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RURAL AND REGIONAL AFFAIRS AND TRANSPORT REFERENCES COMMITTEE
20/07/2009
Investment of Commonwealth and state funds in public passenger transport

CHAIR —I welcome Ms Kaye Owen and Ms Skye Holcombe from the Municipal Association of Victoria. The Municipal Association of Victoria has lodged submission No. 155 with the committee. Do you wish to make any amendments or alterations to that submission?

Ms Owen —No.

CHAIR —Do you wish to make an opening statement before the committee asks questions?

Ms Owen —Thank you. I think it would be appropriate if we were to make a few comments. We particularly wish to emphasise the extent of the issue for regional councils in Victoria, of which there are 31. We have a copy of a map which we might leave with you.

One of the things I would like to draw attention to is the global economic crisis. This has brought home quite significantly the extent of the issue which is facing the people who live in those areas covered by the 31 councils, particularly with the changing demographic in regional Victoria. We now see an ageing population. We see young people who find it extremely difficult to travel between areas in the state. We have seen very positive moves through the Victorian Transport Plan, which we would say has been a good start. But the things which really need to be picked up on are the opportunities to move between locations. In terms of population growth in regional Victoria, regional centres—there are 10 regional centres—have been areas where population has increased because people who live in the surrounding areas have tended to move into the regional centres. So there has been quite significant change in the economic development of those areas. There is a desire and a need to travel between the outer lying areas and the centres and also between some of the towns which are located across the state. There are a number of opportunities to travel from Melbourne, say, into regional Victoria and there is good service, but the opportunity to move between regional locations is simply not available.

In terms of the Victorian Transport Plan, as I said we see that as a very good start. We welcome the injection of funds through the Commonwealth government in recent times: the $3.2 billion for the Regional Rail Link, the $40 million for the preconstruction works on the east-west rail tunnel and the moneys which came through the fiscal stimulus package. We would naturally like to see the pick-up of the particular needs of rural Victoria where there is that recognition of the need for community transport. This is one of the areas where local government has taken quite a lead, and the capacity to develop further community transport is one of the significant things we would wish to focus upon, and also the recognition of the needs of people with disabilities. We would be happy to take any questions.

Senator BACK —When did the amalgamation of local governments happen in Victoria?

Ms Owen —1999.

Senator BACK —So you have had a decade of it. Could you tell me the impact of the amalgamation on public transport infrastructure?

Ms Owen —Skye, do you wish to comment on that?

Ms Holcombe —Unfortunately the amalgamation was prior to the commencement of my employment with the Municipal Association of Victoria.

Ms Owen —And it is the same for me, so it is quite a tricky one to answer. I saw the advantage of amalgamations as being a greater opportunity for councils and their budgets to be in a position to support more transport infrastructure and sustainability of transport in the local areas. And I also think the growth of regional centres such as Ballarat has been enhanced with the amalgamations.

Ms Holcombe —But amalgamation obviously has not assisted the transport disadvantage that is still felt by the small towns. That is the key issue at the moment: access for people from small towns to other neighbouring towns. As Kaye pointed out, transport between regional centres, and obviously the conductivity to Melbourne, is excellent. We travelled up on the V/Line this morning, and it took us about 1½ hours. There is an excellent service for people wanting to connect to Melbourne, but between towns it is a lot more difficult. I am not aware how amalgamation would have assisted people in small towns by improving transport options.

Senator BACK —I asked that question because you would hope that with amalgamation you would see efficiencies. I guess that is what I am interested in knowing, because other states are considering the same. Do you see this as a local government issue? Where do you see the role of the federal government, if at all, in this whole sphere? I agree with you on the experience from other states on transport from small town to small town. Where, if at all, is there a role for the federal government to play in this?

Ms Holcombe —The federal government has been particularly generous over the decades in providing funding for road transportation, which has greatly facilitated the Victorian freight industry and is obviously vital for the safe passage of private vehicles, which is the main mode of transportation for rural and regional communities. Heading into the future—and this is certainly the view of Victorian councils—we are aware that with the imminent introduction of a Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, in whatever form that happens to occur, there will be increasing pressure on household budgets in terms of the purchase of fuel and the running of sometimes two or three cars per household. It is certainly the view of councils that public transport options need to be increased for people who live in these areas, because they are going to be disproportionately impacted on by future challenges. In my introductory comment I spoke about the generosity of the federal government in providing funding for roads. I think it would be very prudent for the federal government to explore greater investment in public transport options for communities around Australia. I think we need to move away from the culture of the car, which is endemic to all Australian communities, because it is really unsustainable in the future. Obviously some towns have little option—when they are 300 kilometres to the nearest town—but there is certainly a lot more that both federal and state governments could be doing to promote the benefits of public transport.

Ms Owen —As I indicated initially, a lot of the load has fallen to local government to cover community transport. With changing economic circumstances and the changing nature of expectations for sustainability and sustainable transport, local government simply cannot cover the load unless there is greater recognition from both Commonwealth and state governments.

Senator BACK —On the point you made about vehicle transport, this committee has heard that more bicycles have been purchased in Australia each year for the last however many years than motor cars, yet we do not see much evidence of bicycles being used to replace cars. Is there a scope for local government? Years ago, we all rode pushbikes to school. Today, probably fewer than two per cent of kids in the cities would ride a bike to school. I do not know about what it is for country towns—hopefully the number is greater. Somebody has to drive the actual use of bikes for commuting to train lines, to school and to work. Is local government really best equipped to drive the agenda? Do you believe it is in fact achievable and desirable? If it is, is local government the best catalyst to provide that?

Ms Owen —Local government is obviously at the forefront of the relationship with the community and is indeed well placed to encourage greater use of cycling and to look for more innovative solutions. That is very much easier in the metropolitan area, however. The distances involved in commuting between regional locations make it very much more of a challenge.

Senator BACK —Within a town, I would have thought bicycle use would perhaps be a better option. It is safer et cetera. I can understand parents being reluctant to allow kids to ride bikes on open highways these days. it worries me that we are hearing all this about bicycles, but we are not seeing any evidence yet that it is really encouraging people to cycle. We are probably the worst examples of all, I suppose.

Ms Holcombe —All councils are very focused on increasing bicycle travel, particularly in the metropolitan area. Councils are responsible for approximately 85 per cent of Victoria’s road infrastructure—maintenance and upgrade and that includes bicycle paths. Councils are always seeking funds to improve bicycle paths. The state has recently jumped on board with quite an excellent cycling strategy. In terms of regional areas, some of the big towns with their road upgrades are seeking to put designated bike paths on the roads which is crucial for encouraging cycling so that cyclists actually feel safe and that there is a separation from road traffic.

In terms of start of journey and end of journey bicycle trips, one of the biggest problems we have for people commuting between regional centres is that the trains, particularly coming into Melbourne, are very congested. There has been something like a 60 per cent growth in V/Line patronage with the purchase of new VLocity carriages. But Victoria has a particular problem with a lack of rolling stock in both freight and passenger. That has made it quite difficult for passengers to take their bikes on trains, and I think it is probably a design issue for Australia. A lot of the trains around the world, particularly in Europe, have somewhere to put bicycles. That has impeded people from taking their bikes on trains.

I think local government is certainly well placed to drive that message, as you were saying. I think it is certainly something that all governments need to focus on as we try and move away from this car culture and encourage more sustainable modes of transport. I think it is difficult in regional areas with the tyranny of distance. I do not know how you overcome that.

Ms Owen —In regard to the point you were making about smaller towns, I think there is certainly capacity to encourage the use of bicycles. I think that there are various locations where there is the opportunity to have bicycle paths at a local level, because often some roads go through the centre of town and it is obviously not attractive. But it is most certainly something where I think councils can play a stronger role.

Senator STERLE —In terms of local government’s role in promoting public transport, would you like to tell us a bit more about your views on the full role that local government should play?

Ms Holcombe —The state government is responsible for the provision of public transport infrastructure and the role of local government in that space is one of advocacy and that is a role that we seek to assist them with. The MAV, the Municipal Association of Victoria, acts as a conduit between those levels of government. Being the closest level of government to the people, councils are very in touch with the transport needs of their communities. I think that is probably a good segue into discussing community transport and the rural and regional disadvantage.

The lack of investment for regional transport, both train and coach services, has resulted in councils and not-for-profit organisations providing buses or trying to utilise whatever transport infrastructure is within these towns to move people around. This is now a service that is costing local government. We have done some preliminary investigation about how much it costs local government. Including the cost of vehicles, fuel and what have you it costs about $21 million for councils in Victoria to provide these unofficial transport services. That gives you an indication. It is about $7 million annually that councils are spending and these services are completely dependent on volunteers within the community to assist with the driving or to assist people in accessing these services.

Councils have really stepped up to the plate to fulfil a gap in transport that is unfortunately not being provided by the state. That is not intended as a slight on the state. The Victorian Transport Plan is $38 billion worth of investment and that is a very considerable investment in the state’s infrastructure. I think it also represents a lack of investment over the decades, particularly in rail infrastructure. As I said, councils are the level of government closest to the people. They are very aware of what their communities need and they are continually advocating for improved transport services, particularly for heavy rail and buses were possible. But in these rural and regional areas, where that is a very significant investment, community transport has filled the gap but that is not a sustainable service.

The MAV is currently in discussion with the state to try to come up with a way that those services can be better funded because the demand for community transport services in rural and regional areas is rising particularly due to the ageing population. People are no longer driving their cars or for health reasons they are unable to drive their cars. People are ageing in place, so they are not moving. There is population moving towards the regional centres but there are a lot of people ageing in place and they are dependent on those informal transport services.

Senator STERLE —Okay, so we have two levels of public transport conversation here. We have one that is about heavy rail. That is not around the city of Ballarat; that is between here and the capital city—would that be right?

Ms Holcombe —Yes.

Senator STERLE —Taking on board what you said this morning, there is an efficient rail service between Melbourne and Ballarat and return.

Ms Holcombe —Yes.

Senator STERLE —That is fine. What about the hurdles that are faced for rural and regional Australia? I am talking about public transport around Ballarat and towns similar. We know cost is one.

Ms Holcombe —The hurdles are obviously encouraging people to use to public transport so that the service is viable. Some of the regional centres, like Ballarat, Bendigo and Traralgon, have interregional bus services, but it is really up to state government and the regional offices. I believe you are hearing from someone from the Department of Transport regional office later on today. It is really dependent on the councils and also the state government to encourage usage of that service so that it can be viable and you can attract an operator to run that service.

Ms Owen —It is also about the fact that there has not been such a focus on the need for infrastructure for public transport because of the use of cars. There is reliance upon cars. Now we have a situation where usage of cars will drop. There does need to be a stronger role played by all levels of government to encourage the use of public transport. But it is urgent that they concentrate on some of the infrastructure. There is an education campaign, but the education campaign is besides the point if the fundamental service is not available.

Senator STERLE —We have been travelling the country on this inquiry now for some months. We have visited just about all the capital cities and the ones we have not we will cover by the end of the week. The same story is coming out everywhere. To pick up on Senator Back’s line of questioning, when we were kids we all rode to school. Things were different then. It was a lot safer for kids to ride to school and parents had no problem. What I am trying to get at is that with the infrastructure issues—dollars will fix infrastructure; there is no problem about that—how, and this is a line that has come up everywhere we have been, do you encourage commuters to get out of their cars and onto the public transport system?

Ms Holcombe —You could provide monetary incentives.

Senator STERLE —Could you tell us a bit more about what they would be in the municipal association’s view?

Ms Holcombe —Subsidised public transport tickets. There are various creative ways of doing it. You could make all taxpayers pay $5 for public transport and then make it free. Some economists would say that that would be one way of doing it. Others would say that that is absolutely absurd. I am not really in a position to be able to advise what the best monetary approach would be. But people are aware of the health disincentives of continuing to drive cars. You need to focus on those health aspects. There needs to be a lot of awareness about obesity among children particularly. It is a myth that public transport is unsafe for children. It is probably unsafe for children to walk and ride to school because of the speed of cars that are travelling on the roads. That is a very valid concern for parents. But in terms of children getting abducted and what have you, there have been copious studies done on this and it is not that unsafe for children. There are a lot of ways that we can encourage people to use public transport, but unless the services are there people will not come. The increase in patronage of the V-Line services when the state government invested in these fast regional trains is a perfect example. If you provide the service, people will use it. Demand for these regional services is through the roof now. But the lack of investment over the decades has encouraged further this car culture, and we need to reverse it. It is not sustainable.

Ms Owen —One of the other things that could be done in terms of encouraging public transport use—and unfortunately we often do come back to the dollars—is making a greater investment in local roads. There is a real opportunity there.

Senator STERLE —That is interesting. Everywhere we have gone around the country there has been a lot of opposition to doing up roads, because if we do up roads cars and trucks and buses will use them. I think that that is a good thing. Personally, I like anything with rubber wheels. It is fantastic, because of the flexibility. But in terms of a major regional centre like Ballarat, how could the public transport system be overhauled or improved in the association’s view?

Ms Owen —One could use the changing nature of the population. Ballarat is a regional centre. Think about Dalesford, which is about 40 kilometres from Ballarat. It is a good example of a location where people have chosen to live while working in Ballarat—or vice versa. How do people get from Dalesford to Ballarat to start work at nine o’clock in the morning? What is the capacity to meet the expected needs of a working day or if one wants to come to Ballarat for services, shopping or whatever? The availability of transport is very limited. That is replicated in other towns around Ballarat and in other regional centres. There is not that opportunity to go into the centre.

So, again, it is an investment in the roads around that area. It is an encouragement to see buses, with flexibility, knowing that people are wanting to come and go at different times of the day. There are a number of examples. I cannot reel them off. I think that we did give some examples in our submission of where you might be able to get a bus into town but you cannot leave again until the end of the day and you may be only want to spend half the day in town.

Senator STERLE —So frequency of service?

Ms Owen —Frequency of service, yes

Ms Holcombe —Interconnectivity between the services as well.

Ms Owen —Absolutely.

Ms Holcombe —If people need to change buses, those buses need to be a convenient for whatever activity they are undertaking. It appears that throughout all the regional and rural areas the local governments need to conduct a big examination of exactly where people are going and what they are doing because there is a particular group of disadvantaged young people who perhaps have not decided to head on to university education or who do not want to stay within the town but are wanting to do some form of TAFE, training or employment opportunities that start wherever at nine o’clock but have not got transport such that they are able to fulfil those opportunities. In terms of making transport accessible for people within Ballarat, it needs to be easy, it needs to be connected and people need to know about it. People need to know that there is a service that can actually take them to fulfil all of the errands that they could do in a car. But if there is a bus running only every half an hour that does not go directly where everyone wants to go then people will not use it.

Ms Owen —There certainly also has to be a change in culture. People feel comfortable in a car. When you have always had a car you feel that is the way you should travel. It is more about education and selling of the fact that it is a good thing to travel on public transport. It is easy, it is accessible and it gives you an opportunity to think. It is a whole different culture from what we have been used to in Australia, including Victoria. The normal thing has been to get in a car and go. It is not going to be quite like that, so we need to be ready for it.

Senator STERLE —Just as a last thing—and it is more of a statement than a question really—a couple of months ago we had the hearing in Melbourne. I certainly praise Melbourne’s public transport system because I cannot believe that you can have 100,000 people screaming at the MCG and in two hours it is a ghost town. They do it well in Melbourne, but what was alerted to us was continuity of service and service availability. We found out in Melbourne that you can come from any part of the suburbs into the city frequently and with no dramas but trying to get from Carlton to Collingwood it is a completely different story. So it is a problem we have everywhere. It has popped up in Sydney and Brisbane.

Ms Owen —Yes, that is right.

Senator O’BRIEN —I wanted to ask about the transport connections program.

Ms Holcombe —I believe there was $80 million included for the Transport Connections program in the Victorian transport plan released in December 2008. I must say that I do not have vast knowledge of the program. I could take any questions that you have on notice. I know the bare bones of it.

Senator O’BRIEN —I am looking at the department of transport’s submission. They list some Grampians regional services. Local intratown services are nominated in their submission between Blackwood, Bacchus Marsh, Ballarat and Ararat, and it lists a number of others. How does that fit in with your submission about the role of local government in the local and intratown services?

Ms Holcombe —Transport Connections officers work very closely with the councils and I think some of them might even work at the council offices. The Transport Connections program seeks to utilise existing infrastructure in the towns—perhaps community buses or whatever other transport there is—to fill some of the gaps. They use a lot of taxis as well. So there has been a very close working relationship between the councils and the Transport Connections officers. Unfortunately, I think it is quite an under-resourced program. For example, I am aware that for three local government areas there will be one Transport Connections officer. That is quite a lot of travel for one person, and a lot of transport demand for one person to get their head around.

Senator O’BRIEN —What does the one person do? You are talking about the officers. What is their role?

Ms Holcombe —Their role would be to assess what the transport demand is and what the available transport infrastructure is that could be utilised. They look at the gap in services and try to come up with some solutions to connect the transport. I think it has been a successful program, and the government is obviously committed to its continuation. There are a few problems with it, I think. There is an interest to use school buses within rural and regional areas for community transport type services. Currently I think only school children are allowed to travel on those buses, so those buses could travel almost half empty or more when they could be taking TAFE or various other students. At the moment, anybody external who wants to travel on buses with school children needs to have prior approval from the school principal and they need to have Working With Children checks and all that sort of thing. That is something that we are currently trying to work through at the moment, and Transport Connections looks at those sorts of solutions—how we can utilise the infrastructure that is there—and they work closely with the councils.

Senator O’BRIEN —In terms of that resource—I think you said $80 million over how many years?

Ms Holcombe —I think it is 10 or 12. I am not sure if some of that was pre-existing funding.

Ms Owen —You could say it is a good start. There are obviously some very positive signals with that program. It is something that there could be a greater investment in. One of the other things that is quite positive about it has been the cooperative nature of the program, the involvement of state and local government and, indeed, private sector operators as well.

Senator O’BRIEN —What can you tell us, if anything, about the role of local or state government with developing services and encouraging the private sector buses to provide additional services?

Ms Holcombe —Currently the contractual arrangements for the bus operators do not have as much flexibility as they could to provide alternative services. Currently there are not as many incentives to provide services beyond the school run; they do not exist within these contracts. That is my limited understanding of that issue.

Senator O’BRIEN —I do not want you to feel obliged to answer a question that you do not think you have enough information to answer.

Ms Holcombe —No. That is really all the information I have about that.

Senator O’BRIEN —In terms of the various regions in the map, setting out the departmental regional boundaries that you supplied us, which is a Victorian government document, would it be fair to say that either all or some or a minority of the councils have a role in providing transport facilities to their residents?

Ms Owen —I would say that all councils have a role. The extent to which is possible will vary quite dramatically.

Senator O’BRIEN —Would the majority not find it possible, or would the majority find it possible to actually play a role?

Ms Owen —I think the majority, yes, would play a role.

Senator O’BRIEN —When you calculated a $7 million spend per annum on transport by councils across Victoria, is the bulk of that in the metropolitan area.

Ms Owen —That is a regional thing.

Ms Holcombe —It is right across the state.

Senator O’BRIEN —So it would not take into account any spending, if any, in metropolitan areas.

Ms Holcombe —No, I do not think so. Most of the community transport services are concentrated in the rural and regional areas. Also, that $7 million is exclusive of vehicles, fuel, accreditation of vehicles and insurance. If we include all those on-costs it is $21 million in rough figures.

Senator O’BRIEN —Is that paid for by the councils?

Ms Holcombe —The councils pay for it.

Senator O’BRIEN —Are any of those funds provided by state or federal governments and administered by council or are they entirely ratepayer funds.

Ms Holcombe —They are ratepayers’ funds.

Senator O’BRIEN —So they are not drawn from other financial sources, such as grant sources, that councils have?

Ms Holcombe —I believe that some of the health and home and community care funding is used.

Ms Owen —It is one of those things we would need to come back to you on.

Senator O’BRIEN —It would be good to have some clear understanding of how much as actual ratepayers’ funds and how much was funded by state or Commonwealth programs from whatever department.

Ms Owen —Sure.

Senator McGAURAN —From your submission I could not quite gauge how you graded the main regional transport corridors—Traralgon, Ballarat, Bendigo and Geelong. Are they adequate; are they good or not?

Ms Holcombe —I think they are very good.

Senator McGAURAN —I too think they are very good.

Ms Holcombe —I think the reliability is hovering within 85 to 90 per cent most of the times, if not higher, and that seems to be improving. The regional rail link will soon solve quite a lot of problems on the Ballarat-Bendigo-Geelong lines with the separation of the suburban and V/Line trains, which is fantastic. But on the whole I would say that the V/Line train services are excellent.

Senator McGAURAN —You mentioned that there are large pockets of Victoria that are not part of the line, or the bus lines for that matter. What areas specifically were you saying had to rely on private transport? And when you say private transport, do you mean private bus services.

Ms Holcombe —Just people driving their own cars.

Senator McGAURAN —Where specifically?

Ms Holcombe —I would probably say some of the pockets of Gippsland, the Hindmarsh-Horsham type area in the north-west of the state. There is a high reliance on private motor vehicles there. In the south-west along the Corangamite-Colac sort of region I think it is probably trickier for people to access public transport.

Senator McGAURAN —The Mallee regions?

Ms Holcombe —Yes, that is right.

Senator McGAURAN —I suspect you are talking about beyond Gippsland and deep in the Mallee and Rainbow and places like that. Realistically, how can they be catered for with public transport? Are you suggesting that we start running bus services there?

Ms Holcombe —I acknowledge that it is a very big challenge indeed.

Senator McGAURAN —Of course it is ideal, but is it realistic for the number you would get?

Ms Holcombe —It would not be possible to sustain a bus route with five people using that bus route daily.

Ms Owen —I guess the answer is ‘not necessarily’. We are not the best place to provide the answer on that.

Senator McGAURAN —It is not that I am here to praise too much the public transport system, but Victoria has an advantage over everywhere else—Queensland, New South Wales—because it is a small state. So it is not a bad system. There is room for improvement in the city, if anywhere, quite frankly, and maybe the comfort of the trains and buses could be improved. But, for instance, there is a very good V/Line bus service outside the train system that runs from Portland to Warrnambool and then you can catch a train into Melbourne from Warrnambool. You say there should be a greater frequency of buses. That would be nice, but, realistically, haven’t they shaped those bus services around what is viable and sensible? If someone has to wait eight hours for the next bus—which, by the way, was me once—that is the reality of it. I do not want to get my self into too much trouble and deny anyone better services, but as an example take the route of Portland to Warrnambool by bus and Warrnambool to Melbourne by train—it is a darn good service, I would suggest, and you could not make it any more frequent. When you said, ‘Let’s make it more frequent,’ were you referring specifically to any particular area or town?

Ms Holcombe —No, the submission is really a summation of all of the views of our 79 members, but for quite some time in Victoria a review of most of the bus services has been underway, so improved frequency of services can always be achieved. I think there are always improvements that can be made. I agree absolutely with your point that it is not realistic to expect that when people choose to live in far-flung communities they should have a bus arrive at their doorstep.

Senator McGAURAN —I do not want to cut my own throat, but I know that the people themselves know that they have a good service. There is always room for improvement, but Victoria is in a very happy position of being a small, well-serviced state.

Ms Owen —We do pretty well.

Ms Holcombe —We do well.

Senator McGAURAN —We do pretty well, but that does not mean we should not have a closer look at it.

Ms Owen —It is a general principle.

CHAIR —I have a couple of quick questions before we finish. There does seem to be a sliding scale out to the more remote areas, particularly in the other states, as Senator McGauran points out. But there really seems to be this issue of the financial viability versus the public good and where the decisions are made along that spectrum. On that, do you think that the local councils get recognition for what they do by way of financial contribution? They are on the ground at the grassroots level, so they recognise the need. Do they get the recognition? Is financial assistance to provide those services really the responsibility of local government or should it be just an extension of state government responsibility?

Ms Owen —I do not believe that local government does get the recognition for the investment it makes in local area transport, but I think, to be realistic, the bulk of the dollars for the infrastructure should be coming from state and federal governments.

CHAIR —In your discussions with the state government, is there any recognition on their part that they should be doing more?

Ms Holcombe —Yes, certainly.

Ms Owen —I think so, yes.

CHAIR —I guess what I am trying to get to is this: is there any intimation from the government that they will be moving to play a greater role in providing those services that the local governments currently supply? This is getting back to that public good end of the spectrum.

Ms Owen —Going back to Senator McGauran’s comments, as a principle I think there is recognition that you can always extend services or do a bit better, but it is a question of recognising that there are limits to what can be done. As we said, the Victorian Transport Plan is a very good strategy and always can be built upon.

CHAIR —An issue coupled with the issue of the increasing importance of the environment is that public transport will ramp up in the eyes of the public as something that we need to address. Do you think as that happens—and I guess I am asking you to look into a crystal ball—higher levels of state and federal government will start looking more closely at their responsibility to provide better financial support for providing no services? I am talking particularly about the regional areas, because obviously they have the local governments, which have the least cost base to be able to provide the services where the need is the greatest. Do you have any confidence that as the public transport debate increases the state and federal governments will perhaps see a greater role—and should they have it?

Ms Owen —There is recognition from the levels of government about the importance of increased investment. There is take-up on some of the issues we have talked about today. But it is about how we plan. It is about what is possible in that investment in infrastructure in the medium term. The signals that we have had and the things where we have seen quite significant investment from both state and Commonwealth in recent times are quite positive.

CHAIR —Are there any further questions?

Senator BACK —We did not really get into disabled access.

Ms Holcombe —No, and I did want to make a comment about that.

Senator BACK —I am anxious to hear one.

Ms Holcombe —In a lot of the transport infrastructure that we have spoken about today—the fabulous V/Line network—people with disabilities can access those services but they cannot access the coach services because they are not low-floor buses. That is something that we are constantly trying to come up with solutions for. I know the state government is focused on improving the Disability Discrimination Act compliance, but in rural and regional areas where you have these V/Line coaches it is a very big challenge and it means that a lot of people with disabilities are disadvantaged and cannot get around.

Senator BACK —A lady made this point to me at a meeting the other night in a small town called Boyup Brook. She was saying that because there are no alternatives—there are no maxitaxis—and the buses cannot be dropped to the ground as they can be in the city effectively she is precluded from going anywhere. It really came home, and she is no doubt not alone. I wondered whether you were conscious of the same thing.

Ms Owen —It is a significant issue.

Senator BACK —And going to become more so, I think.

Ms Owen —Yes, that is right. Community transport is a very big issue indeed, and it is one of the things where some of the responsibility again falls to local government in looking at its aged-care services.

Senator BACK —It is not the sort of transport that a volunteer can offer very often, is it?

Ms Owen —No.

Senator BACK —Volunteers do not feel comfortable or competent to assist a person, for example, out of a wheelchair into a vehicle—or indeed a vehicle is not available or needs modification.

Ms Holcombe —That is right. That is one of the biggest problems, actually—the availability of modified vehicles for rural and regional areas. There are a lot of communities that provide those services, particularly for people with disabilities to get to health appointments. The Rural Ambulance service was at one stage providing a service but they have been unable to continue that, I think, so it has fallen to the councils and the community transport sector to assist with that.

Senator BACK —It is an increasing problem.

CHAIR —Finally, Senator Back has raised the issue of volunteering. It is obviously more and more difficult over the years to get volunteers, and people’s participation in volunteer work is declining. Has the association done any work on the difficulties that some of the shires are facing in getting volunteers to provide those committee services? I am very happy for you to take that on notice.

Ms Owen —Yes, I think that is one we should take away. The answer is a bit of a yes and a bit of a no. We do have some information and the state has done some work in this area, where the number of volunteer drop-ins are linked also to the ageing population. So, yes, we would like to come back to you on that.

CHAIR —That would be great. Ms Holcombe and Ms Owen, thank you very much for appearing today.

Ms Owen —Thank you.

[11.49 am]