I've travelled on the train to Swan Hill - and enjoyed it. But you do have to wonder whether the cost of the service is justified. By the time most passengers had alighted at Bendigo - there really weren't that many people on the train for the journey. I'm not suggesting that we shouldn't run trains to Swan Hill, Warnambool, Bairnsdale, etc. I think that having a rail link is an important symbol for those cities and makes them feel connected to the city in a way that has broader importance than the number of passengers carried. However, it does raise the question as to whether the operation of those trains could be made more efficient, and whether we are spending money in the right areas.
A few hypothetical examples:
If I want to travel from the city to Lilydale late at night I might need to change at Ringwood. If I want to travel from Cranbourne to the city late at night I might need to change at Dandenong. How come we are prepared to accept these kinds of changes in Melbourne but they are regarded as being a major deal in regional areas (eg. changing trains at Ballarat, Bendigo, Geelong). Should we really have five carriages travelling to regional areas?
I understand there are technical difficulties associated with Sprinter trains operating on some regional lines, but leaving that aside, is there really anything wrong with a passenger having to transfer between trains at a regional location to complete their journey via a guaranteed connection? I expect to change train when travelling far shorter distances in Europe.
Is a staffed kiosk an absolute requirement? Does it need to be staffed for the entire journey?
You can't check luggage on Eurostar, TGV, ICE services - is it really a necessity for long haul V/Line services?
It would be interesting to do a survey of people in, say, Warnambool, ask them if they would rather have their current three trains a day, with on board catering, the ability to check luggage and a single seat for their entire journey, vs. an alternative scenario of having five trains a day, but having to change at Geelong via guaranteed connection, without catering and no checked luggage.
So I think the debate isn't just about train vs bus - I think it should also be about making train services as cost effective as possible - and more frequent. A number of cost savings have been implemented already - checked luggage was phased out from interurban services. We don't have on board catering except on long haul services. This is balanced by having higher frequencies (and overall, passengers clearly think the product has improved).
Frequency is really critical - it means that passengers know that if they miss a train they're not stranded six hours until the next one (which makes them more likely to use the service in the first place). It caters to a greater range of journeys (including within regional Victoria). Less waiting time and more flexibility. If there are measures that can be taken to make the network more efficient to enable that to happen then they should be considered.
Alternatively buses can play a role in providing frequency. In the same way that Qantas operates some 767s between Melbourne and Sydney to give them capacity and some 737s to provide frequency, you might have a similar approach with V/Line....three train services a day, and a number of bus services. So it doesn't need to be an either/or approach.
I think there's probably still quite a lot innovation possible in this area that can deliver customers with a better outcome without massive expenditure (but of course, everything does cost money!).
Another hypothetical example - would the people of Warnambool prefer four trains a day, or three trains and three coaches....? All interesting questions.