Melbourne suburban rail loop analysis

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Victoria already has a long list of must-do transport projects. The Melbourne suburban ring rail project must not be allowed to dominate. 

Analysis by Dave Jones, Manager Mobility Advocacy.
September 2018.

The suburban loop would use the existing Albion rail corridor to link Sunshine to Melbourne Airport.
The suburban loop would use the existing Albion rail corridor to link Sunshine to Melbourne Airport.

Last month’s announcement of a suburban rail loop for Melbourne caught everyone by surprise. Unfortunately, announcing a major project just 88 days before a state election means the proposal probably won’t be considered fairly on its merits, but instead through the lens of state politics.

The proposal is for a middle-suburban rail corridor, connecting Cheltenham to Clayton, Monash University, Glen Waverley, Burwood, Box Hill, Doncaster, Heidelberg, Bundoora, Reservoir, Fawkner, Broadmeadows, Melbourne Airport, Sunshine and Werribee.

Beyond the short-term fix

RACV welcomes investigating an idea that could transform suburban Melbourne, rather than an all-too-common short-term fix suited to the electoral cycle. If re-elected, the government will spend $300 million over the next four years to prepare the business case, design the project and preserve the required land for 90 kilometres of railway. The government that follows could be the one that gets to decide whether to proceed, based on the project’s merits.

There have been many such corridors through Melbourne, particularly for roads, progressively developed by successive state governments. For example, land has already been set aside for the outer-metropolitan road and railway corridor running from Geelong Road, south-west of Werribee, to Beveridge on the Hume Highway.

It makes sense for the state to protect a rail corridor through what is now “middle Melbourne” – at the end of the line for the longest lines in the tram network. The proposed suburban rail loop will link suburbs with shopping centres, job zones, universities and even the airport where, for now, cars are the main option.

The suburban loop is proposed to end in Werribee.
The suburban loop is proposed to end in Werribee.

Business to contribute

Private enterprise is often at the centre of these regions, so they would be expected to contribute to the costs of the stations, which in turn will deliver them more customers, students and business.  Councils will need to adjust their planning schemes to maximise the benefits that would come from having a major train station in their midst.

The proposed suburban rail loop has to be more than tunnels, track and stations. For Melbourne Metro and its new trains, a large train stabling and maintenance facility is now under construction east of Pakenham. The location of a similar facility, for the proposed suburban rail loop, will be a challenge in the developed sections of the eastern and northern suburbs.

Skyrail not part of the plan

RACV’s understanding is that ‘skyrail’ isn’t part of the proposal. The plan at this stage is for the project to be underground in the east and the north, to enable the most direct route between the planned stations. For commuters that would mean faster journeys over shorter distances, with less impact on communities. It also means slower and more expensive construction.

In the western suburbs, the route and stations are not yet set while work continues developing proposals for faster regional trains and an airport rail link, all operating through Sunshine.  The greatest uncertainty seems to be the route between Sunshine and Werribee.

Regional Victorians should be concerned about a $50 billion project for Melbourne when their roads are falling apart, and their train services are so unreliable. However, the state and federal governments are substantially renewing Victoria’s regional rail infrastructure and when completed there should be more frequent and reliable services in new trains along existing lines. That should be well before trains even start running along any section of the proposed suburban rail loop. 

One ring to rule them all?

As a new, far-off project is announced, it’s important that what needs to be done now is not lost.

Suburban ring rail cannot dominate transport planning, funding and resources.

Here’s what’s on our must-do list:

  • There’s a massive backlog of road and public transport infrastructure and service projects across Victoria, as RACV has identified ( One ring rail must not stop critical public transport and road projects across the state.
  • Metro 2 is an underground line that could run from Clifton Hill to Newport via Port Melbourne, but needs a business case to happen. This is a separate rail line and part of a plan released by Public Transport Victoria in 2012 to reduce congestion and improve reliability in the CBD train network. It’s a project for inner-city commuters and train access to Port Melbourne and Fishermans Bend. The suburban rail loop is a project for people that infrequently go to the inner city, and probably drive to and from work at present.
  • Future state governments also need to spend more to boost bus services, especially in outer-suburban areas where it is the only option for many commuters. We need more buses, more often, to rail stations. If direct express buses ran every 5 to 10 minutes, some of the gaps in the train and tram system could be fixed.
  • Better paths for walking and cyclists would also improve transport connections around stations and major places of employment.

If the next state government progresses the suburban rail loop, RACV will scrutinise that process and work to ensure the project delivers value for Victorians.

Authorised by Bryce Prosser, RACV General Manager Public Policy and Corporate Affairs, 485 Bourke Street, Melbourne, Victoria 3000.