Follow up of Managing the Level Crossing Removal Program audit by VAGO, the Auditor-General stated:

However, DoT and MTIA did not complete a full business case for LXRP2. As a result, the government did not receive advice about the project’s expected economic benefit before it made its decision to fund LXRP2.

That is where I say it is one thing to support the removal of level crossings in principle; it is another thing to do it in an economically rational and responsible manner, and there is definitely a question as to whether the government has in fact done that.

That is in a situation where we in regional Victoria cannot get decent rail services, cannot get our roads fixed, cannot get our road projects done, and the government is spending $15.3 billion on the level crossing removal program. And I will go beyond that, because if you add to it the Metro Tunnel, the West Gate Tunnel and the North East Link, all of which have blown out to some degree in cost – the North East Link, we still do not know how much it has blown out in cost –

Jess Wilson: It’s $16 billion.

Danny O’BRIEN: Well, it is at least $16 billion, I think, on the budget papers, but in a Public Accounts and Estimates Committee hearing last year I asked what the cost of it was. ‘We can’t tell you that, Mr O’Brien, because there’s currently a live tender process’ – 12 months later we got exactly the same answer from the Minister for Transport and Infrastructure: ‘We’ve still got a live tender process and we can’t tell you how much it costs.’ I reckon possibly by 2026 we might know how much the North East Link is actually going to cost, but anyway, I digress. Those four projects, including the level crossing removals, are $54 billion – 54,000 million dollars on four projects alone, every one of them in the city.

You would think after that the government might say, ‘Well, we’ve spent a lot of money in Melbourne, we need to do some more for the regions’, but what is the next big thing we are going to do? We are going to do the Suburban Rail Loop. The government then adds a project that is, what, $125 billion? Who knows? It is at least, even on the government’s own numbers, $33 billion on the first stage. We know that will blow out. Here we are: we have a government with potentially $180 billion of spending on just five projects, and that is not even the full Suburban Rail Loop. Yet here in regional Victoria we cannot get our roads fixed, we cannot get our trains to turn up on time – and that is part of the issue I have with the Level Crossing Removal Project as a Gippslander, that we have seen massive disruption on the Gippsland line because of the works on the level crossing removal on the Cranbourne–Pakenham line.

Everyone understands that when you are doing infrastructure works there is going to be disruption, but we have put up with a hell of a lot of disruption now for eight or nine years, and we get no benefit from that. The minister often says, ‘Oh, you know, you’ll get more services, you’ll get less disruption on the line.’ Well, no, sorry, the train has precedence. The train does not stop at the road; that is the whole point of a level crossing. So the trains are not going to go any better from Gippsland because the government has removed a couple of level crossings on the city part of the Cranbourne–Pakenham line.

Indeed it is actually worse than that, because Gippsland has one of the worst performing train lines in terms of punctuality in the state, largely because we have no dedicated track. I caught the train to Parliament yesterday, as I often do. As is always the case, you rocket along pretty quickly to Pakenham, then you hit Pakenham station and it is a stop–start, slow go from there because you regularly get stuck behind a Metro train, unlike if you are in Geelong, Ballarat or Bendigo. If you are in Geelong, Ballarat or Bendigo, you have got the regional rail link, which by the way was delivered under budget and ahead of schedule by the former coalition government, something that is very rarely acknowledged by those opposite. Ballarat, Bendigo and Geelong have the regional rail link, a dedicated line. Gippsland does not get that. We get stuck behind the metro trains repeatedly.

The level crossing removal program has actually made that worse, because it was already a pretty narrow corridor, and the government building sky rail – elevated rail lines – for the level crossing removals has meant it is virtually impossible now to put in a fully dedicated Gippsland line. When I ask the minister repeatedly to at least do a feasibility study on it, at least look at putting in maybe a couple of additional passing loops, maybe a tunnel through the worst, most congested area, the minister virtually laughs at Gippsland and says, ‘No, we’re not interested in even doing that’. The works that the government has done on sky rail have absolutely wrecked us. What does that mean? Well, the Rail Futures Institute did some work on Gippsland rail needs a few years ago, and it showed that Warragul–Melbourne is 10 to 15 minutes slower now than it was in 2001 and the Bairnsdale trip has not changed since 1990 – indeed it got better in 2009, when you could get to Bairnsdale in 217 minutes, but it is now 224 minutes. So our regional rail services have got worse, and the Minister for Transport and Infrastructure has now made that situation even worse because she has built something that effectively precludes us from actually ever having a decent, dedicated Gippsland line. So it is very nice, I am sure, that some metropolitan Victorians are not having to wait 5, 10 or 15 minutes in the morning. We in country Victoria would just like a bit of funding to absolutely fix up our roads. We have seen another cut to the roads budget this year. With the money that has been spent – over $15 billion – on this program, just a bit of spare change from that would have been good to fix country roads as well.

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