There are a few outstanding metropolitan strategic planning issues that need to be sorted before any Government commits to expanding the Dandenong rail corridor over and beyond already announced projects. To a large extent, it hinges on how freight is going to be moved in the South East over the longer term.
Back on the 19th of July it was reported the Victorian Transport Action Group had warned Spring Street that their project of removing nine level crossings in the Dandenong rail corridor and ordering the next generation of trains to be used on the line will only go part way to solving the line's reliability problems. The Group stated "the Dandenong rail line will need four tracks in the not too distant future" and that "express trains [on the two extra tracks] will reduce travel time for outer urban and regional commuters by more than 15 minutes".
Having multiple tiers of service - stopping-all-stations and express services - would indeed be welcome for outer suburban commuters and also enhance Dandenong's status in the south east by reducing the time to travel between the respective Melbourne and Dandenong CBDs. However, there is one problem, and it's exactly the same problem that the Melbourne Metro Rail project is attempting to fix.
The number of tracks through the inner city.
Cast your mind back to the release of the Eddington report into East-West travel in Melbourne and you might remember the original proposal for rail across the city was to split it into two phases. Phase 1 was to run from South Kensington to Domain Interchange and Phase 2 was to run from Domain Interchange to Caulfield via St Kilda Road / Dandenong Road thereby creating an entirely new track pair right through the inner city to Caulfield.
When the Ballieu/Napthine Government came to power this longer, more expensive two phase approach was ditched and the Phase 1 one approach was altered so the new rail tunnels would meet the existing rail alignment between South Yarra and Hawksburn.
Yes, by all means every station that is to be rebuilt as part of the level crossing removal projects in the Dandenong corridor should be designed with four tracks (but not necessarily four platforms) at each station, however if four tracks were laid and put into use as part of the level-crossing removal project then all it would do is create a massive choke point at Caulfield.
If the VTAG got it wanted - an extra track pair built to Dandenong - (and ignoring the Frankston line's third overtaking track between Caulfield and Moorabbin), to the East and south of Caulfield there would be trains running on three track pairs fighting for space on the two track pairs between Caulfield and South Yarra.
The choke point created at Caulfield under that scenario would reduce the maximum capacity of the four track railway between Caulfield and Dandenong (assuming all passenger services run through to the city as they do now) and therefore likely maintain the status quo in poor reliability.
This is exactly what we don't want.
As part of any study into the need for an extra rail track pair as far as Dandenong, one area of infrastructure contention which every now and then gets its five minutes of fame (yesterday no less) is the long term plans for containerised freight at Melbourne's seaports. Based on positions in the previous government, the ALP favours, over the long-term, much of the infrastructure moving to the western shore of Port Phillip and the LNP favour expanding the existing Hastings port on Western Port.
The ALP-favoured Bay West expansion would be located near the existing national standard gauge rail network. The Liberal-favoured Hastings option is connected by a rail line that at present but only has broad gauge and all freight traffic would have to mix with metro traffic on the Frankston Line or the Cranbourne line if a branch were created and sent south to link up with the Stony Point line which runs into Hastings at present.
Bay West on Port Phillip or Western Port. Deciding on the long term future for port expansion is paramount, as siding with the Hastings option will have a more profound impact on the rail infrastructure requirements throughout the South East and this action would subsequently open up another round of debate.
One question to ponder: Is it wise to run more and more freight from an expanded seaport on the existing rail network right through the heart of the city where land for rail expansion would be at its most expensive?
Furthermore would an orbital, freight-only, standard gauge rail line running from Craigieburn to Hastings be a viable alternative?
Lead image credit: Wikipedia.