Victorian Freight Minister Melissa Horne has blamed the state's Big Build infrastructure program for a dip in the number of containers, carried by rail, last financial year.
The Big Build covers 165 major road and rail projects, including the Metro Tunnel, a second underground railway for Melbourne, with five new stations. removal of 85 level crossings across Melbourne.
It also includes work on some regional passenger and freight rail lines.
At a recent Parliamentary Public Accounts and Estimates Committee, Ms Horne was asked why the number of containers carried under the Mode Shift Incentive Scheme had dropped by 13 per cent, between 2013-14 and last financial year.
"In 2013-14, 42,740 containers were moved via the scheme, yet in the last financial year it was only 37, 235, why was there a 13pc reduction in that number? ," Brighton Liberal MP James Newbury asked the minister.
"In 2013 the funding was $5 million, so if you work that out by container, that is $117 per container
"In 2020-21 it was $4m, so $94 a container, and in 2022-23 it was $3.5m, which I think works out at $82 per container."
Mr Newbury asked if the reduction was due to a lack of incentive to make the rail freight option viable - "and operators are just not taking it up."
The MSIS provides a rebate for three Victorian operators and one from southern NSW.
Ms Horne said the MSIS was "a really important scheme", which the government had supported for 13 years.
"Obviously these changes (containers on rail) fluctuate from year to year depending on what is grown and what the export capacity is," she said.
"On top of that we have had a significant part of our Big Build going on, which has seen some lines close down from time to time as we have gone in and done that re-sleepering and put in new ballast, which has required, some of the time, for that freight to go onto road."
Mr Newbury asked why the government was only making single-year commitments to the MSIS.
"Why doesn't it do anything for grant recipients who need long-term certainty to plan for loads and schedules accordingly?" he said.
Mr Horne said the MSIS was part of a "multilayered approach" being taken by the government.
"That is one piece of the jigsaw, but there is also the infrastructure investment that is going on," she said.
"Now, this is things like the port rail shuttle network that we are working with industry on, and we have provided that seed funding to be able to get that up and running.
"We are at this really exciting period of time where next year there will be that on-dock rail solution delivered down at the Port of Melbourne, down on Swanson Dock, there will be the port rail shuttle out at Altona that will connect directly to the port and also there is the work that is happening down in Cranbourne."
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Ms Horne said the budget set aside $181m for rail freight, that would bring Victoria closer to a "rolled gold" network, tailored to the fast and efficient movement of exports to ports.
"It builds on the $83 million investment that we delivered as part of our COVID-19 stimulus package," Ms Horne said.
The $83m focused on replacing sleepers, repairing ballast and renewing level crossing equipment across almost 400 kilometres of critical freight-only rail lines, she said.
"That investment reduced the numbers of temporary speed restrictions to their lowest level since the database commenced in 2005, and as a result our tracks are in the best condition they have been in a generation," she said.
"$181 million means heavier and faster trains, it means boosting the capacity of the track so that we can increase the volume and mass of freight carried per train and it means lifting the speed at which those trains can travel.
"So you can expect to see us investing heavily in new track, in new sleepers and new ballast on lines in the north and north-west of the state, particularly those that handle grain and will benefit most from the higher axle loads that the upgrades will bring."
The budget shifted the focus from maintenance to capital upgrades, so more of the network could be converted to carry 21-tonne axle loads and trains could be run at higher speeds.