Melbourne Airport Rail – what’s next for regional Victoria?

Published 28 November 2020, The Courier, Ballarat

The State Government’s announcement to build the Melbourne Airport Rail Link (MARL) is the realisation of a long-held Melbourne ambition and should be celebrated for what it will offer travellers. I remember as a young boy living in Melbourne my parents being very excited about a possible train to the airport and that was a very long time ago.  This State Government are to be congratulated for their commitment to make this happen.

Committee for Ballarat has long advocated for the regional link to the Airport via Sunshine, a decision that was confirmed prior to the last state election.  The State Government’s announcement confirms this route and is a big win Ballarat and our regional travellers.

When going to the airport, you will have an easy choice to leave the car at home: a train from Ballarat to Sunshine, then one change to an express train to Tullamarine. No expensive parking at the airport and not having the stress of city traffic will no doubt provide a more relaxing way to start and end a holiday or business trip.

Courier readers will know that Committee for Ballarat has been vocal in backing the MARL with the preferred option of a designated tunnel for airport and regional trains from the cities of Geelong, Ballarat, Bendigo and Shepparton.  This is not what the government has announced, so what’s next?

The Government announcement will see the MARL head underground and join the new MM1 tunnel, with access to the 5 new CBD stations and the broader Metro network. The MM1 solution will certainly provide great flexibility for Melbournians heading to and from the airport.

The significance of the MARL with a designated tunnel could have been the catalyst for the next generation of high-speed, fully electric trains capable of 200+km/h, to the airport and the key regional cities. This type of train had the potential to revolutionise regional rail and will now not be possible given the Government announcement for MARL and the MM1 – at least not Yet!

In October 2018, Daniel Andrews in announcing the Western Rail Plan, said they would consider “electrifying the entire stretch of existing V/Line track from the city to Geelong and Ballarat, enabling fast, express services.  New electric regional trains would replace V/Line’s diesel trains along these routes”

It was this possibility that Committee and the regional partners to the Stronger Together proposal have been so enthusiastic about. Genuinely fast rail, made possible by the next generation of high voltage electrified trains capable of delivering a 45-50 min service from Ballarat to Melbourne is game changing.

The decision on MARL and MM1, simply means the avenue for delivering fast regional rail, will require a different solution.

Committee together with the City of Ballarat will continue to advocate strongly for the commitments the Government made in the Western Rail plan, especially those elements that enable the separation of regional rail and metro services. This includes the electrification and the subsequent new tracks to Melton, taking commuters and the new stations on the city-side of Melton, off the V-Line network.

Our region is expected to grow to 210,000 by 2036 (Victoria in Future, July 2019).  This provides enormous opportunity.  A very detailed and credible economic analysis found the state’s productivity will grow by 5% and by 40% in the key regional cities including Ballarat, with investment in fast regional rail (National Institute of Economic and Industry Research July, 2020).

The state needs a detailed Population Settlement plan as it prepares for the significant population growth that again will be a reality, post COVID.  A state-wide Population Settlement plan will help ease population pressure in Melbourne and energise the productivity of regional Victoria.  Seriously fast regional rail enables both.

We acknowledge the considerable investment by the state and federal government in the Ballarat Line Upgrade over many years.   Improved station amenities, additional passing loops, upgraded signaling, level crossing removals and other works have all contribute to a more reliable service.  The reality is despite this investment, our travel times are slower. Regional rail is suffering from its own success.

The evidence is clear: Regional productivity is enabled by fast regional rail.  We continue to hold the view that regional rail will ‘unlock the potential’ for Ballarat and our region. Further investments in projects that will bring travel times down significantly will change the game for the whole of the state.

Michael Poulton