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Tick tock: let's get Melton upgraded and the Airport rail link built at the same time

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The clock keeps ticking. And it's not going away anytime soon. I'm of course talking about land transport to and from Melbourne Airport, or more to the point our over-reliance on the road network to transport both passengers and employees to and from the airport terminals and the many businesses located nearby.

In either reporting or an op-ed form, there's a vast array of published public advocacy for a Melbourne rail link both here on UM and elsewhere, and when Spring Street is asked to comment, this article in The Age from December 2016 illustrates the government's consistent response: yes, but not now.

Public Transport Minister Jacinta Allan said an airport rail link could not be build without the Metro Rail Tunnel first being completed.

"In less than two years we've fully funded and started building the Metro Tunnel, and we're getting on with the other major projects our network needs – 50 level crossing removals, bigger trains, high-capacity signalling and major line upgrades in Melbourne and regional Victoria," Ms Allan said.

Public Transport Minister Jacinta Allan as quoted in The Age

Whether the government doesn't want to commit to expanding the scope of works required in an already incredibly large-scale project - the 'High Capacity Metro Line' (HCML - the Melbourne Metro Tunnel + Level Crossing removals + new trains + new signalling system on the Sunbury-Pakenham/Cranbourne corridor) - or some other reason, we may never know.

However, the 'line' pushed out by the government is consistent: the government is placing a de facto Metro tunnel dependency on the Melbourne Airport Rail link.

If we take this on face value, then why isn't the government positioning itself to kick off the project so that its construction and opening coincides with the completion of the metro tunnel in 2025-2026? Day 1 of metro tunnel operations would be day 1 of Airport rail services as well as Melton.

The Aecom-PWC report conducted for Infrastructure Victoria to inform the authority on the costs of well-known big-ticket transport projects produced a 'lower bound cost' of $2.1 billion and an 'upper bound cost' of $3.1 billion to build the Melbourne Airport Heavy rail line - project coded as MAH (refer to pages 25 through 30).

The line as assessed in the report would include rebuilding Albion Station (and presumably a proper grade separated rail junction that didn't force airport trains to pass the Albion station platforms), a new rail bridge over the Maribyrnong (presumably to run alongside the existing bridge which carries the interstate network across the river), an elevated track section in the airport precinct and a station at the airport near the transport hub near terminals 3 & 4.

The draft options book, which the Aecom-PWC report findings were fed into, found that the benefit-cost ratio without wider economic benefits ranged from 1.0 and 1.2 and with wider economic benefits, the ratio would be 1.2 to 1.6. In other words, the project makes economic sense in that the project would produce an 'even' return (1.0) or more likely a positive return.

While the existing plans for an Airport Rail Link have provided the basis for our assessment, we have not proposed a particular technical solution for this option, but note that existing plans for the rail link along the Albion East alignment and connecting to the south-east via the Melbourne Metro tunnel are projected to face capacity challenges over the long term, due to growth on the Melton and Sunbury lines which would share tracks with the airport line.

A more enduring solution could require a different network configuration, potentially leveraging further capacity upgrades to the Sunshine and Werribee corridors (ref. 10.10.2), or by identifying a different corridor for the airport rail link – whether connected to the existing rail corridor or a separate dedicated link. Consideration could even be given to linking to regional rail corridors.

However, caution is warranted in pursuing any options which would be materially higher cost than the current plans.

Infrastructure Victoria Draft Options Book version two, page 460

Furthermore:

With the large supply of car parking areas at Melbourne Airport, there is a risk that the structure of the pricing and number of services may not attract people to leave their cars at home.

This could lower the benefits from this option that involves a significant capital investment. This option presents the opportunity to re-use a proportion of the existing airport car parking for more productive land uses such as hotels and other development plans to increase the ability to realise Melbourne Airport as a national employment centre.

Infrastructure Victoria Draft Options Book version two, page 460
The Melton & Airport lines in the context of the 2012 PTV Network Development Plan

In 2016's budget, nearly half a billion dollars was committed to upgrading the Ballarat line - including duplicating the track between Deer Park and Melton as the precursor to electrification and bringing Melton onto the Metro network, another western branch of the new HCML.

And most recently comments from the Prime Minister about Melbourne's lack of a rail link point to, perhaps, an increasing willingness for the Federal Government to finally invest in a proper city shaping project (and not a project for the road freight lobby) in Melbourne.

Despite efforts at the state level to remove the politics out of infrastructure planning - the true test for Spring Street will be once they release their 5-year plan at the end of the year - populism is going to reign supreme at the Federal level.

Daniel Andrews, Jacinta Allan and Tim Pallas should be grabbing this opportunity to kick off the planning and design for the second round of Melton line works (the electrification) and the planning and design for the Airport Link at the same time.

The existing non-electrified regional track from Sunshine to Deer Park will need to be duplicated (to become a 4 track corridor) to maintain separation of Vline and Metro services where the regional trains are at their most frequent (Geelong trains turn off the corridor beyond Deer Park) and that will inevitably result in augmentation of Sunshine station, specifically its track layout.

Given the likelihood of building airport rail link will require minimal interaction with existing services - it would be built adjacent to existing track or in new corridors - and that catenary can be installed with only minor interference with existing services, the major disruptive works will likely be where the two branches connect with the mainline and Sunshine and Albion respectively. Upgrading Melton and building the Airport branches at the same time would present an opportunity to minimise disruption by building both new junctions at the same time.

The overwhelming majority of track for the airport line in the Albion corridor can be built in isolation, therefore it begs the question what's stopping the planning for the airport link and Melton electrification kicking off soon with the aim of opening these two new branches at or around the same time as the HCML?

If the High Capacity Metro Line is to begin operations in 2025-2026 when the new tunnel opens, that's plenty of lead time for both governments to invest in the detailed business case for both branches within the next 12 months and then pending the results, kick off an 18-24 month planning and design period thereafter.

Another 36-month build-test-commission period after the planning and design phase would bring us very close to the estimated High Capacity Metro Line opening date.

Spring Street might want Melburnians to focus on the huge infrastructure programme it has unleashed on the city already, however what's next?

The 5 year plan to be released at the end of the year might answer this question but will the Federal Government be on side with it? Unlikely - it's far more likely to be infrastructure politics as usual when it comes to dealing with Canberra.

Spring Street should be getting the Federal Government to put their money where the Prime Minister's mouth is and get them to lock in the $2-$3 billion extra needed to add the airport branch to the new cross-city metro line.

Lead image: Daniel Bowen

10 comments

theboynoodle's picture

What amazes me more is the prospect of the metro tunnel reaching capacity even before airport trains are added to the network.

It's one thing to not build the link.. it's quite another to undertake a project on the scale of the Metro tunnel but not allow for capacity... *if* that's what's happening.

Do we assume that an airport link would have to roll into Southern Cross? That makes sense to me (direct connection to Regional rail) but does mean that the Metro project itself is only tangentially related (unlike if an airport link could join the new tunnel).

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Alastair Taylor's picture

I struggle with what 'at capacity' actually is though.

As long as a) junctions are grade separated and b) airport services stop all stations (and c) the new signaling system does what the government says it will, up to 30 trains per hour), 24 trains per hour is very realistic with a little, albeit small, capacity to spare.

IV's report states that one of the primary benefits of through-routing airport services is that it was modeled to have a positive impact on traffic on the Monash FWY versus a terminus at Southern Cross.

That's the kind of benefit we want to be screaming from the rooftops - the answer to reducing road congestion is mode shift! etc.

Depending on how Sunshine and Albion junctions are handlded, it wouldn't preclude true airport express services from running SX to the airport at a later stage.

In fact, I'd phase it like this:

1. Airport branch built, operations: 4 trains per hour throughout the day. They would originate/terminate at Dandenong or Westall and run on the same stopping pattern as the Pakenham-Sunbury and Cranbourne-Melton services (stop all to Caulfield, express to Domain, stop all to Sunshine) then move off the mainline before Albion station and then run out to the airport and reverse.

* the junction at Albion would essentially be an island platform like now with four tracks. 2 tracks would interface with platforms for services on Watergardens/Sunbury, the other 2 tracks would come from/go to the airport and the points would be located between Sunshine and Albion - allowing, in the potential case where there is train congestion - for the Sunbury/Watergardens train heading to the city to wait at a platform (rather than in no-man's land) and let the Airport train move on to the mainline ahead of it. The new HCS will make this potential for congestion less of an issue (versus trying to do it now) but you'd still gold-plate the junction + station like that to further mitigate it.

2. This is the subject of next article, but taking Geelong off the Vline network and onto Metro via the second metro tunnel frees up the current regional rail tracks between the city and Sunshine - this could be electrified and integrated with the airport line - moving the current junction that goes from Regional Rail tracks to Sunbury mainline tracks just north of Sunshine to just north of Albion.

At the same time, platforms/stations would be built at Keilor Park Drive out the back of Avondale Heights and somewhere down the south of the airport near Keys Road/Airport Drive.

Then the 4 trains per hour from the S.E. (which began at phase 1) would begin stopping at Avondale Heights and Airport South - 4 TPH in off peaks, 6 TPH in peaks. And a new airport express service would start shuttling between Southern Cross and the Airport with only a stop at Sunshine - 4 of them an hour - and running on the current regional rail tracks and then joining the airport line just north of Albion. (or if something like the Rail Futures proposal got up - of re-routing Bendigo and Shepparton/Seymour services via the airport - combined, Bendigo/Kyneton and Seymour/Shepparton would provide a good amount of extra express frequencies between the airport and city).

* Sunshine junction is critical to making this work: how the 4 tracks from Melton integrate with the 4 from Albion requires the most engineering work.

Mixing stopping all stations and express services in that Sunshine-Airport stretch is doable when the stopping frequency is maxed at 6 trains an hour and the express services are maxed at 4 trains an hour.

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George D's picture

It makes more sense to me to assume Southern Cross - where passengers can exchange for other local and regional rail - than into the Loop or Metro Tunnel.

As usual, the roadblock (or should that be trainblock?) is the Liberal Federal Government, who are determined to starve Victoria of infrastructure funds. If a Labor Government is elected, this has a good chance of going ahead.

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Alastair Taylor's picture

It makes more sense to me to assume Southern Cross - where passengers can exchange for other local and regional rail - than into the Loop or Metro Tunnel.

I don't know about that - again, look at the context of the Network Development Plan from 2012: The City Loop is fundamentally changing so that Frankston and Craiegieburn are joined and will not run through Southern Cross or Flinders Street (Upfield joined to Sandringham will, however, run through both). Yep, SX will remain a very (very!) important station, but it's not always going to be a "connect to anywhere" station and the prelim bus. case work for through-routing airport services on the metro tunnel has a compelling reason to do it: reducing road traffic on the Monash.

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johnproctor's picture

It's one thing to not build the link.. it's quite another to undertake a project on the scale of the Metro tunnel but not allow for capacity... *if* that's what's happening.

At the end of the day a new pair of tracks can only carry a certain number of trains (24tph reliably as Alistair has pointed out). So if the passenger demand is more than 24tph worth of passengers then its not a failure of the planning of that project (the Metro Tunnel) its a sign of a need for another (an Airport Rail Link project).

Ultimately if you look at the scale of growth expected in the Melton and Sunbury corridors you realise it isn't dissimilar to that in Pakenham and Cranbourne (the other half of the Metro Tunnel tracks) so why should there be less trains to those western suburbs to allow an Airport line on the tracks?

There are lots of way additional capacity could be provided post Metro Tunnel to provide for Airport trains. Through routing the loops might provide capacity on Craigieburn or Upfield via a westmeadows link.

The Clifton Hill Newport tunnel would open up paths on the Werribee line perhaps taking Geelongs that in turn free up paths on RRL for airport or just taking airports direct via the Sunshine-Newport freight corridor.

Or there is a stand alone direct airport line (as per that current private proposal the RACV are pushing).

One interesting thing is the difference in the way transport planners and governments view planning for roads v planning for rail. Road planners are brilliant at convincing governments to build roads to fix immediate problems and then in 5,10,20 years getting to build ANOTHER road (or widening or whatever) to fix the problem that new road created. For rail it seems to work in reverse, unless you can fix every last problem with a particular project it isn't funded until such time as you can fix every problem. I guess I'm agreeing with Alistair's suggestion of building airport and melton at the same time plugging them all into Metro Tunnel. If nothing else it will mean that one of those other capacity creating projects will be needed sooner to 'fix' the problem of too many trains/people trying to squeeze through Metro Tunnel.

Re: Southern Cross or connections east. I think the IV 30 year strategy airport rail discussion mentioned that a lot of the patronage for an airport rail link would be driven by connecting through to the eastern suburbs. The through connection just gives that extra population a one seat journey which is highly valuable with luggage or for time sensitive airport based trips (in the case of a metro tunnel connection about a million extra people a one seat journey along the Pakenham/Cranbourne lines).

That extra convenience comes at almost no expense. Southern Cross as a CBD 'destination' is no better or worse than CBD North, Parliament or even Flagstaff. All would provide interchange to multiple other lines, an airport service could still have another stop at Sunshine/Footscray/North Melbourne to interchange to a further set of lines. There is also no reason to think that if an Airport Rail went to a different station that appropriate services wouldn't follow (in private development) to that area.

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theboynoodle's picture

At the end of the day a new pair of tracks can only carry a certain number of trains (24tph reliably as Alistair has pointed out). So if the passenger demand is more than 24tph worth of passengers then its not a failure of the planning of that project (the Metro Tunnel) its a sign of a need for another (an Airport Rail Link project).

That depends on whether there are synergies being missed.

If it was decided that an airport link would use the new CBD stations, then it would almost certainly be better to incorporate the CBD element of the link as part of the Metro project. If capacity constraints meant that this required more lines (a larger tunnel, or a parallel one, whatever etc) then build that now and tag on the bit to the airport later.

If Southern Cross is your link destination then, of course, it needn't directly 'touch' the metro. And, of course, if metro can't provide the capacity increase needed for an airport link then you're dead right... there's nothing to see here... let's get on with metro 2!

That extra convenience comes at almost no expense. Southern Cross as a CBD 'destination' is no better or worse than CBD North, Parliament or even Flagstaff.

I started off thinking that. I thought having an airport link roll in to the new CBD stations was a good solution. But I've changed my mind because of regional rail.

If the airport link comes into the new stations then it makes no difference to metropolitan rail, and it's better for trams (Swanston > Spencer). It's probably neutral for CBD residents and business.. basically some would save a tram trip along Collins or Bourke, some would gain one.

However, anyone wanting a regional connection now has to get from Swanston Street to Southern Cross. So it's a reduction in amenity for regional travelers, and an improvement for people who live in inner Melbourne. That's sub-optimal.. though certainly not a game changer.

A one-seat trip for the Eastern Suburbanites is nice for them, but shouldn't be prioritized. A once change journey, for as many people as possible, should be. Nobody gets to complain about a one-change trip to the airport.

There would be a tourism upside (I think) of people arriving into the City at Flinders Street.. albeit that the loveliness of the station, river and Fed Square is somewhat offset by Swanston Street's enduring scent of horsepiss.

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gobillino's picture

Wouldn't all regional passengers (except for Seymour/NE) get a one change journey via Sunshine/Footscray/Caulfield/Dandenong?

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Alastair Taylor's picture

^ Yes.

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Alastair Taylor's picture

Fresh media release, after all the Vline related releases: http://www.premier.vic.gov.au/plan-to-partner-with-the-private-sector-on...

Plan To Partner With The Private Sector On Airport Rail

Minister for Public Transport
30 April 2017

The Labor Government will use $10 million of the money it is owed through the Asset Recycling Initiative to develop a new airport rail plan in partnership with the private sector.

Both Melbourne Airport and Southern Cross Station are privately operated and there is significant market interest in building a light or heavy rail link between these two important transport hubs.

The plan will undertake a detailed assessment of the best route for an airport rail link, how much it would cost and how best to fund and deliver it.

Infrastructure Victoria has identified the need for an Airport Rail Link in 15 to 30 years, and put the price of the project at up to $5 billion.

The plan will look at opportunities to save money and deliver it sooner than this through private sector involvement – including value capture and creation initiatives, and potential private sector proposals.

It will ensure the public gets value for money, existing passengers are not disadvantaged by the introduction of new services and that Victoria gets a proper plan for a rail line to the airport.

The former Liberal Government never had a plan, a timeline, or a single dollar for an airport rail line – they had a line drawn on the back of the envelope and a multi-million ad campaign.

Quotes attributable to Minister for Public Transport Jacinta Allan

“The plan will look at how we can save money and deliver an airport link sooner by partnering with the private sector.”

“A new rail line is a huge investment and needs to be planned properly – that’s what this investment is all about.”

“We’re planning for a rail line to the airport while we get on with the project that makes it possible – the Metro Tunnel.”

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Phil's picture

Has anyone looked at using the Broadmeadows line which seems less busy than the Sunbury and possibly short, or even extending the Flemington line passing through Highpoint West and Avondale Heights?

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