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
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
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