A Stupid Train Of Thought

The new version of Melbourne’s Metro Rail Tunnel, as announced yesterday as part of the 2014 State Budget is a massive slap in the face for commuters. It is Premier Napthine’s great big nasty pre-election surprise.

The original plan – (put forward by the previous Bracks/Brumby government) – was for the tunnel to run from South Kensington in Melbourne’s inner-west through to Caulfield in the middle-south-eastern suburbs.

Upon coming to power in 2010, the Baillieu/Napthine government quickly scaled it back to run only from South Kensington to South Yarra in the inner-south.

With five new stations – (under either plan) – at Arden, Parkville, CBD North, CBD South, and Domain, the tunnel promised to start the massive task of untangling Melbourne’s interconnected rail network, where problems on any one single line could bring the entire network to a screeching halt.

Not very useful.

By creating a truly ‘metro-style’ network, all lines would eventually become completely independent of each other, and therefore delays on one would have no effect on others.

Infinitely more useful.

The other big advantage of building the tunnel with these five stations was that there would finally be more capacity for getting passengers into the CBD, increasing the number of stations from five – (Flinders Street, Southern Cross, Flagstaff, Melbourne Central, and Parliament) – to seven, with the addition of CBD North and CBD South – a 40% increase in CBD capacity.

Most importantly, given that the new tunnel would be used to create a single line from Sunbury in the north-west, and the Dandenong/Pakenham/Cranbourne corridor in the south-east – (without crossing any other lines) – this new CBD capacity could be used to allow more trains into the CBD at any given point in time, and take trains from this new conjoined single line away from the existing City Loop tunnels.

In turn, this would allow more trains from other areas into the existing City Loop tunnels, boosting capacity on those lines too. Eventually, the network would have been expanded to the airport and Melton.

Sounds great – but we can forget about all that now.

The announcement yesterday that the tunnel would be completely changed, and only run from Southern Cross, to Fishermans Bend, and then to Domain and South Yarra completely messes up all the good things the previous plan would have provided.

The new tunnel will link to a hastened airport link, using the yet to be completed Regional Rail Link lines through the western suburbs, with no stops for passengers along the existing Sunbury line, and to the Dandenong group, via South Yarra.

This provides no relief for the Sunbury line in any way. People living out there lose their promised improvements. People in the inner-north who would have been serviced by Arden and Parkville stations, will now need to continue to rely on overcrowded bus and tram services.

All of these people would be more than justified in feeling pretty screwed by yesterday’s announcement.

Equally, regional commuters on the Geelong, Ballarat and Bendigo lines – who have been waiting for years for the Regional Rail Link – can feel rightly screwed also. They were promised their own dedicated tracks, free from entanglement with the metropolitan rail network.

Here now, they will be joined by metropolitan trains from an impending ‘super line’ between Dandenong and the airport.

So much for exclusive access to dedicated lines.

And that extra CBD capacity? Sorry, all gone.

Why is the government making these seemingly ludicrous changes to what seemed like a decent plan?

Well, the Napthine Government knows they are in trouble in the polls, and are at a real risk of losing the 2014 state election. A rail line to the airport is a very attractive proposition politically.

It is an idea that has significant traction with the public – but a rail line to the airport has to go somewhere, and if it is going to be done for political points with respect of the 2014 state election, it has to be done quickly.

So, lets use the brand new Regional Rail Link tracks – and lets use the money that would have been used for the ‘proper’ Metro Rail Tunnel to route through another political cause – (the Fishermans Bend Redevelopment) – and try and make it look like a good idea.

Because the airport link has to go somewhere.

On the surface, the new proposal is not completely without merit.

The problem is, it buggers up all the rest of the plans – and all to look good before a state election. Getting the airport link in earlier than previously planned – (it was meant to happen after the Metro Rail Tunnel opened up the centre of the network) – is nothing but a political ploy.

It is also just shafting long suffering commuters and the taxpayer with a sub-standard plan that doesn’t add up for the future. Building the previous version of the tunnel would still connect the airport with the Dandenong corridor – (in itself, in line for a massive upgrade) – but keeps the increased capacity through the city, provides extra capacity for the Sunbury corridor, and doesn’t shaft Regional Rail Link commuters.

For the money, I think we all deserve better than this half-assed new plan – one that appears to be little more than a vote catching exercise.

UPDATE 07/05/2014 19:43: Thanks to Daniel Bowen for pointing out that the new tunnel plans don’t actually connect to the airport link after all. I managed to miss that point…oops! Importantly, I believe this makes the new solution even less sensible again – this increases the passenger load on Southern Cross station, with even less benefit.