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Two new rail lines the Andrews government promised to build in Melbourne’s outer west have been axed, watering down an election commitment to deliver frequent Metro train services to some of the nation’s fastest-growing suburbs.
New electrified lines to Melton and Wyndham Vale were part of the “Western Rail Plan” Premier Daniel Andrews unveiled ahead of the 2018 election, with a promise to extend the metropolitan train network through the booming suburbs of Tarneit, Deer Park, Ardeer, Cobblebank, Rockbank and Caroline Springs.
Tarneit station is already the 21st busiest in Melbourne, despite it only being served by V/Line trains. Credit: Eddie Jim
Those stations currently share infrequent and overcrowded diesel-powered V/Line trains from Geelong and Ballarat. Duplicating the tracks would unblock a bottleneck at Sunshine and free up capacity for faster and more frequent regional and suburban trains.
But documents The Age has obtained through a freedom-of-information request reveal Rail Projects Victoria (RPV) has cut the new tracks from the Western Rail Plan. Instead, plans the agency created in February this year show metropolitan trains will operate on the existing Regional Rail Link (RRL) track also used by regional trains.
“The metropolitan services to Melton and Wyndham Vale will operate through Sunshine station on the RRL line,” it says. “The provision of metropolitan services is highly likely to involve electrification on the existing RRL corridor.”
An Andrews government spokesman said the RPV plan was an internal working document and the agency had not decided about electrifying the existing RRL tracks. But the original promise to build new rail lines and separate suburban and regional trains is off the table, unless RPV’s plans change again.
Rail Futures Institute president John Hearsch said that without new tracks, Metro and V/Line services would still be restricted to 18 trains an hour at Sunshine, limiting Melton and Wyndham Vale trains to their current frequency of every 20 minutes during the morning peak.
“The proposed solution of simply running tremendously large trains won’t solve the problem because they can’t provide the level of frequency that a suburban service demands,” Hearsch said. “Whichever way you slice and dice it, there just isn’t enough capacity between the CBD and the west.”
The city’s best served train lines, including Frankston and Pakenham, operate a service almost every 10 minutes at peak times and some stations served by multiple lines, such as Caulfield, have trains departing every few minutes.
The document – an agreement on how to plan the rail upgrades alongside the now-paused Melbourne Airport Rail project – says new nine-carriage Metro trains with capacity for 2000 passengers will serve the western suburbs stations, significantly larger than the 440-seat six-carriage V/Line trains currently used.
Taking in several greenfield residential growth areas, the combined population of the Wyndham and Melton local government areas has grown 70 per cent over the decade to 2022 to just over half a million people, and is forecast to grow another 50 per cent to 791,000 by 2036.
When it announced the Western Rail Plan in 2018, the Andrews government said that duplicating and electrifying the lines was necessary to address “unprecedented population and patronage growth in the outer western suburbs” that was already causing overcrowding.
Melton City Council’s director of city futures, Sam Romaszko, said duplicating the rail line was vital to provide the limited passenger capacity and frequency the growing area needed.
“Trains will be arriving from Ballarat and Bacchus Marsh at Melton stations with no standing room, which will most likely result in passengers from Melton to Caroline Springs being left at the station,” Romaszko said.
Hearsch said western suburbs train services could only be significantly improved by building a new corridor from the CBD to the western suburbs – something the long-slated Melbourne Metro 2 (MM2) would achieve.
Victoria’s transport department first flagged the MM2 – a new underground line from Clifton Hill to Newport via the CBD – in a 2012 network plan.
Infrastructure Victoria, local governments, the RACV and the Committee of Melbourne have all backed the MM2, which would include a station at Fishermans Bend considered vital to the faltering urban renewal precinct’s success.
But Andrews and transport infrastructure minister Jacinta Allan have not committed to the MM2, as they focus on the first $34.5 billion stage of the Suburban Rail Loop in the eastern suburbs, and the North East Link, which is a $15.6 billion 20-lane toll road between Greensborough and Bulleen.
Tarneit Station is already the 21st busiest in Melbourne, despite it only being served by V/Line trains. Credit: Eddie Jim
“[MM2] is the only solution … but ever since the Suburban Rail Loop came along, clearly they can’t afford to do it,” Hearsch said.
An Andrews government spokesman said it was pushing ahead with a $650 million upgrade to the Melton Line that will allow it to run nine-carriage V/Line trains by 2028, boosting its current passenger capacity by 50 per cent.
“We’re also building a brand-new Melton station and fast-tracking the removal of four more level crossings on the Melton Line – making Melton level crossing-free by 2026,” the spokesman said.
Work on the Melbourne Airport Rail and the Geelong Fast Rail projects, which could both affect the Western Rail Plan, has been paused as the Commonwealth government completes a review of all infrastructure funding commitments.
The RPV documents raise concerns from the agency that the Airport Rail project was not “future-proofing” for the eventual Western Rail electrification works at Sunshine Station.
An October 2018 Western Rail Plan government brochure also flagged potentially building new stations and connecting Werribee to Wyndham Vale, which could become part of the proposed western section of the Suburban Rail Loop.
Concerns have grown for several years about whether the Western Rail Plan would be delivered, and Andrews admitted before the 2022 election that work on Melton and Wyndham Vale electrification would not start until at least 2028.
Tarneit, Wyndham Vale and Melton are already the 21st, 47th and 51st busiest stations in greater Melbourne, based on 2021/22 financial year data.
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