59-Minute Ballarat: let’s make it happen

No two ways about it, a sub-hour journey to Melbourne is a must

In the short term, Committee for Ballarat’s goal for the Ballarat V/Line service is clear: obtain a 59-minute service from Ballarat to Southern Cross Station during the morning and evening peaks. 

Depending on the time of day, Ballarat passengers travelling to and from Melbourne can expect to travel for between 65 and 95 minutes each way, should the service run on time. 

While commuters a decade ago could expect to get to the Southern Cross platform in just over an hour a decade ago, a rapid increase in patronage along the line has caused service times to continually balloon out.

Committee for Ballarat chairman Janet Dore said a sub-hour journey for peak hour commuters was a reasonable expectation for a city less than 120 kilometres from Melbourne.

Committee for Ballarat chairman Janet Dore. Picture: Lachlan Bence

Committee for Ballarat chairman Janet Dore. Picture: Lachlan Bence

“Since the Regional Rail Link has gone in and the huge growth to the west of Melbourne has been continuing we've found that we’re having to service to metropolitan areas and not just country Victoria,” Ms Dore said.  

“We just can’t accept that as a modern city we should not be having at least one sub-hour commuter train each way.” 

Achieving this first target by 2019 would involve running a train express from Ballarat Station to Southern cross, bypassing Ballan and Bacchus Marsh as well as the growth suburbs such as Melton and Caroline Springs.  

However to ensure the 59-minute service becomes a frequent occurrence along the line, further investment from both state and federal governments will be needed. 

While the state government is in the process of rolling out a $518 million upgrade to the Ballarat line, the new infrastructure such as passing loops and duplication between Melton and Deer Park will focus on boosting reliability.

Committee for Ballarat is hoping to see an investment of a further $500 million by 2025 for further duplication along the Ballarat line, along with electrification to Melton by 2026 to meet the completion of the Melbourne Metro Rail Project.  

While this has been listed as a priority by both Infrastructure Victoria and Australia, it’s anticipated to cost $1.2 billion. 

Ms Dore said while Committee for Ballarat and the wider Ballarat community were grateful for the government’s investment in the 2016/17 budget, the city’s transport infrastructure was still well behind comparable countries such as England, France and Germany. 

“We have to acknowledge we’re playing catch up and the overall goal is for full duplication, and electrification has to be another medium term goal so we don’t get clogged up servicing metropolitan Melbourne,” Ms Dore said.  “People will get sick of spending 2.4 hours a day on a train and we can do better.”

The footy fan

On the footy train: Melbourne supporter Greg Horrocks is one of hundreds of Ballarat footy fans who make the trip to the city on the train on the line's busiest services outside of peak hour. Picture: Luka Kauzlaric

On the footy train: Melbourne supporter Greg Horrocks is one of hundreds of Ballarat footy fans who make the trip to the city on the train on the line's busiest services outside of peak hour. Picture: Luka Kauzlaric

For die-hard Melbourne Demons fan Greg Horrocks, the trip to the MCG via a V/Line train has become an almost weekly occurrence. 

For more than four years Mr Horrocks has made the journey on the weekends, a trip that typically takes more than 80 minutes. 

The footy trains are among V/Line’s busiest services outside of the weekday commute, with fans beyond Ballarat regularly battling for a seat.

While the 64-year-old praised the footy service and said the longer trip was less of an issue on weekends, he said he hoped more fans would make the switch to rail in order to encourage V/Line and the state government to provide a more frequent, efficient service for weekend passengers.

There’s a few times where I’ve had to run from Richmond Station to the ‘G to make sure I don’t miss the first bounce,” Mr Horrocks said.  

“I wouldn’t like to be getting on at Ballan for a Collingwood Richmond game because you’d definitely notice the crowding.”

The professional

Chris Zeegers. Picture: Kate Healy

Chris Zeegers. Picture: Kate Healy

When Chris Zeegers made the decision to move his young family back to Ballarat from Melbourne’s suburbs, he knew there would be a cost. 

Like hundreds of Ballarat professionals, the I.T worker is up before the sun to catch the 6.15am service to Southern Cross, spending 73 minutes on the train should things go to plan. 

Despite not being required at work until 9am, the CBD worker tends to arrive in the city more than an hour early to avoid the risk of running late. 

In the past two years V/Line has met its stated punctuality target of 92 per cent of services arriving within six minutes of their stated time just once, back in October 2016.

“During the 4.5 years I've been commuting I've only not claimed compensation (for poor performance) for three months,”  Mr Zeegers said.  “I've got a six-year-old who's not up late so the later I am, the less time I can spend with her. 

“There's obviously been regional growth through the corridor but these suburbs don’t appear overnight, there’s a fair amount of planning that goes into it.”

Growing pains on our trains

Despite billions of dollars being spent on the Ballarat train line over the past two decades, the illusive goal of a sub-hour trip to and from Southern Cross Station remains far from reality.

Over the 10 years V/Line has experienced soaring growth along the Ballarat line as perceptions of regional living have evolved.  In the 2015/16 financial year  3.79 million passengers boarded a V/Line service on the Ballarat line, a staggering increase on the 1.37 million patrons 10 years earlier.   

The Ballarat commuter of the early-2000s received little change from 90 minutes when getting to and from Melbourne on the fastest services available.  

That was until the Regional Fast Rail project was completed in 2006 by the Bracks government.  Costing more than $1 billion, the upgrades allowed new state-of-the-art VLocity trains to travel at up to 160km/h on parts of the line, prompting an express service to arrive at Spencer Street in 64 minutes.   

A headline-grabbing trip on September 4, 2006 saw a VLocity train pull into Southern Cross Station in just 59 minutes, setting a benchmark which would in time be viewed as more of a gimmick than a reality of the service. 

“We’ve always been perplexed by the fact in 2006 we ran a 59-minute service yet now we can’t,” Committee for Ballarat chairman Janet Dore said. 

The public response to this new, quick service was overwhelming.  Commuter numbers between 2006/07 and 2007/08 jumped by more than 500,000 people as more than two million customers used the previously country service for the first time in a year.  

Coupled with the growth in demand from traditional V/Line stops such as Ballarat, Ballan and Bacchus Marsh has been an unprecedented growth in Melbourne’s west, much of which is still serviced by the country train line.  

At the 2016 census the City of Melton’s estimated population exceeded 140,000 for the first time, a dramatic increase on the 112,643 recorded at the 2011 count. 

The Regional Rail Link which began in 2009 went some way to acknowledging the ominous boom in the western suburbs by removing V/Line services from the already crowded metro train line.

Services from Ballarat, Bendigo and Geelong were given a direct route from Sunshine through to Southern Cross

Earlier this year that growth was further acknowledged with the introduction of Caroline Springs Station onto the Ballarat service, adding further to the time and congestion along the line.  Despite the benefits of the windfall Regional Rail Link investment, Ballarat commuters found themselves facing a fresh set of problems.   

A bizarre wheel wear problem in early 2016 forced thousands of commuters onto coaches, costing the service provider millions of dollars. 

The frustrating fault came amid more than six months of below-par services where V/Line failed to hit its punctuality target. 

Following sustained pressure the state government pledged $518 million from the 2016/17 budget to deliver a series of upgrades to the Ballarat line which would improve the service’s struggling consistency.  

Rail Futures Institute president John Hearsch labelled the investment the first major effort to improve the service in a decade, despite the growing pains.

Among a host of changes to the 118-kilometre journey will be the duplication of track between Melton and Deer Park, the first step in what will one day become an arm of the Metro service.

The investment will also help to remove one of the most prominent bugbears of Ballarat commuters: stopping on the line. Passing loops at Warrenheip and Ballan will help to ensure trains can arrive on time, while new track will replace the Bungaree loop.

A contract for the project is expected to be finalised by the end of the year, with completion expected by the end of 2019.  In the meantime the state government has ordered 87 new V/Line carriages to meet demand across the network, six of which are already operating on the Ballarat line.

Public Transport Users Association Ballarat convenor Ben Lever said V/Line uptake over the past decade was proof investment would be rewarded.  

“The good news is, we know this is a sound investment for governments to make - from the Regional Fast Rail project to Regional Rail Link, when governments have invested in a better service, people have flocked to it,” Mr Lever said.  

“If governments continue to invest in better public transport, the public will use it.”

From the Committee for Ballarat CEO

Melanie Robertson, Chief Executive Officer, Committee for Ballarat.

Melanie Robertson, Chief Executive Officer, Committee for Ballarat.

A priority that is central to Committee for Ballarat’s strategic plan is public transport. It has set a challenging but achievable task of having a first-class public transport system delivered to the Ballarat community and the communities of western Victoria. 

Our role is to stimulate debate, envision innovative solutions and advocate for essential long-term planning and commitment from all levels of government, and that is exactly what we are doing with this campaign. It is a campaign clearly aimed at articulating our long-term strategy and hearing the voice of our communities.

Connectivity is critical to unlocking our potential. Investment into a fast, more frequent and more reliable rail service is essential to enable and lead regional growth. Rail provides a powerful and effective tool for redirecting growth to regional cities. 

A much-improved regional rail network can reduce pressure on Melbourne’s outward growth, provide access to affordable housing and high-quality jobs, and help distribute economic and social benefits across the state.

The delivery of a 59-minute express service both for the morning and afternoon commute is critical to ensure people can enjoy our enviable lifestyle despite having the need to travel to Melbourne for work. 

Such a service would enable commuters to have a fast and reliable trip that doesn’t take too much time out of their day for travelling. 

It would also provide practical opportunities for students from the western growth corridors of Melbourne to travel to Ballarat to attend educational institutions here as well for students from our region having access to the educational opportunities of Melbourne.

The Stage 1 $518 million investment from the state government into the Ballarat rail line represents an important development towards achieving connectivity to Melbourne and the western region of Victoria. 

We know that the increasing popularity of public transport, resulting from ongoing investment in infrastructure and services confirms that Ballarat and the region will use a quality public transport system.

Despite perceptions of unsatisfactory service reliability amongst V/Line users, patronage has more than doubled in 10 years.

Rail demand will continue to grow; however, significant logistical matters will limit the ability to provide any additional services – for example, we simply cannot get any more additional services into the Southern Cross Station bottleneck until the construction of the Melbourne Metro Tunnel has been completed.

We need to be better connected to Melbourne and to the region. This will transform how people and businesses regard Ballarat as a desirable place to live and work. 

Committee for Ballarat has outlined a realistic plan to deliver the ultimate goal of full duplication of the line to Melbourne, electrification of the line to Melton, additional rolling stock and the creation of an airport Link at Sunshine.

Ballarat needs a long-term plan and a commitment from government; if we don’t have a plan, effective connectivity to Melbourne will continue to only be a dream.