Melbourne’s Suburban Rail Loop that links all major rail lines in Melbourne with the new airport rail link, has been billed by the Victorian government as the “biggest public transport project in Australian history”. It is a proposed new rail network forming a circle around Melbourne’s suburbs and is a significant milestone set out in the Victorian government’s Plan Melbourne.
More than 20,000 jobs are expected to be created during the construction phase of the $50 billion project. The entire project would be built in stages, with construction starting in 2022 and a delivery date scheduled for 2051. This is in line with the 30-year strategy released by Infrastructure Victoria in 2016 which forecasted that train lines in the east and south of Melbourne would reach capacity by 2046. Work on the full business case will launch next year and is expected to finish by 2019-2020.
Why is the government pushing for the Suburban Rail Loop?
The key aim of this project is to allow a daily average of 400,000 commuters to travel between suburbs without the need to come into the city. Melbourne’s current rail network is ‘monocentric’ as all train lines go through the city centre. This contrasts with the rail network in bigger cities like London and Tokyo which are more ‘polycentric’. With the Melbourne population on the rise, the government is therefore in favour of a rail infrastructure that will enable time-conscious passengers to be more efficient with their travel plans. Melbourne’s Suburban Rail Loop would connect with key stations on every suburban line and feature new regional interchanges for country travellers.
The project has also created avenues for politicians to gain traction with the public ahead of the 2018 Victorian state election on 24 November 2018. Opposition Leader Bill Shorten promised an additional $300 million towards the planning of the suburban rail loop if he wins the next election as well as an earlier start on construction ahead of the planned 2022 start date. This matches the $300 million that Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews promised earlier in August 2018. The aim of the project is to attract 150,000 new public transport trips and taking approximately 200,000 vehicle trips off major roads by 2051.
Which suburbs will be included in the line to Melbourne Airport?
The 90 km track would connect 10 train lines from Melbourne’s Cheltenham in the east to Werribee in the west with up to 12 new underground stations and 15 new station connections. The loop will also extend 34 km and connect to Melbourne Airport. Four airport rail routes are currently being considered with the preferred option being a line linking the city to Melbourne’s Tullamarine airport via Sunshine. The Premier stated that this route is preferred for multiple reasons including minimising forcible acquisitions of homes or businesses as existing rail corridors could be used instead. The new track is part of the $8-$13 billion airport rail link connecting Sunshine to the city and would run additional services, most likely through a new rail tunnel that would be used for metro, regional and airport-bound trains. Part of the airport rail link will be fast tracked with electrified train lines.
Will regional and metropolitan trains still share the same tracks?
The government is aiming to separate the regional and metropolitan rail lines in Melbourne’s west so that regional V/Line trains no longer have to share tracks with city trains and thereby slowing down traffic. The services would instead run from the city to Wyndham Vale and Melton along separate Metro tracks. It is also part of the government’s Western Rail Plan to fast track trips to the city from regional towns like Geelong and Ballarat by electrifying the entire stretch of existing V/Line track – enabling fast and express services. The new electric regional trains would replace V/Line's diesel trains along these routes.
Research conducted by the government indicates that the loop would be the busiest train route in Melbourne once completed. According to the plan, two new stations would be built at Melton and Wyndham Vale – thereby significantly boosting capacity on the busy routes. The construction of the loop will be completed in stages with priority given to the section of the route between Cheltenham and Box Hill in Melbourne's south-east and eastern suburbs. The Public Transport Users Association supported this decision with the Property Council of Australia declaring that the proposed suburban rail loop would help Melbourne cope with its booming population.
Why is $600 million being allocated to the planning of the $50 billion project?
The Age newspaper reported that transport experts have questioned why $600 million was needed to plan Melbourne’s proposed $50 billion project. The Premier stated that the $600 million would be allocated to the design, pre-construction and engineering work. He further added that “the combined cash meant the project’s 2022 start date could be brought forward”. In addition, the Premier also advised that $150 million would be allocated to the planning of the separation of V/Line and Metro tracks by building an electrified line from the city to Wyndham Vale and Melton.
What is the public opinion following the announcement of Melbourne’s Suburban Rail Loop?
An independent assessment by SGS Economics and Planning reported that more train stations need to be added to the rail line in the fast-growing western suburbs for the project to be worth the investment. Research findings have identified that due to the lack of stations in the west, only a quarter of the forecasted 195,000 people would be using that section of the rail loop in the south-eastern suburbs. SGS Economist Terry Rawnsley also questioned why the loop included stops in low density suburbs like Fawkner and Reservoir, rather than stations further south in denser areas such as Coburg and Bell. Professor Stanley from the University of Sydney is of the same opinion and stated that “while a circumferential rail line was a good idea, building it when many of the suburbs it would pass through were very low density made the entire project hard to justify”.
Rawnsley further added that while he supports the government’s decision to prioritise the south-eastern link between Cheltenham and Box Hill, he advised not to overlook the difficulty of the north-eastern section of rail between Doncaster and Broadmeadows. The 35 km stretch would most likely require tunnelling underneath the towns and therefore be very costly to build.
On the other hand, Public Transport Users Association spokesperson Daniel Bowen commended the government for their far-sighted planning of the project. Bowen stated that "Enabling cross city trips is something the public transport network has struggled with, and this would really help. We need a long-term vision for what Melbourne should look like - as the city gets bigger, moving people around in cars is going to get less and less viable".
How does this impact jobs within the infrastructure industry?
Based on our experience recruiting civil and design engineers, there will be a shortage of skilled candidates in Victoria to work on this project once it goes live. This is partly due to other projects currently underway in Victoria such as level crossing removal projects, Metro Tunnel, Western Program Alliance, Western Roads Upgrade and Melbourne Metro Project. As such, we believe that contractors will be sourced from interstate to ensure the timely delivery of the project. There will be more roles to resource and more opportunities for people from a mining background to transfer their skills into the infrastructure industry. We also anticipate that the current demand outpacing the supply of skilled engineers and designers will lead to an increase in salary.
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