Features Australia

Watching the empty trains roll by

Money for nothing in Dan’s wasteland

11 September 2021

9:00 AM

11 September 2021

9:00 AM

Picture the scene. I am hanging out in a very average park in an outer suburb of Melbourne. I’m looking after my toddler grandson because my daughter is having a jab and children are not allowed to enter the premises. (You know this makes sense.)

The playground part is taped up because the Andrews government, on the basis of no evidence, has closed all playgrounds as part of the rising crescendo of lockdown measures. After all, this was the man who was quite happy to state, in reference to the curfew, that ‘it is not for me to prove the efficacy of any one measure. No one has ever maintained that any one measure is the way out of this, so therefore it is not for me to provide hard data that establishes that’.

The park is, however, adjacent to a major train line and within minutes of our arrival, a train passes by in full sight. My little companion is quite excited, being very partial to seeing trains rattle along suburban rail lines. It was only a couple of minutes before another train passed.

We could see very clearly that there were hardly any passengers on the trains. After all, people are not supposed to be travelling more than five kilometres and the distance between the CBD and the end points of these lines is at least thirty kilometres.

I could hear the departing whistle at the nearby station and soon realised that we would be able to watch passing trains at alarmingly close intervals. In fact, there were so many trains that the toddler lost interest and we went in search of rocks and gumnuts while we waited for an unknowable period of time until his mother returned.

What was very clear from our expedition was that the metropolitan train network has been operating on a pre-lockdown timetable and neither the rail union nor the drivers have had any intention of reducing the number of trips lest stand-downs take place and workers are forced to survive on the government handout of $750 per week, tax-free. We might be all in this together but not if you work in public transport.

For further evidence, I regularly see the trams piling up at a terminus close to home. Without the requirement to stop to pick up passengers – there are none – the drivers run way ahead of schedule and problems accrue at the end of the line. It’s a plot line worthy of a Thomas the Tank Engine episode.

We were still waiting for the jabee to return and I spotted a nearby building site. That could be worth a few minutes of distraction for the toddler. He loves a digger. Sadly, all action seemed to have ceased as the ‘essential’ workers took their obligatory smoko. These days, smokos are more likely to involve takeaway cappuccinos and phone-gazing rather than actual smoking.

Clearly, all that government messaging about social distancing and mask wearing hadn’t made it to this suburban building site. By contrast, the workers seemed to have heard a different message: as you were (pre-Covid), which is exactly as they were.

There really hasn’t been a better time to be a premier. I’m sure Dan Andrews can’t believe his luck. Parliament is not sitting – Covid makes it impossible according to some faceless bureaucrat – and Dan the Man is a master at delivering fearmongering sermons that keep the adoring journalists just where he wants them.

But here’s the thing: there have been some disastrous government actions in Victoria well beyond Covid but no one is asking any questions.

Take the West Gate Tunnel project. It’s just four kilometers long and, in theory, provides an additional river crossing to take pressure off the oftentimes clogged West Gate Bridge. Everyone has known that this choke point would need to be addressed at some point but this government has gone about it in the most expensive and delayed way possible.

Now you might think that when a private company comes to a government minister with a ‘deal for you’, there might be a high degree of scepticism. But when Transurban Group, the large listed toll operator, approached the Victorian government offering to build a tunnel in exchange ‘for certain concessions’, the Andrews government leapt at the chance.

The deal was that Transurban would put in $4 billion, the Victorian taxpayer $2.7 billion and any existing tolls that Transurban currently levies (think City-Link) would rise by 4.25 per cent per year for ten years. This last part of the deal was actually sanctioned by the Victorian Parliament notwithstanding the fact many road users do not require the tunnel and will not be using it.

Since then, the whole project has gone pear-shaped, with disputes over contaminated soil and banging into major utility connections. The costs have blown out by at least $3.3 billion, with suggestions it might be over $5 billion.

It was originally expected to be completed in early 2023; there is now no definite end-point. In the meantime, the construction company engaged by Transurban, John Holland, finalised a deal in June this year to pay the workers $300,000 per year. Nice money, if you can get it.

But here’s the real point of the story: no one in Victoria is talking about this catastrophic project failure.  We are all too worried about Covid and are locked in our homes trying to figure out the latest rules that restrict what we can do.

To be sure, the Premier and Transport Minister have spoken briefly about insisting that Transurban meet its side of the deal, although there is no doubt that the Victorian taxpayer will end up chipping in to see the project is completed.

Mind you, no one should feel the least bit of sympathy for Transurban and the shareholders: it was a reckless initiative that always stood a good chance of ending in tears. The real aim was to get the government to sanction exorbitant increases in tolls for all users, locked in for a decade. It looked grubby; it was grubby.

When the shroud of Covid finally lifts, it will be interesting to see how Victoria emerges. The CBD is a dystopian wasteland and will probably remain so for some time. And there will be all these incomplete infrastructure projects scarring the landscape.

There’s also something my grandson has to look forward to: paying off the debt.

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