CLARA & Rail Future's InterCity: a crossover?

CLARA & Rail Future's InterCity: a crossover?
Alastair TaylorSeptember 5, 2016

Refreshed stations delivered as part of the ongoing level crossing removal project, the new Melbourne Metro tunnel, ballsy private sector-lead high-speed rail proposals like CLARA and now the Rail Futures 'InterCity' paper. It's a good mix of shovels in the ground and an eye on the future of rail in the state.

The Consolidated Land and Rail Australia (CLARA) high-speed rail and InterCity paper by Rail Futures have a true statewide focus through the creation of brand new cities serviced by a high-speed rail line (CLARA) and InterCity's advocacy for population decentralisation outside of Melbourne.

While it is tempting to launch straight into an analysis of the hard infrastructure proposals in the InterCity report, we need to talk about the notion of a "State of Cities".

It's quite easy to throw phrases like "building sustainable cities" around, and 9 times out of 10, the message will likely be interpreted as building green cities, which is fine, but what about a growing city sustaining its own residents through increased local employment opportunities?

I must echo the comments made by Alan Davies earlier this week: the overriding vision in the InterCity report seems to focus largely on enhanced regional rail line infrastructure and services as the new high-speed commuter conduits from the regional cities into central Melbourne.

Talk about throwing the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to the '20 minute city' concept (regardless of how pithy that aspiration is). Inter-city commuting, on the scale of Ballarat/Geelong/Bendigo to central Melbourne, would be the domain with those with high levels of income.

The regional cities may currently have, and potentially build new, affordable housing, but it won't be cheap to commute, nor should it. We should be focusing our efforts on creating jobs in the regional cities so that locals can work local.

It would be wrong to narrow the affordable housing debate into one of grand-scale long-distance commuting to Melbourne from the regional cities and this specific debate needs further study, not just from the planning and transport realm, but also the health, economic and small, medium and large business realms.

Moreover in InterCity, there's an assumption that regional rail services will remain diesel-powered.

In light of the Victorian Government's recent posturing to kick-start renewable energy investment as well as the recent news that the SA Government 'announced a new tender designed to introduce new competition in the [generation] market': to build solar-based power plants and storage, capable of dispatching electricity into the grid 24 hours a day. I'd argue that on top of assessing the individual proposals, a switch to greater electrification throughout the regional rail network should also receive a look in.

Overall however, InterCity is an elegant and informative document and will likely be a report that's referenced a lot in future (the proposals contained within it now need to run the gauntlet of cost-benefit analyses to ascertain whether any of its multiple proposals stack up).

CLARA and InterCity: a crossover?

The proposals outlined in the InterCity report are spread over two phases:

Phase 1 would see an investment program which deals with incremental change over a few election cycles: line speed upgrades (trackwork, signaling, level crossing protection), duplicating single track sections and quadruplicating metro area track to allow greater separation of regional and metro trains as well as increase regional service frequencies. The start of the cross-country network on the newly converted standard gauge track between Geelong, Ballarat and Maryborough/Horsham would also begin in this phase.

Phase 1 also includes a fundamental shift in transport govenance, to actively integrate planning across transport modes and to deliver on the objectives of the Transport Integration Act 2010.

InterCity: How regional rail can re-balance population growth and create a 'state of cities' in Victoria (page 44)

Phase 2 is the more meaty part of the infrastructure proposal, made possible by changes in phase 1: further line speed upgrades to enable 200kph operations where achievable, a dedicated fast line that would extend from Southern Cross to Melbourne Airport and then act as a new main line for Bendigo/Echuca/Swan Hill and Seymour/Shepparton/Wodonga regional services.

This new route would also double as the future path for future inter-state high-speed rail services to enter Melbourne.

The second phase also calls for a new fast line to Geelong that would connect to the cross-country network and that same network would then be extended from Maryborough into Bendigo. Overarching everything would see more and more lines converted from broad gauge track to standard gauge, presumably made simpler by installing dual gauge sleepers from the get-go so that a gauge switch can eventually be carried out with minimal disruption.

CLARA & Rail Future's InterCity: a crossover?
InterCity: infrastructure investment in phase 2 (page 45)

The CLARA high-speed rail and city-building proposal came to light in mid-July with ex-Premiers of Victoria and New South Wales fronting a media conference. The organisation's website is vague and much of the media reporting at the time was also vague: there's still a lot of cards being held close to the chest of the CLARA directors.

One might expect a proposal such as this to tout a particular rail technology, alas, it didn't. Instead, visitors to CLARA's website are presented with images and a video which depicts conventional high-speed rail (metal wheels on metal tracks) and maglev technology.

No doubt there are commercial reasons behind not revealing the type of high-speed rail CLARA will run with eventually, however if any tests that might prove any of InterCity's proposals to be worthy of adding to the long-term infrastructure for the state come back positive, this would likely force the hand of CLARA or any other future high-speed rail proposal linking the state capitals.

Inherent in InterCity's proposal is that the airport will function as a major hub: regional services would run to and from Bendigo and Seymour, City-Airport rail shuttle services and high-speed rail would use this corridor over the longer term. If this proposal is studied at any great length and it is found to have merit, the tracks initially built for the regional and shuttle services will not be able to handle maglev trains.

The sooner a clearer picture of the entire CLARA proposition is made public, the better.

InterCity's airport hub focus: multiple birds with one stone?

Based on media reporting at the time of CLARA's unveiling, it has become apparent that the Melbourne end of the route to Sydney is likely to kick off first. And fundamental to this will be the decision on how to access the terminus in central Melbourne.

If I were a betting man, I'd offer good odds that the Rudd and Gillard-era high-speed rail study for the east coast from 2012 has informed a part of CLARA's proposal. Thanks to the documents that are now in the public domain we know the indicative route and the estimated capital costs involved in the 2012 study.

CLARA & Rail Future's InterCity: a crossover?
Estimated costs on the East Coast High-Speed Rail network (Appendix 4B)

The 2012-era study foresaw the east coast high-speed rail network as a conventional line (minimum 300kph operations) which require their own corridor but do have the ability operate over the conventional networks. This is how the TGV system works in France: all high-speed lines lead to Paris and they connect with the mainline network on the outskirts of the city, and then travel to the various terminii on the lower-speed network.

Regardless, due to the century's old Australian anachronism of differing rail gauges, a new track pair would need to be built in Melbourne (or the really cheap solution would be to go really slow over the existing standard gauge line, fighting for access with freight trains).

The 2012 study found that the most effective solution to access Southern Cross is to build an approximately 12-13 kilometre tunnel from Gowrie station, near the Western Ring Road and Hume HWY, all the way to Southern Cross underneath the existing Upfield line; the orange line in the map below is an approximation of this route.

The estimated cost of this tunnel in 2012 was $2.2 billion. If you're trying to get your head around that figure by trying to compare it to the $6 billion figure for the 9km Melbourne Metro Rail tunnel, just don't. In short, a basic explanation is: the high-speed rail tunnel would just be that: a tunnel. No stations en route, just a path for trains to move in and out of Southern Cross and the Melbourne metropolitan area.

The 2012 study also has a "Northern Melbourne" station located just outside the tunnel in Campbellfield. The indicative service plan as part of the study foresaw this station effectively working in peak flow directions on the flagship inter-city express services: morning peak all Sydney-bound trains would stop en route, and in afternoon peaks all Melbourne-bound trains would stop here.

The rest of the 'pretty' lines on that map are my attempt to adapt the InterCity Melbourne Airport hub and the 2012 east-coast high-speed rail study. The blue line is a tunnel, measuring 14km - approximately 1 kilometre longer than the 2012 study tunnel - and the pink line is an elevated track leading to an elevated station 'bolted on' to the Terminal 1 expansion (which is depicted in Tullamarine's master plan); zoom in on the airport for more detail.

The Green and Yellow lines beyond the airport are my approximation of the new regional (and eventual high-speed) lines from the InterCity report.

Essentially the 2012 study route and station has been moved westward in that map: a tunnel leading all the way to Southern Cross is still the backbone, there's a "Northern Melbourne" station at the airport and the connections beyond the airport run outside the urban growth boundary for the most part (the 2012 study would have seen a new line built in the existing Upfield and Craigieburn-Wallan rail corridors, right through the middle of the growth areas).

Taking the known estimates for the 2012 study, I assume the cost to build the proposal as shown in the map would be similar to the study's cost breakdown; perhaps with a higher station, bridge and earthworks cost.

Like many others I don't hold high hopes for a high-speed rail line anytime soon. That's said, I'll be watching the CLARA proposal with interest and here's hoping the ducks fall into line across the various governments.

Furthermore I acknowledge the Melbourne Metro Rail business case makes it pretty clear that Airport rail services will eventually run through it; however it's always good to take a fresh look at things, especially now that the InterCity report is out in the open.

To close, I'll leave you with this thought: a 19km journey from Southern Cross through the tunnel and over the elevated sections into the airport station with a maximum speed of 200kph could be done in 8-10 minutes. How do you like them apples, Skybus and Transurban?

Alastair Taylor

Alastair Taylor is a co-founder of Now a freelance writer, Alastair focuses on the intersection of public transport, public policy and related impacts on medium and high-density development.

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