THE decision taken last Saturday to shut down tourist rail services along the South Gippsland Railway Line, between Nyora and Leongatha, is bad news for tourism in South Gippsland.
But it’s also bad news for the State Government.
For almost 21 years, the volunteer members of South Gippsland Tourist Rail (SGTR) have quarantined the government from the real cost of upkeep on 36km of railway reserve, while maintaining railway station buildings and providing an active presence on the line to deter vandalism and hold back dereliction.
They’ve also helped keep open the prospect of the return of commercial rail services to South Gippsland.
Now all that is gone.
Last Saturday, at a special meeting of SGTR, members voted to shut down train services forever.
It was the only decision they could have made.
Despite having a membership of 80 and an active operational team of 40, there are just 11 people willing to put their hands up to undertake the onerous task of maintaining rolling stock, important infrastructure such as signals and crossings, railway station buildings and the rail reserve.
Even an immediate injection of $1 million, to replace sleepers and repair infrastructure and rolling stock, would not save the organisation or its rail services, it was acknowledged at last weekend’s meeting.
It’s all over.
There was however a lot of soul-searching, discussion and assessment of the facts before the motion to disband the organisation was moved by SGTR President Terry Franklin and seconded by prominent member, Tavis Longmuir, at a meeting in the historic Refreshments Rooms at the Korumburra Station.
“We’ve made a list of immediate work that needs doing before we could run another train, totalling $1 million, but we could probably do with $5 million,” said Mr Longmuir, explaining why he had seconded the motion.
“It saddens me. It breaks my heart but we’ve got to be voting with our heads, not our hearts.
“The reality is that we haven’t got enough people, with the requisite skills, turning up to do the work,” he said.
Over a long period of time, he explained, the maintenance work on the line has continued to pile up to the point now where there was no prospect of catching up.
If, for example, the rail service’s Y-class loco went out and broke down, SGTR would not have the equipment to bring it home for repairs. The engine has “square wheels” which are in urgent need of replacement; meaning it can’t even be used to rescue the tourist rail’s main operating train, the ‘Red Hen’ railcar.
Mr Longmuir said Terry Franklin, the president, had indicated he would be resigning but noted that there were numerous other key roles that needed to be filled before the organisation could legally operate trains again.
“No president, no vice president, no treasurer, no mechanical manager, no accreditation manager; even if you suspended rail services you can’t do anything without people in these roles.”
He said compliance work was not being done and indicated that the local organisation was under intense pressure from peak bodies, having fallen foul of the Registrar of Tourist and Heritage Railways at Public Transport Victoria, Adrian Ponton, who the group will have to front later this month with a report of its demise.
Everyone was given their chance to have a say, to hold out any hopes for a reprieve. But there was none and, in the end, the vote was taken and the decision made to disband.
Even after that, it won’t be easy, according to president Terry Franklin.
He said none of the assets of the group could be sold to cover an undisclosed level of local debt; instead all tools, pieces of equipment, maintenance trucks and rolling stock had to be gifted to the other tourist rail organisations around Victoria.
“Take any personal tools you have here today then leave your keys on the table with me,” he said.
Mr Franklin said recent changes in OH&S legislation had made it tougher for organisations like South Gippsland Tourist Rail to operate, and he predicted that most other similar organisations in the state would also go under.
“You can’t win with these people,” he said of the state bureaucracy.
“Within five years there might be two or three left (historic rail groups) in Victoria out of 17. The legislation, the laws, the rules, the OH&S; voluntary people trying to do these jobs aren’t going to cut it anymore,” he said.
“Puffing Billy has three paid, full-time people doing this work.”
Suspension of activity was also ruled out as an option.
“It’s too late. It has been happening over the last 10 years, in fact we’ve probably been in that bracket since we started. We just haven’t had enough people.
“We’ve been playing catch-up all the time and now it’s simply got too much.”
The decision will have immediate implications for two events, booked to use the trains and railway stations; a wedding and a car club day.
Vicroads will also have to be notified as the decision to stop running trains will change their plans to upgrade several rail crossings in the area, especially the main crossing in McCartin Street/Roughead Street where the tracks can now be covered over for a smooth crossing for the first time in more than 100 years.
Future of rail
The rail enthusiasts group does however hold out hopes that commercial rail services might one day return to the South Gippsland line and several of the members of SGTR pledged to get politically active in making it happen.
Some also expressed a view that the development of the Port of Hastings would make it more likely that the line would be reopened.
While the train service will be no more, a caretaker has been appointed to maintain the Korumburra railway museum and to keep the station clean and tidy.
Community groups which use the Nyora, Korumburra and Leongatha railway stations will now have to make their own arrangements with Victrack and other authorities.
What happens with the spread of weeds on the rail reserve and other problems with the deserted facilities is anyone’s guess.