Melbourne Metro: saviour of the outer 'burbs?

Ever since the 2008 Eddington Study named the Melbourne Metro (MM) rail tunnel as one of the key pieces of transport infrastructure needed to cater for population growth and address congestion, critics have pondered questions like:

  • “Why waste money on a rail tunnel in the city when the people of Doncaster/Rowville/Woop-Woop can’t even get a train line built to their suburb?”
  • “Why is it called a metro when it doesn’t look anything like the one in Paris?”
  • “Why is the government making it easier for rampaging western suburban bogans to travel to the leafy east?”

Answers to these questions and others like it won’t be answered here.  Instead, this article will look at what impact the creation of the Sunshine to Dandenong line, enabled by the proposed Melbourne Metro tunnel, could have for the outer suburbs, based on the trends experienced in Paris following the development of the RER network.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the suburbs of Paris expanded rapidly, attributed to factors such as high population growth, economic prosperity, a constrained city centre, and enhanced mobility brought about by private vehicles – a story not dissimilar to Melbourne’s post-WW2 experiences.  

In order to provide a transit network to the growing suburban areas, it was decided not to continually extend the Paris metro network, as this would be akin to Melbourne extending its tram routes – it would take forever to travel from outer suburbs to the centre, and metro trains would fill up with outer suburbanites, leaving no room for inner urban dwellers (although that didn’t stop us from extending the tram to Vermont).

Instead, in 1960, as part of the development plan for the Paris region, the idea of a high-speed regional rail network was put forward, known as RER (Réseau Express Régional, or Regional Express Network).  The development master plan for the Paris region later described the concept in detail, and the proposed RER project was subsequently accepted by the Government, despite requiring considerable investment.  

The RER didn’t totally reinvent the wheel – much of the network was already there, comprising suburban train lines operating into one of several termini in inner Paris.  What the RER concept proposed was construction of the missing links through the centre of Paris to link the termini, enabling trains to run across the city. 

This provided rapid transit for suburban folks to multiple points throughout the city, improving access and capacity while also relieving the congested metro.  Incidentally, the recently released PTV Rail Plan for Melbourne follows a similar methodology.  It features the separation of existing suburban lines and operations coupled with new tunnel sections in the inner city to create distinct lines, in order to extend coverage and increase capacity.

RER Line A, the first major line to cross Paris, was constructed in sections between La Défense (terminus on western side of city) and Vincennes (equivalent on eastern side).  Work started in 1961, with incremental extensions opened every year or two. 

In 1977, the 15km tunnel was completed, and trains were able to run all the way through the city.  The stations in the new tunnel section are massive - Auber station was designed to accommodate 50,000 passengers an hour.

Today, Line A is acknowledged as the busiest line in Europe, with over 1 million passenger trips per weekday (Melbourne’s entire rail network carries about 800,000 trips / weekday). 

It has proven to be so popular that further investments to squeeze even more capacity out of the line have been implemented over the years, including an automatic train control system which allows trains to run every 2 minutes in the central section (this will be implemented in the Melbourne Metro tunnel from day 1).  Currently, the existing fleet of single deck fleet of trains on RER Line A is being replaced with double deckers, which despite running at 3 minute intervals (as opposed to 2 minutes for single decks), will boost capacity on the line by 30%.

The development of the RER network, and particularly Line A, is acknowledged as a huge success, based on the positive social and economic benefits generated.  For instance, the RER is accredited in bringing far-flung suburbs within easy reach of central Paris, which has significantly aided the reintegration of the traditionally insular capital with its outer suburbs. 

The evidence of this social impact can be seen at Châtelet - Les Halles (Flinders Street equivalent), which is now crowded with suburbanites on evenings and weekends. 

As the RER did for Paris, the Melbourne Metro will provide enhanced capacity through the city, serve new destinations, enable rapid transit from outer suburbs to multiple destinations across the city and provide relief to other transit routes. 

One of the key social benefits could be to stall if not reverse the widening gulf in housing affordability and living standards between inner and outer suburban households in Melbourne, which has been attributed to the relative level of accessibility to “opportunities” (i.e. employment, education, retail, health, leisure and others).

If this is the case, the question that the critics will probably ask is – “Why didn’t they build it sooner?”


A tale of 2 lines

Sunshine-Dandenong line, with MM tunnel 1

RER Line A 2

Operating hours: 4.15 a.m. to 1:15 a.m. 3

Operating hours: 5:00 a.m. to 1:20 a.m.

160 route km, extending to: 4

  • Melton (36km)
  • Sunbury (33km)
  • Melbourne Airport (18km)
  • Pakenham (55km)
  • Cranbourne (42km)
  • Rowville (27km)

109 route km, extending to: 5

  • Cergy – Le Haut (33km)
  • Poissy (26km)
  • Saint-Germain-en-Laye (19km)
  • Boissy-Saint-Leger (17km)
  • Marne-le- Vallée -Chessy (32km)


77 trains in service

207 (half-length) trains in service (note that during peak periods, 2 units are joined to form a full length train)

Stations in 14 of Melbourne’s 31 Councils

Stations in 7 of Ile-de-France’s 8 departments

3 eastern branches and 3 western branches

2 eastern branches and 3 western branches

Serves several important centres of activity: Footscray, Parkville, the central business district, St Kilda Rd

Serves several important centres of activity: La Défense, the central business district, Cergy and Marne-la-Vallée

Trains every 2 ½ minutes during peak hours on the central section

Trains every 2 minutes during peak hours on the central section

Connections with all other rail lines, and 20 out of 28 tram routes

Connections with all other RER lines (except line C), and 10 out of 14 lines of the metro

A commercial speed of ~55 kph 6

A commercial speed of 49 kph

Part of a network comprising 7 lines

Part of a network comprising 5 lines


1 Based on Stage 4 network as shown in PTV Rail Plan, unless otherwise stated

2 Information from, unless otherwise stated

3 From 2013 timetable for Sunbury, Pakenham, Cranbourne lines

4 Approximate distances to GPO, from satellite images

5 Approximate distances to Chatelet, from satellite images

6 Travel time calculated using existing off-peak timetable, estimated for new lines.


Phil Sturrock is an independent Transport Consultant who has previously worked for the Victorian Department of Transport, VicRoads and Transport for London.


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