GIPPSLAND public transport users have gone through quite a journey over many years, including project delays, ‘bustitutions’, road closures, continued use of paper tickets, a new price cap on regional trips and discontinued buffet services.

After the State Budget was released on May 7, the Nationals in Victoria slammed the delay and cost blowouts of the Gippsland Line upgrades, which form part of the Regional Rail Revival (RRR) project.

The Gippsland Line works were meant to be finished last year, but instead have been pushed back with no completion date, as confirmed in the budget papers.

The following week, the state government made an announcement on Bairnsdale Station’s stabling yard upgrade.

Member for Gippsland South, Danny O’Brien, said Gippslanders had suffered long enough from construction-related delays and were wondering if there would ever be any benefits from this project.

“The Gippsland Rail Revival was announced in April 2017, and yet here we are in May 2024 and the latest budget papers have the estimated completion date as ‘tbc’,” Mr O’Brien said.

“This is yet another blow for Gippsland commuters who are sick of delays and underperformance of the Gippsland V/Line service.”

Budget papers indicate an additional $31 million has been added to the $562 million cost of the project, and that an estimated completion date can’t be finalised due to “signalling design work and co-ordination with the pipeline of projects underway across the program”.

Last year’s budget papers indicated that the project would be completed in the second quarter of 2022/23.

RRR upgrades every regional line in the state, and is jointly funded by the state and federal governments.

A regional spokesperson for the Public Transport Users Association (PTUA), Paul Westcott, described the delayed developments as frustrating.

“The evidence is clear. There is going to be an indefinite delay in completing the project, as with the Western Rail Plan and Airport Rail. On the other hand, the ‘big idea’, the Suburban Rail Loop, seems sacrosanct,” Mr Westcott said.

“It is especially frustrating that, while the Gippsland rail upgrade, the Western Rail Plan and Airport Rail are being delayed, far more massive metropolitan road projects – the so-called Westgate Tunnel (which is mainly above ground) and the North East Link – are forging ahead, both of which will only serve to exacerbate urban road congestion.”

Federal Member for Gippsland, Darren Chester, lashed out at the delays.

“I was pleased as Minister (under the former government) to be able to support this project, one of the first federal funding injections to passenger rail because I saw there would be benefits for us,” Mr Chester said.

“That we are now seven years down the track and still don’t have a completion date is a disgrace.”

At Bairnsdale Station, on May 13, the Minister for Public and Active Transport, Gabrielle Williams, announced that the existing stabling yard was being expanded to house two three-carriage VLocity trains overnight, allowing the first train and last train to Bairnsdale to be a VLocity.

Currently the first and last daily train services to and from Bairnsdale operate with locomotive-hauled classic fleet trains.

“These works to upgrade the Bairnsdale stabling yard mean we will soon be able to operate all services to and from Bairnsdale with modern, reliable VLocity trains,” Ms Williams said.

“Our significant investment in the Gippsland Line upgrade is future-proofing the line for further growth in communities along the network.”

Major construction is also underway to provide Bairnsdale Station with new cleaning facilities, as well as improved lighting, fencing, gates, CCTV and pathways.

Member for Eastern Victoria, Tom McIntosh, welcomed the announcement.

“We are upgrading ageing public transport infrastructure across Gippsland so that passengers can experience safer and more reliable services, more often,” Mr McIntosh said.

Mr Westcott said the provision of secure stabling for trains at Bairnsdale would permit the running of all Bairnsdale rail services with VLocity trains.

“The advantage of that is that there may be a reduction in journey times, although that depends on the speed limits imposed on the VLocitys. The speed limit for loco-hauled trains is 115km/h, whereas VLocitys can run at up to 160km/h, but that is reduced depending on the quality of the track and other infrastructure (e.g. fully protected level crossings),” he said.

“I’m not sure what speed limits there are for the existing VLocity service to Bairnsdale.”

Member for Gippsland East, Tim Bull, says the few V/Line rail services from Bairnsdale that have buffet amenities will be removed when upgrades to the Bairnsdale Station stabling yard are completed.

He says the Minister is “stealing the only remaining buffet services by stealth”.

“Long have we emphasised the importance of having café facilities on board our V/Line trains, as the almost four-hour long journey is a long way to go without something to eat or drink,” Mr Bull said.

“While vending machine snacks can be purchased at the station, a bag of salt and vinegar chips and a can of Coke at 6.15am may not be the desired snack people want for breakfast.

“VLocity carriages have the capacity to house buffet facilities, and I was fortunate to catch one of the very few trains equipped with this last year, however the Minister refuses to provide Bairnsdale services with this option for travellers.

“The Minister touts the new VLocity carriages are more comfortable and serve the travelling community better – I’m sure East Gippslanders would agree they are in fact a poorer substitute.”

Mr Bull said the government had “failed to meet the current rail demand by adding an additional morning service departing from Bairnsdale”, that will connect with existing timetabled trains in Sale or Traralgon.

The state government has previously confirmed that there will be no buffet services on the Bairnsdale Line with the VLocity trains.

The then-Minister for Public Transport, Ben Carroll said, “the overwhelming feedback from passengers is they want a fast, reliable train service – which is why we are delivering more modern VLocity trains to give passengers the better services they deserve”.

“The majority of Bairnsdale services have been operated by modern, comfortable VLocity trains since 2018 and work is underway to enable these trains to operate on all services to and from East Gippsland. The current design of new broad gauge VLocity trains does not include a catering facility,” he said.

“V/Line is currently reviewing options for the availability of food and beverages across the network, including on the Gippsland Line. We appreciate that some passengers may want to consume food and beverages during their travel, and passengers are welcome to bring their own food and non-alcoholic beverages (with lids) on board.

“A coffee cart is present at Bairnsdale Station during the week, open from 8am to 1pm.”

Mr Westcott said the downside of having an all-VLocity service was that unlike the ‘classic’ loco-hauled trains, there were no buffet facilities on broad gauge VLocity sets, nor was there any first-class accommodation.

“The standard gauge VLocity sets running to Albury had to be specially constructed to allow for a buffet to be included, so Tim Bull is wrong to maintain that a buffet could easily be incorporated into the existing broad gauge sets,” he said.

“One might well ask why the long-distance standard gauge VLocitys were built to provide a buffet, whereas no broad gauge sets have been constructed to allow for one.”

“Undoubtedly, the answer is that V/Line want every broad gauge VLocity set to be the same because it makes it simpler for V/Line to manage the fleet. That’s the case with a lot of what V/Line does – it prioritises its own convenience over that of its passengers.”

In a media release, the state government said their level crossing upgrades between Sale and Bairnsdale had enabled more VLocity trains to run to and from Bairnsdale.

“Our regional fare cap is allowing passengers to travel between Bairnsdale and Melbourne for only $10.60 – down from $39.40 for a one-way full-fare journey before the fare cap,” the government said.

At the same time as the fare cap was introduced, the first-class carriages containing larger seats on long distance V/Line trains were abolished and replaced with carriages with seats open to all passengers. However, the trains do have a ‘quiet carriage’ for passengers who want to travel without loud chatter.