High hopes for bridge

WHILE early works have begun outside the Avon River Bridge, federal money has still not been delivered to get the $500 million Gippsland Regional Rail Revival upgrade on track.

No concrete timeframes were given when state Public Transport Minister Jacinta Allan visited Stratford with rail executives to inspect the bridge on Wednesday, but she was “optimistic” about new federal Infrastructure Minister Michael McCormack committing to the funding.

“I think it’s fair to say the federal minister is as keen as I am to get this money issue sorted and get the final signatures on the piece of paper sorted, and we can get on with the program of works,” she said.

“I think he understands, and we’ve talked to his office and his department about how we’re pushing on, because this is a program of works that just can’t wait.

“We’re getting on with it, but it is against a backdrop of being quite optimistic that this can get sorted quite quickly.”

A spokesperson for Mr McCormack said the federal government had “committed” $504 million, and was “fully supportive” of the $1.57 billion statewide project.

“The Deputy Prime Minister has had constructive discussions with the Victorian Minister for Public Transport Jacinta Allan,” they said.

The Avon River Bridge will be replaced with a brand new, state of the art crossing, so trains will not be restricted to 10 kilometres per hour.

Geotechnical surveys have begun, which will involve 50 boreholes and 120 test pits along the line to understand ground conditions and soil quality.

As well as the new bridge, there will also be passing loops and track duplications built between Bunyip and Traralgon, and level crossing upgrades along the line.

These will allow the newer VLocity trains to travel to Bairnsdale. Ms Allan said it was hoped by August two of the three daily services would be VLocity trains.

“Because of the stabling constraints we have at Bairnsdale, we can’t stable the VLocitys there overnight, so the first in and out services will be the older fleet, but we’re looking at how we can over time replace those older fleets with the newer VLocity carriages,” she said, which prompted a question on whether there were plans for new stables in Bairnsdale.

“We’re working through this big scope of works, this is all part of how we work through the Gippsland line upgrades, so we can run more frequent, more reliable, more modern trains to regional communities,” she replied.

The minister described delays Gippsland commuters suffer when V/Line services get stuck behind metropolitan trains as “frustrating”.

“I understand well the frustrations that are in place in terms of how the Gippsland line trains get caught up in the metropolitan network — it’s a frustration too that’s shared by the CEO of V/Line, who’s been doing a lot of work with Metro Trains Melbourne to make sure there’s a stronger conversation, stronger communication between the train systems in the metropolitan network and the V/Line network to address those issues where those two services come together,” Ms Allan said.

Melbourne Metro Rail Authority chief executive Evan Tattersall said the Avon River Bridge was a unique project, and would take a long time to complete.

“There probably aren’t any (bridges) as extensive as this over a river plain like this, there are particular challenges that we’ll need to deal with, in particular in the winter when flood levels can vary significantly, so you can be out there trying to build foundations then all of a sudden find yourself underwater, so we have to manage that, we have to look at how we can launch what will be extremely large bridge trusses to get across the river itself,” he said.

“All of that is pretty technically complex stuff that we need to work through so we can determine how long it’ll take to build the bridge.”

Mr Tattersall added there would be plenty of jobs for local contractors and suppliers, likening it to the current works on the Ballarat line.

“There are fairly high obligations on the contractors in terms of local jobs content and local materials content — we’re finding areas like steel supply, steel fabrication, with just local contractors doing work along the line,” he said.

“We’d expect the same approach on this line, we’re very optimistic we’ll be able to find really good contractors and suppliers in this region.”

Eastern Victoria MLC Harriet Shing was not able to give a timeline on the completion of the bridge, but noted it was a “relief” that work had begun.

“These works are intended to take place in a staggered fashion, and that will mean we will have the best possible opportunities for local workers to participate in these large-scale infrastructure plans, as well as being able to do it in a way that minimises the disruption and the delay for passengers,” she said.

“It will be a prospect that takes a number of years to complete, we do need people to be patient as this work continues, but we are hoping to minimise the delays and disruptions.

“The bridge itself will take some time to refix simply because structurally, it’s not in a position where we can actually give you a complete timeframe — the work begins earnestly and it begins immediately, there is some drilling and some structural work that needs to be undertaken.”

Gippsland East MLA Tim Bull reiterated calls for a timeline, and said a Coalition government would fast-track building more VLocity trains, while Wellington Shire councillor and Stratford resident Carmel Ripper said she hoped the community would decide what to do with the historic bridge.