Articles in The Age and Herald Sun this morning and later from the ABC have reported on the first signs of what Victorians might expect from the Melbourne Airport Rail Link which, thanks to a Federal government cash commitment, has seen the speeding up of a project which has broad populist appeal.
The drops to The Age and Herald Sun reported that the Premier would give a speech before the Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry today that would see an integration of the works to complete a Melbourne Airport Rail Link with multiple rail infrastructure projects, some of which have already been foreshadowed.
As quoted across all three outlets, the Premier said "It can't just be an expensive funnel for tourists and business people between the CBD and airport. Instead, it can transform the way people live, work and travel across Victoria. In our view, the airport link has the potential to unlock western and northern Victoria."
The Age made mention of the well publicised Rail Futures Institute Airtrain concept which was recently presented to Regional Cities Victoria - a group represented by the 10 largest regional cities in the state.
All media outlets were running commentary from the Federal Transport Minister Darren Chester on the start of the process to figure out how to bring forward the Melbourne Airport Rail Link - which is what the money announced in most recent state and federal budgets has been allocated for.
Our expectation is we need to work with the Victorian government, that they need to get on board and be fair dinkum about this process – and we think we can get this done in 12 months – and get the Victorian public a design they can work with, and get on with the job of working out how we fund itDarren Chester, Federal Transport Minister, The Age
The ABC is carrying comments from the Public Transport Minister, Jacinta Allan: "What we know is this concept can work. We've now got to do the planning to look at how, from a construction point of view, we can deliver it"
It's early days as it appears the joint planning process has only just begun however the Premier and Public Transport Minister's comments point to the Rail Futures Institute Airtrain proposal as their inspiration for the Melbourne Airport Rail Link. I must stress this is merely an observation & speculation and has not been confirmed - in my comments below I'm simply attempting to piece a few things together based on public domain information.
Some people might remember the Regional Rail Link project was at the time sold to the public as one that separates regional V/Line operations from Metro services within Melbourne. Likewise, you wouldn't be alone in being confused by the earlier reports this morning that the Melbourne Airport Rail Link would disentangle metro and regional services - this was done as part of the RRL project.
The issue right now is that Vline services are doing the heavy lifting of picking up passengers in outer suburban areas - the 'disentangling' comments might be a reference to building out the rail corridors so that this practice stops.
The Premier's comments emphasise "high speed" rail connections to Geelong and Ballarat (they already exist but run on slower dedicated track within inner-west Melbourne) however this appears to relate to the notion that another set of tracks, outside of the existing corridor, will be built between Southern Cross and Sunshine, just like the Rail Futures Institute proposal.
Reading between the lines further, it appears the Regional Rail Link may see quadruplication earlier than first imagined as the ABC report makes mention that Wyndham Vale would see electrified metro services as well as Melton (which has been a well-publicised medium term goal for the government).
Bridge spans and stations that were built as part of the Regional Rail Link already appear to cater for a future where four tracks co-exist in the corridor, potentially in a scenario where the tracks and platforms which are now in operation would be electrified and eventually have metro services running on them and the new third and fourth tracks acting as the express route for Geelong trains.
Quadruplication in the Sunshine to Deer Park/Caroline Springs rail corridor has also been foreshadowed as part of the Melton electrification project (and Ballarat line upgrade works that are currently underway).
While the various media reports don't expand on the "the airport link has the potential to unlock western and northern Victoria" comments, again reading between the lines, this is where the Rail Futures Institute's proposal comes in to play.
It proposes to build a new dedicated set of tracks from Southern Cross, almost immediately heading underground through North Melbourne, Kensington and bypassing the Footscray station precinct then surfacing briefly near West Footscray then heading underground again at Sunshine where the interchange would be expanded.
The RFI Airtrain proposal sees the underground Sunshine segment gently turning (in order to allow for higher speeds through the curve) northeast and surfacing on the well known Albion corridor where the rail line would then enter the Melbourne Airport grounds from the south and have an underground station at the airport's terminals.
The RFI proposal's second stage would see new track built northwards from the airport with one branch connecting to the Bendigo line and another connecting to the North East/Shepparton line; this is how 'opening up' northern and western Victoria would likely be done - by segmenting these regional lines (and upgrading them to taker faster trains in the case of Shepparton/Albury-Wodonga) and running regional services, as well as a CBD-Sunshine-Airport and vice versa shuttle.
Regardless, we've been promised with more detail in the new year yet one thing looks clearer: judging by the comments from the state government at least, new rail routes like an extension of the Flemington Racecourse line or a branch of the Craigieburn line are not a high priority.
All rail lines still lead to Sunshine!