Rail commuters left sidelined in western suburbs

Looking back on it, the well-received Andrews government pledge in 2018 to improve train services to Melbourne’s western suburbs and beyond was a little thin on detail.

The announcement’s rhetoric was impressive, identifying as it did a strong business case for the project, one of several mega-buck infrastructure developments promised in the lead-up to the last election.

Albion station in Sunshine.Credit:Wayne Taylor

“The growth of Melbourne’s western suburbs, and the popularity of Geelong and Ballarat as commuter hubs, means our network needs more than just an upgrade: it needs redrawing,” the release said, just a month out from Daniel Andrews’ landslide election victory.

The centrepiece was to be two new electrified metro lines, to Melton and Wyndham Vale, to relieve pressure on often-overcrowded V-Line services. So far, so necessary. But then things got a little woolly.

The Wyndham Vale line could “potentially” become part of the Suburban Rail Loop. Additional tracks between Sunshine and the CBD would “most likely” run through a new tunnel integrated with the airport rail link. There would be “possible new stations”. A “major overhaul” of the express Geelong and Ballarat lines would include the “potential” full electrification of these lines.

The Victorian government’s planned Suburban Rail Loop.Credit:The Age

And when exactly would these improvements be completed, with people commuting to the city on fast, reliable, comfortable Metro trains? Here it got really vague. The “full plan” was “expected” to take “around” a decade. It had more get-out clauses than a Hollywood prenup.

When you looked closely, the announcement committed to spending only “an extra” $100 million “to complete all the planning we need to get it done”. It’s reasonable that the government couldn’t necessarily guarantee back then how the various elements would interlock with the other big projects in play, such as the airport rail link, the Suburban Rail Loop and the Metro tunnel network.

Some minor works have begun: the first stage of improving the Geelong line, an express track between Werribee and Laverton, is under way. And in 2019 the government announced it was “keeping its promise and getting on with the vital planning”.

Yet three years later, as transport reporter Patrick Hatch wrote on Monday, there has been no overall construction funding announced, nor a timeline for the upgrades. The mayor of Melton, Goran Kesic, told The Age his council’s discussions with the government suggest upgrades to an electric Metro service are “not on the cards at the moment”.

While residents in the west pack into outdated and unreliable V-Line trains, with apparently little prospect of relief, it’s full steam ahead on the Metro tunnel, with new underground stations for Melbourne’s already well-served inner suburbs. The Andrews government, meanwhile, has just committed to building the first stage of the Suburban Rail Loop, initially to make life easier for those living in Melbourne’s leafy south-east.

Works expected to cost north of $35 billion would first connect Cheltenham to a new station at Monash University and then Box Hill, though if governments some time in the far-distant future commit to more funding, the loop will snake its way through Doncaster and across the northern suburbs before, many decades hence, heading out to service the west. An investment case released last year showed the sections of the line in the east and north-east would not be completed until 2053; by the time it reaches the western suburbs, most of today’s commuters will be long retired.

The loop may well be a wonderful idea in principle. It’s certainly the kind of prestigious, once-in-a-generation legacy item that governments love to champion. Electrifying the Wyndham Vale line may seem dull in contrast. But like the government’s similarly prosaic level crossing removal program, for which it deserves due credit, it’s the kind of savvy spending that makes an outsized difference to people’s lives.

Those residents in the west, meanwhile, who face an increasingly trying commute as the population grows, are surely entitled to wonder when a state government will pay them more than lip service.

Gay Alcorn sends an exclusive newsletter to subscribers each week. Sign up to receive her Note from the Editor.

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