Despite politics in general being on the nose of late, public transport is one policy area where the public remains engaged. Tell them Tony Abbott has offended yet another unsuspecting minority group and no one cares; but if the 8.12am Flinders Street train is five minutes late, all hell breaks loose.
While great that most people are passionate about public transport, it does result in some interesting proposals: High Speed Rail to Sydney (costing more than the GDP of a small African nation), a Simpsons style monorail to the airport, the mythical train to Doncaster (which may as well be pulled by Thomas the Tank Engine). Then we have the Peninsula Rail Link: a train line to Rye.
On many levels it makes sense. After all, the Mornington Peninsula has gone alarmingly backwards over the years when it comes to rail infrastructure. Once boasting lines to Mornington, Red Hill and Stony Point, it now has none, with the latter closing indefinitely last week due to signaling problems. The bus service can be hit and miss: I once decided to use it to travel to Rye, and it's two hours and 30 minutes of my life that I'll never get back (it's about one hour, 15 minutes by car).
With Frankston and Dandenong earmarked as future major employment hubs, and Hastings proposed to become Melbourne's major port, a significant public transport upgrade is inevitably going to be on the cards. Enter the Peninsula Rail Link, the brainchild of dedicated public transport advocate Robert Whitehill. Starting as a spur line at Baxter, it winds its way mostly along the Mornington Peninsula Freeway, terminating at Jetty Road, Rye.
And herein lies the first problem: the freeway currently terminates at Boneo Road. The idea of extending it has been around since the 1969 Transport Plan, however there has never really been any impetus to build it. Nor is there likely to be in the future: having the freeway stop at Boneo Road is bad enough, but at least it's a dual carriageway.
Terminating at Melbourne Road would be an unmitigated disaster. Not only is it currently single lane which would require an expensive duplication, this would require an extensive removal of trees to achieve it. In any case, a freeway extension would add considerable cost to this rail proposal. Of course VicRoads could just give up this reservation for the rail line…
Regardless of where it terminates, it won't be in the town centre. While this can be mitigated by buses, if other end-of-the-line stations in Melbourne are anything to go by (South Morang, Cranbourne, Pakenham), a high percentage of commuters will still drive, bringing all the car parking headaches this entails. And I always get nervous about stations situated away from other amenities (retail, etc.), meaning its usage will be limited outside of peak hour. In Rye's case, this would be a lost opportunity in trying to capture the beach going crowd in the summer.
The route from Frankston also draws many parallels to Doncaster Rail. While having a rail line down the middle of a freeway solves the problem of potentially having to create another route through brownfield areas, it unfortunately exposes it to the fact that not many people live on the Peninsula Freeway. Not having any walkup ridership is a huge disincentive, especially in an area which is fairly low density to start with. The exceptions here are Dromana and McRae. While the freeway goes right through these townships, they then suffer the opposite problem: there is no room for any parking to serve these stations at all. This is fine in inner Melbourne, but will never cut it in low density areas such as these.
Overall, this proposal is far from the craziest idea I've heard for the Peninsula; that accolade goes to the mooted bridge over the Rip, costed at $15 billion back in the 1990s. And the fact that we spent $759 million on Peninsula Link, a freeway with debatable merit, also puts it into perspective. In fact Whitehill should be applauded for showing the type of left-field thinking required by the transport debate to ensure it goes past the 'train to the city' mentality.
With the advent of projects such as Melbourne Metro (1 and 2), the Mernda extension, Melton electrification and the ongoing Doncaster and Rowville debates, I just can't see the Peninsula Rail Link being a priority any time soon. Of course if the Frankston/Dandenong/Hastings job hubs become a reality, this could change quickly. It could even serve as a logical extension of a proposed Frankston-Dandenong rail link. However, the aforementioned issues with it would still need to be solved.