The Victorian Government has released a new regional public transport network development plan and key amongst its aims is to eventually have V/Line services on the Geelong, Bendigo, Ballarat, Seymour and Traralgon lines run at 20 minute peak and 40 off-peak frequencies.
On top of the commuter-focused service increases over the plans various timeframes (short-term: within 5 years, medium-term: 5-10 years and long-term: 10+ years), many of towns and cities beyond the major regional hubs are likely to see service increases as well.
These extra regional services beyond the major regional hubs include running five services, five days a week to Warrnambool, Bairnsdale, Albury-Wodonga, Echuca, Swan Hill and Shepparton.
The plan lists strategic network wide priorities like upgrading station facilities, balancing passenger and freight needs on the rail network, better (real-time) passenger information, accessibility improvements, putting the passenger first, encouraging active transport in the regions and supporting tourism.
This year's state budget included a half billion dollar investment in the Ballarat line which at the fundamental level will include track duplication to Melton and include more passing loops on the single track sections between Melton and Ballarat in order for more punctual services to run. And according to the plan we're likely to see more of it.
This year's budget sees the Ballarat line receive a capacity upgrade - more two-track sections to run more reliable and punctual services - however one of the legacies of the Regional Fast Rail project on the Bendigo line doesn't to be getting a look in at this point.
In short, the Bendigo line when it was "upgraded" had its original two tracks reduced to a single in sections between Kyneton and Bendigo and only one of the two tracks between Sunbury and Kyneton was upgraded to enable trains to run at 160kph in both directions.
The result is an inconsistent level of service - depending on the time of travel, some trains run faster on the "fast" track, others run slower - and as the network development plan aims to increase Bendigo line services, the risk of further performance degradation will increase.
The same occurred on the La Trobe Valley line. In some sections where there is two tracks, only one was upgraded to allow for the higher speeds.
The medium to long term plan should place an emphasis on ensuring that the four trunk routes that were upgraded last decade become fully-fledged two track "higher-speed railways".
No-one doubts V/Line's primary mission of providing public transport to regional Victoria, however from an instra-state tourism perspective, is the rail operator doing enough?
Ballarat, Bendigo and Geelong all have walkable, robust city centres with infrastructure in place to support increased numbers of city-break weekend trips; and each has their own tourism drawcards.
V/Line should be supporting increased regional city tourism by introducing Friday night and weekend flagship express services which reduce the time it takes to get to and from all three cities.
These long trains which express from Southern Cross to Ballarat, Geelong and Bendigo (with a stop in Castlemaine) can then be split in two with services then heading out to Ararat and Maryborough from Ballarat, Echuca and Swan Hill from Bendigo and to Warrnambool from Geelong.
The existing Bendigo line timetable serves as an example of how unfriendly the flagship express services are to both commuters and tourists: it departs Southern Cross at 4:58pm. That train is the fastest journey to Bendigo from Melbourne taking 92 minutes (even when the original promise of the Regional Fast Rail project was 80 minutes).
As new trains come online, and track infrastructure is expanded, there should be more express services during the week, but most importantly on the weekends with departures from Southern Cross around 6pm on Friday nights, 9am and 3pm on Saturdays and Sundays with return journeys departing 11am and 4pm on both days of the weekend from each of the three cities as well.
Tilting-technology allows trains to travel curves at higher speeds and despite the efforts of the Regional Fast Rail project upgrades, there are still many curves in regional Victoria which require trains to slow down.
If the next generation regional trains are built with tilting technology this will enable the existing lines to have more speed squeezed out of them: decreasing journey times and increasing capacity.
A process to identify sections of upgraded track which can support higher than 160kph speeds should also be undertaken in order to ascertain if the next generation trains should be built to cater for higher in-service speeds, especially if the trains also implement tilting technology.
The regional network development plan makes three mentions of new upgraded 160kph track sections: to Seymour, on the Gippsland line and the Bendigo line. But should that be all?
Echuca, Swan Hill, Maryborough, Ararat, Warrnambool and Shepparton beyond Seymour all have varying levels of achievable speed. Should these lines not be on a long-term list of upgrades?
Seymour (and potentially Shepparton) is a logical first priority given it is the only regional line leading to Melbourne without upgraded track and services.
Lead image credit: Flickr