It was looking flakey already but now with the announcement over the weekend that the on-again, off-again rail port shuttles are back on the agenda, the West Gate Tunnel project has gone beyond barely scraping through the sniff test to stinking to high heaven.
The West Gate Tunnel Project was a market-led proposal from Transurban that would see new segmented lanes on the West Gate Freeway from the Western Ring Road interchange leading into a tunnel and then a bridge over the Maribyrnong, culminating in an enormous new road deck above Footscray and an interchange with the Western section of Citylink, Dynon Road and Wurundjeri Way.
The Port Rail shuttles have been in the public domain for a while now and is based around the concept of three intermodal road-rail freight terminals in key suburban locations. The last mile of containerised freight would shift away from driving, instead heading to one of the three terminals where trains would take containers to the Port, and vice versa.
Compare these headlines.
The first answer in the project website's FAQ states "The West Gate Tunnel Project is a city-shaping project that will deliver a vital alternative to the West Gate Bridge, provide quicker and safer journeys, and remove thousands of trucks off residential streets".
The opening line of Sunday's announcement joint Federal and State media release says "The Australian and Victorian Government are investing in projects to take trucks off local roads and connect the Port of Melbourne to major freight hubs using the existing rail network".
Both the fresh announcement and the project claim to do similar things - remove trucks from residential streets / local roads - but one of them simply shifts them to another road, the other removes trucks from the inner-city entirely. Some might argue they can compliment each other yet another argument is which project would shift the most truck trips away from local roads, therefore, freeing up public money for other projects?
Two of the three proposed suburban intermodal hubs are in a very good position, right from the get-go: Altona in the south-west and Somerton in the north are both located adjacent to the interstate standard gauge rail network.
It's this network that is already entirely segregated from the broad gauge metropolitan network - segregation of freight and passenger services is the holy grail as it would enable the two networks to scale as needed when the freight or passenger carrying task demanded it.
Future capacity constraints on single-track sections of the interstate standard gauge network within Melbourne notwithstanding, it appears the only major works required in order to connect the Port of Melbourne directly to these two sites is building the points and tracks leading from the main lines into the sites - like building a new off-ramp from a freeway.
The Altona site is less than a kilometre from the Princess Freeway/Kororoit Creek Road interchange and the Somerton site's bare bones are already there, directly fronting the Hume Highway and approximately 3-4km from the Cooper Street and Hume Freeway interchange.
The Lyndhurst / Dandenong South site is problematic because the standard gauge network does not cross into Melbourne's east and freight trains would need to mix with metro and v/line services on the two track railway between the Port and Dandenong and the single track, but easily duplicated, railway on the Cranbourne line.
The state government might point to all the rail investment happening in the south-east (the Caulfield-Dandenong level crossing removals, the Metro tunnel project, the new signalling system and new trains) which all good and well, however the pressure to build even more capacity on this corridor through quadruplication - from two tracks to four - is a constantly bubbling under the surface and is not being addressed.
Bringing the La Trobe Valley closer to Melbourne through decreased journey times on V/Line trains with their own express paths through the south-east, decreasing journey times from the outer suburbs by adding permanent express services on the Dandenong corridor, relieving pressure to continually expand the Monash Freeway by an extra lane every 5 years and an increased rail freight task; this pressure is only going to increase and it can only, efficiently, be addressed with an expansion of track.
Regardless of the limitations at the south-east intermodal site, both Altona and Somerton sit neatly with what Infrastructure Victoria advises the state government to do: make existing assets work harder. Building track connections and sidings, duplicating single track sections & upgrading signalling, building a new rail terminal (or set of terminals) at the Port - they're all upgrade tasks, not new-build infrastructure like the West Gate Tunnel.
According to the Department of Treasury and Finance's website, the 'Western Distributor' project as it was originally known is currently at stage four of five in the market-led proposals hierarchy.
Given the opaque nature of market-led proposals, we the taxpayer don't know if there is any get out of jail free card available to the government and should there be one. The West Gate Tunnel Project's progress should pause while a rigorous study into impacts of the port rail shuttles project is conducted and then compared to the business case of the West Gate Tunnel project.
If Port Rail shuttles reduce truck movements from the west and north for a small but not insignificant amount of public money better than shifting those movements to a multi-billion road tunnel then we ought to know this.
Not surprisingly urban design issues are mounting against the West Gate Tunnel. A ludicrous double-deck Footscray Road section to the expansion Wurudjeri Way, complete with triple-stacked interchange that would dump cars in the inner-city, is straight out of the 1960s suburban transport planning textbook.
This project will lessen the value of redevelopment zones already earmarked. Remember E-Gate?
The Port of Melbourne where it currently resides is going to be with us for at least another 50 years but that shouldn't force the inner-west and the West Gate Bridge into serving increasing amounts of trucks entering and exiting the port over that time.
Let's do the right thing - what should have been done at an earlier stage of the market-led proposal process for the West Gate Tunnel project - let's pause it while a robust case for the Port Rail shuttles is completed and compared to the West Gate Tunnel business case.