Regional rail on the agenda – but on-demand buses look more likely

The virtual absence of public transport from regional South Australia is on the State Government’s agenda – including an investigation of passenger rail services – but, like much of Transport Minister Tom Koutsantonis’s public transport agenda, firm decisions could be a long way off.

Feb 09, 2023, updated Feb 09, 2023
Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

Many eyes in State Government planning and transport have been on the Adelaide Hills town of Mount Barker for a long time. The burgeoning town, encircled by exploding residential development, is the key driver for an investigation of better public transport connecting the hills and Adelaide.

An investigation currently underway into the feasibility of restoring passenger rail services between Mt Barker and the city could have profound implications for regional public transport in South Australia, says minister Tom Koutsantonis.

Political action is being demanded from the regions as well as the urban fringe.

A parliamentary inquiry into public and active transport in South Australia reported this week on the frustration of many regional communities with the paucity of services and State Government investment in public transport in their areas.

The committee, chaired by Greens MLC Robert Simms, has recommended the development of a state-wide “strategic freight and passenger transport network plan”, and is pushing for the government to consider “reactivation of regional rail for freight (particularly grain) and passengers services”. It also wants a report on the relative per capita expenditure on public transport in regional and metropolitan areas.

The latter point was raised in one of the many submissions to the committee by regional communities. The City of Mt Gambier echoed frustrations elsewhere in regional South Australia, noting a “significant inequity in bus service funding between metropolitan and regional South Australia, with Adelaide receiving a $234 per capita spend, compared with only $11 per capita in regional areas”.

Using benchmarks established by the Bus Industry Confederation, the council said services in Mt Gambier were well below acceptable levels.

“As South Australia’s most significant regional city with a population of around 28,000, the present service does not meet the service provision benchmark for a town of between 3000 to 6000 people,” the council’s submission said.

In an interview with InDaily, Koutsantonis acknowledged a lack of public transport services in regional South Australia.

He says he has “inherited” a recently closed tender process for regional public transport services, begun under the previous State Government.

However, he has asked his department to reimagine the delivery of regional transport from the ground up, with access to health services a key priority.

“I said to the department, again, let’s work with regional bus operators and regional communities and let’s look at how you would design regional bus services today,” he said.

“And I think the model very much is on the Keoride options, on-demand services we have in the Hills.”

Keoride is an app-based on-demand bus service that began in the Barossa Valley and Mt Barker district under the previous government. As InDaily reported yesterday, Koutsantonis is impressed with the concept and wants to explore its extension to Adelaide’s suburbs.

It also fits the regions, he argues.

“For example, if you live in Mt Gambier, I doubt very much many people are going to catch buses to work – they’re going to drive to work. The question is what role does public transport play in regional communities? In regional communities, it’s very much about connectivity to other communities (people just being in touch), and shopping, health care, basic services.”

Beyond buses, there is an outside chance that rail will come into serious consideration – but only if a trial of fast passenger services between Mt Barker and Adelaide produces positive results.

The Government, along with its own study of public transport options between Mt Barker and the city, is in discussions to allow Spanish train company Talgo to conduct a trial of its specialised technology on the line. Talgo believes it can cut the journey to 45 minutes, making it a potentially attractive alternative to driving or buses, particularly in peak times. Discussions are ongoing between the South Australian and Spanish governments to work out the details of the trial.

“That’s going to be a time question, right?,” Koutsantonis told InDaily. “I mean, no one’s going to jump on a train from Mt Barker that takes an hour and a half.”

However, he said if the Mt Barker trial showed “actual feasibility”, then “that could open up whole areas of regional South Australia to greater rail access”.

To be economic, freight would also have to return to relevant rail lines – something that grain giant Viterra has already flagged on the Eyre Peninsula.

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Koutsantonis says he’s “a big believer in rail in regional areas”, but the rail lines are not economic without the underpinning of freight. However, the rail lines have been “killed” in some area because regional communities have been trying to break the regional rail monopoly by using road transport or regional ports on Eyre Peninsula.

He says communities that want rail returned have some “tough questions” ahead, because heavy rail can’t compete with road freight, except over long distances.

Simms’ committee wants the viability of regional rail to be assessed on more than just pure economics, with “environmental, health and wellbeing benefits” also weighed. It also wants passenger train trials on the Mt Barker to Adelaide line, as well as Roseworthy to Gawler, Aldinga to Seafood and Adelaide to Port Augusta.

Koutsantonis said regional passenger rail could be an option on lines still operated by the Australian Government-owned ARTC.

“Where there are existing lines operated by the ARTC – and there are local spurs – there could be opportunities there to integrate freight and passenger services,” he said, adding that it’s got to be feasible, economically.

“These questions are things that have to be posed in a 21st-century setting,” he said. “Is it actually feasible? If it’s not what replaces it: if it’s a bus who pays for it?”

Like much of Koutantonis’s public transport agenda (see our previous story), it seems likely that substantial action will not occur until the second half of the Malinauskas Government’s four-year term in office.

Promised reviews of cycling projects are also pending, with Koutsantonis saying “watch this space” after a year of little action on cycling infrastructure.

“We went to the election promising to evaluate a whole number of things about active transport,” he said.

These promises include an investigation of an uninterrupted pedestrian/cycling path around the park lands, a $3 million bike path from Willunga to Aldinga, and funding for some regional BMX parks.

Koutsantonis says “there’s more than one budget cycle” in response to a question about a paucity of active transport funding in the first Malinauskas Government budget.

He also insists the Government is applying a principle of “connectivity” to all of its road projects.

“We are now compelling the Department to integrate active transport throughout all their designs as well as canopy, trees, heat sinks. (We’re) no longer interested in the engineers just working on – how does this road infrastructure benefit cars and traffic? There’s got to be an integration of pedestrian access, cycling and connectivity.”

He would also like to see public transport services provide better options for cyclists, allowing bikes to be carried on trains and buses.

Simms’ committee wants the government to go further, developing trials of separated bike infrastructure on metropolitan and/or regional roads and starting planning for “a state-wide, integrated, separated cycling network”.

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