Regional train and coach provider V/Line regularly pays more than $1000 return taxi trips to Melbourne because of wheelchair inaccessible services, according to two north-east Victorian residents.
Albury-based Luke Sefton said V/Line had recently arranged a taxi for at least three return trips to Melbourne.
“If there’s more than two wheelchairs they tell you the train’s full and you can’t get a ticket. If it’s not running you’ve got to get a taxi and they pay the money for that – maybe $700 or more, one way,” he said.
The Victorian regional train and coach network has told the ABC it allocates around $300,000 for taxi replacements across its network.
The chair of the Victorian Disability Advisory Council, Colleen Furlanetto, said she had used replacement taxi services from Euroa and Seymour more than a dozen times at a cost to V/Line of around $300 each way.
“If we added up a lot of the taxi trips that people have had to take over several years that money would be better invested in infrastructure to ensure we have better services that function, and on railway lines that are functionable,” she said.
Ms Furlanetto said other passengers have taken longer taxi trips – from Albury-Wodonga to Melbourne.
“As the chair of the Victorian Disability Advisory Council I hear stories from regional Victoria, particularly on the Albury and Shepparton [North Eastern] line, of significant inconvenience and issues that seem to keep happening,” she said.
The federal member for Indi, Cathy McGowan, is calling for V/Line to release an itemised expenditure for replacement bus services and taxi fares for cancelled services on the North Eastern line.
A V/Line spokesperson said: “Our priority is to ensure our passengers can get to where they need to go. We will not leave passengers stranded, so we use taxis as a last resort.”
V/Line not accessible
Mr Sefton said taxis were not just used to replace cancelled services, but as a more accessible alternative to regular train services.
“There’s only one section you can get on and there’s a very steep ramp. If they’ve got two wheelchairs on you can’t move. You can’t go to the bathroom or anything really,” he said.
“In my opinion the taxi actually goes a bit better because at least you have air-con and you can stop to go to the bathroom.”
The V/Line Accessibility Action Plan indicates the installation of additional priority seating by the end of 2015 and states coaches have permanent allocated space for passengers travelling with mobility aids.
But Mr Sefton said V/Line would sometimes turn him away.
“I’ve called up a few times and there’s only two [people with wheelchairs] allowed on there and they say ‘we’ve sold out today’,” he said.
“In that case they don’t get you a taxi either, they just say they’ve sold out.”
Ms Furlanetto said a reliable, accessible and affordable public transport service was a basic right.
“This is an infrastructure problem and a resourcing problem.
“This is not a political issue, this is a human rights issue to me and that’s how we see it at the Victorian Disability Advisory Council.”
Ms Furlanetto said she felt guilty depriving local residents of a wheelchair accessible service whenever V/Line arranged a taxi for her to Melbourne.
She said the trip also had a toll on the driver.
“Taxi drivers have spoken about the time, the effort, the fatigue, the expectation and the limited drivers they have … They were struggling because of the demand of the service being able to pick up when there are downfalls in the V/Line service,” Ms Furlanetto said.
Strathbogie Shire Mayor Amanda McClaren said transport was a key advocacy area for council.
“We need more frequent services and we need shuttle buses connecting us to trains and we definitely need more taxi and coach services,” Cr McClaren said.
“We’ve been speaking to members of the state and federal parliaments … we’re about to hit them harder in that space.”
Both the Victorian Minister for Transport, Jacinta Allan, and Ms McGowan said they would put pressure on the new Transport Minister, Michael McCormack.