WHEN THE state government of Victoria leased most of V/Line’s network outside the Melbourne commuter zone to Freight Australia in 1999, the issue of access by competing operators was ignored. As Minister for Transport Peter Batchelor pointed out last month when introducing his Rail Corporations (Amendment) Bill, ’no third-party operator was able to gain access to the network on acceptable terms.’

This was not surprising. Freight Australia struggled to make a profit out of a network already in poor condition, and saw no reason why rivals should not contribute generously towards its infrastructure costs. So when Pacific National wanted to buy out FA last year, the new government made regulated open access a condition of agreeing to the sale. Batchelor told MPs that the bill ’will provide the framework under which standard services will be provided’ subject to published reference prices and the blessing of the Essential Services Commission. ’Standard’ means 19 tonne axleloads at 80 km/h, and ’non-standard’ access remains subject to negotiation.

The bill also requires PN to account separately for infrastructure and train operations, and to ensure that the operating arm pays the infrastructure side a market rate to accommodate its trains. PN will also have to connect up private sidings when asked.