Through many letters to the editor, in particular, the Ballarat railway station has been in the news for some time now, the emphasis is on the public’s awareness of the absurdly fragmented approach that the State Government has been taking to changes there. The extent of the mess is highlighted in relation to the two main features of the station precinct: it functions as a major transport interchange and its nationally-significant heritage values. As for the transport function, the State Government’s approach is inefficient in all aspects, i.e.: in terms of managing trains, buses, cars, bicycles and pedestrian access.
As far as the heritage aspects are concerned, there has been no consideration at all. Since the precinct (from King St, Ballarat East to Armstrong St Nth, Ballarat Central) was placed on Victoria’s Heritage Register in 1998, there has been no plan for the management of the precinct’s heritage assets. This has meant that as assets have become redundant as train operations have been modernised, with the exception of the Lydiard St crossing gates, these assets have been allowed to deteriorate. No plan has been devised for their maintenance or their alternative use. It took groups such as the Ballarat Rail Promotion Group Inc to restore the precinct’s three signal boxes (to use them for tours and Ballarat ‘A’ box for meetings), to prepare plans for the station’s and Ballarat East Locomotive Depot’s heritage assets and to ensure retention of operational gates at Lydiard St, with – it must be said – the support of both Liberal/National and Labour State governments of the time – a far cry from the heavy-handed and ill-informed approach of today’s State Government.
Maintenance by VicTrack or other responsible authority has been carried out under sufferance, often the following complaint and at the point where the particular asset has reached a dubious condition. In the meantime, so-called ‘protected’ structures such as the Ballarat Goods Shed, rail wagon weighbridge, Humffray St Nth crossing gates and various semaphore signals have been allowed to deteriorate via the time-honoured method of ‘demolition by neglect, to the extent where recently all free-standing signals masts were removed. Little attempt has been made to make use of the substantial vacant spaces within the main station building itself. These spaces include the former dining room, station master’s residence and, until recently, all of the buildings on platform 2. These buildings continue to receive minimal attention. In a sense, I don’t blame the ‘railways’ for this situation. Their primary duty is to run trains, not to manage redundant heritage assets. This is where agencies such as Heritage Victoria, other State Government agencies and the City Council have roles.
The precinct requires an overview approach, managed by a single authority, that accounts for transport in all of its guises, heritage management, the use of vacant floorspaces and other facilities and the promotion of same. The Ballarat City Council has traditionally shown little to no interest in the precinct, despite its importance to the City and heritage being Council’s number one declared priority. In this respect, amongst its avowed priorities – as highlighted in ‘MyBallarat Summer 2017-18’ – is ‘Progressing the precinct, investigating relocation of steam trains’. Nothing has been heard from the Council about this proposition; one that is worthy if ambitious, but which requires just the type of integrated approach as suggested here if it is to have a ghost of a chance of success.
Meanwhile, both the transport and heritage values of the precinct continue to be undermined by both the limited scope of the vision for this most important of Ballarat’s community assets. And this is without even mentioning the crazy and ill-informed proposal to effectively take the Ballarat station and plant it up in Warrenheip! Ye gods, our visionary forebears of 150 years ago, who deliberately placed the station in its most prominent location, smack in the middle of town, must be pulling their collective hair out. It’s time for a new way, redolent of the past vision.
Having had an interest in the Ballarat railway precinct since the 1970s and since moving to Ballarat in 1989, as a member of the Ballarat Regional Board for Planning and Development’s ‘Express Train Group’ (1993), the City of Ballarat’s advisory group on the future of the precinct (1994), chairperson of the Ballarat Rail Promotion Group Inc (1994-2010) and a member of Save Our Station Ballarat Inc (2017- present). The first two involvements were in my role as Urban & Regional Planner for the Ballarat Regional Board.