02/03/2016 2:42 PM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST

Victorian Rail Fiasco: Governance Off the Rails

The current debacle affecting thousands of Victorian commuters and costing Victorian tax payers tens of millions of dollars is depressing in its familiarity. While the specific problems of wheel wear and untriggered boom gates are new, the story of underinvestment and successive governments blaming each other is not.

The way this has unfolded has been extraordinary. In the lull of the summer, Victorians were told about a minor issue with their regional rail service, V/Line, that would be dealt with quickly. Suddenly, it was systemic -- it couldn't be dealt with quickly, it was not the only issue and it won't be resolved until at least half way through the year.

An independent review of the operational capacity of V/Line has been ordered and the CEO has resigned. The Victorian Minister for Public Transport, Jacinta Allan, said that the advice she received from V/Line was "wrong".

Two weeks into the mess, the Minister quite rightly said: "You rely on the advice of your operators, your technical experts to make decisions." The obvious question here relates to culture. What kind of culture has been created when the advice from experts in a government-owned organisation cannot be relied upon? Has the leadership been conditioned to telling the government of the day what they want to hear rather than what they need to hear and when they need to hear it?

It's lapses in process designed to facilitate frank, fearless and timely advice that allows a minor incident to escalate into the shutdown of critical infrastructure. It's up to the technical experts to make sure they provide the right information to the powers that be -- and it is up to the powers that be to make sure they listen.

Country towns and regional cities rely on roads and good public transport to get to work, access public services and attend and participate in leisure activities. If we are to see country towns and regional cities grow, not only must there be work, quality schools and healthcare in those locations but also good quality public transport links to major centres of employment, especially the Melbourne CBD.

Victoria is the most densely populated state in the country and should be the exemplar for an efficient public transport system. Instead, everyday thousands of Victorians are spending many more hours than they should have to getting from A to B while the Government and V/Line think about how to fix the mess.

It's time to stop the blame shifting and not only repair the current problems with wheels and boom gates but to sort out why an organisation with the safety of thousands of Victorians in its hands every day was not able to give reliable advice to the Minister.


Alex Malley is chief executive of CPA Australia.