‘You’d be bloody mad not to’: eager passengers make the most of Victoria’s regional fare cap

“I mean it’s only $9.20, you’d be bloody mad not to,” says Noel Gough. “The fish and chips and beer were pretty good too.”

The 60-year-old freight train driver from Tarneit in Melbourne’s west has planned a few days off work. On Friday he set his alarm for 4.15am and excitedly caught the train to Southern Cross station for what would be an epic 700km, 11-hour rail expedition across Victoria, before arriving back home in time for dinner.

The Victorian government has capped the cost of all regional train and coach services, meaning anyone can travel anywhere in the state serviced by the V/Line without paying more than $9.20 a day – even less on weekends and for concessions.

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The savings potential for Victorians is significant, especially for regular commuters into Melbourne. Before Friday, the cost of travelling was based on distance. A V/Line trip from Geelong to Melbourne cost $13.80 one-way for an adult, while going from Ballarat to Melbourne cost $22.80, and from Bendigo to Melbourne $34.40.

The Andrews government had been spruiking the policy since announcing it as an election commitment last year. “Starting today, regional and metro tickets are the same price,” Daniel Andrews tweeted on Friday.

“Because fare’s fair,” he said.

The Victorian opposition has already criticised the policy, arguing that Parliamentary Budget Office figures showed the project would cost $155m more across four years than the $203m flagged by the government.

Public transport advocates have also raised concern that the cheaper tickets would create a surge in demand that could see passenger crushes and stranded commuters on services that were already overcrowded.

While the Victorian government said there were initial indications that the fare cap had proved popular, it appeared the memo about cheaper travel had not reached all corners of the state on Friday.

It’s 10am on Friday morning, and the Guardian is about to board a V/Line coach service in the regional town of Mildura, which sits on the Victorian side of the border with New South Wales – not far from where it meets South Australia.

Passenger train services to Mildura haven’t run since the 1990s, so for residents to get to Melbourne without driving or flying they have to first travel by coach to Swan Hill, about a two-and-a-half-hour trip, before boarding a train that takes about five hours.

The trip used to cost $56.80 each way, but is now capped at $9.20.

Despite the huge savings on offer, there’s not much around town advertising the new fare cap. There was no mention in the local Sunraysia Daily newspaper on Friday, and when the Guardian went to collect its ticket – paper tickets are still required in this part of Victoria – even some travellers on the half-full service were unaware of the new price.

The coach is modern and clean, with comfortable seat spacing, air conditioning and a small toilet on board. It zooms past the agricultural landscape along the road to Swan Hill which has just one lane in each direction.

Just after 12.30, the coach arrives at the train station in Swan Hill, a small town also on the NSW border.

There’s about an hour’s wait until the onward train to Melbourne departs, and since the station is in the centre of town, passengers have a chance to walk around for a bathroom break and food, as well as to take in some of the local attractions, including the Giant Murray Cod.

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Wandering around town is Gough, whose train arrived into Swan Hill about the same time as the coach from Mildura, allowing passengers to swap between services in either direction.

“I raced out of the train and went straight to the club for a glass of beer,” Gough tells the Guardian.

After downing his beer, he dashed to the fish and chip shop for some takeaway lunch, which he brought back onboard in time to make the return service back to Melbourne.

“Look I didn’t get to see much of Swan Hill today,” he acknowledges. “But I could have been sitting at home watching TV all day, but instead I’ve been able to go out gallivanting all around the state in a day.”

The introduction of the fare cap also marks the end of the first-class carriages on longer distance V/Line trains. Instead, the carriages are now where reserved seats can be booked, while rear carriages are open to all passengers.

Also in the reserved section is Ellie Grow, who is travelling to Melbourne before returning to Mildura for a circus training course that begins next week. “It made more sense than driving the car, especially because of the price,” Grow says, adding that she knew about the fare cap in advance and specifically planned her travel to take advantage of it.

She spends most of the trip to Melbourne on her laptop. While the rolling stock used on this V/Line service doesn’t offer wifi or in-seat power outlets, she is able to use a foldout tray table.

Grow used to live in China and became accustomed to fast, reliable train travel. “When you’re in Melbourne if you tell someone you’ve just got off the train [from Mildura] they’re stunned. They wonder why you’d do it, but I can sit here and do admin for six hours – it’s great,” she says.

On the service to Southern Cross station on Friday, while the reserved section is about half full, the other carriages are almost empty.

Before boarding, the carriage with the buffet cart is quiet. Arop Kuol is in charge, and tells the Guardian that while additional favourites such as ham and cheese croissants and sausage rolls have been stocked, the increase in patronage has been only slight on the first day.

The Guardian samples the ham and cheese croissant and a Nippy’s iced coffee – both were tasty and reasonable at $5.80 and $3.20 respectively. The onboard bathrooms are also clean and spacious. Passenger seats are comfortable and recline, with much more legroom than on a domestic flight.

Kuol says he expects the surge in ridership will come once word spreads about the fare cap.

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Shortly after he speaks to the Guardian, it is evident that even some V/Line employees are unaware of how the cap works. An announcer on the speaker system says the cap came in today, but it only applies one-way, telling passengers it will cost them $18.40 all up if they return later that day.

The carriages start filling out as the train passes Bendigo, where hordes of AFL fans heading to the Collingwood-Richmond match begin boarding.

The McNamara family from Perth are among those who enter. Staying in Bendigo while visiting relatives, the family of Collingwood supporters say that when buying their train tickets into town, station workers appeared unaware of how to properly sell them a ticket under the new structure. “While we’ve always been able to get a family discount for the six of us, it makes you want to explore Victoria more when we come here,” Delene McNamara says.

“C’mon the pies,” she then shouts down a carriage packed with supporters.

Her husband, Adam, adds: “If we’re not with the kids and you want to go into Melbourne for the day [with another couple] it’s $100 all up, so it was cheaper to drive, but we would have just not gone at all. But this is much cheaper so you’d do it.”

The train pulls in to Southern Cross station about 10 minutes after schedule, and passengers walk out into a rainy and cold Melbourne.

Having disembarked at Footscray for an easier connection home, Gough is giddy with excitement, already planning his next V/Line excursion.

“There’s Warrnambool, Bairnsdale and Ararart. Even if I only have time to get a beer and fish and chips, it’s just great,” he says.