Keeping pace with the western suburbs
The state government’s $518 million boon investment in the Ballarat rail line will certainly buy a lot of things, but a one-hour trip to Melbourne won’t be one of them.
However there’s still plenty for the Ballarat commuter to celebrate as the state government-created Melbourne Metro Rail Authority takes its first steps in delivering the biggest upgrade to the corridor in its 137-year history.
The construction of two new passing loops at Warrenheip and Ballan, on top of the replacement of the inefficient Bungaree loop, will help to ensure one delayed service doesn’t turn into two, three or four.
Meanwhile, the extension of the platforms at both Ballan and Bacchus Marsh will account for the increased demand in the Moorabool Shire, while also looking forward to a time when services may run express past Melbourne’s ever-expanding outer suburbs.
Similarly, new stabling in Rowsley prior to Bacchus Marsh will allow for more focused services catering for those Melbourne fringe stops, including the new Caroline Springs station.
Melbourne Metro Rail Authority chief executive Evan Tattersall said while a shortened trip may not be among the outcomes from the two-year project, an improved commuter experience can be expected.
“The key reason for the project is to improve the number of services and capacity on the line but probably equally important is improving the reliability,” Mr Tattersall said. “What commuters will find is the more effective passing loops will enable trains to operate in a more reliable way along the network.”
While much of the more than $500 million investment will address some key flaws in the existing trip for Ballarat, and equally large portion will be spent tendering to the unprecedented growth in Melbourne’s outer western suburbs.
As the City of Melton braces itself for the whopping growth rate of 140 per cent across the next two decades, a primary goal of the Ballarat rail project will include building services which acknowledge the fact Melton is no longer a country town.
Mr Tattersall said the duplication of the existing line between Deer Park and Melton was just the first step in what would eventually become a fully electrified metro connection.
“The push has been to segregate regional rail from the metros as much as possible and that was the essence of the Regional Rail Link (completed in 2014),” said Mr Tattersall, who also part of the Regional Rail Link project. “Segregating the two such that Ballarat could get into Southern Cross independent of the metro system is a long-term, important agenda, but it will be a staged approach.”
While the benefits of the additional tracks will begin to show following the project’s completion at the end of 2019, the following stages which are yet to gain funding are what will truly grant Ballarat its rail independence. It’s here where MMRA’s management of what is essentially a regional project begins to make sense.
As it currently stands, the heart of Melbourne rail system, the city loop, is at capacity. While the figures alone justify immediate investment along the Melton corridor to join the suburb to the metro system, put simply, there’s nowhere for those trains to go.
The $10.9 billion undertaking will create a tiered system within the heart of the city, connecting the north-eastern Sunbury line with the south-eastern Dandenong service. An extra five inner city stations will also be opened to ease the strain on the existing CBD stations.
“By doing the Melbourne Metro Rail project we’re going to free up a heap of capacity in the central part of our system, i.e. the city loop and a couple of key inner stations,” Mr Tattersall said.
“That enables us to get more metro trains into the heart of the system, which then frees up the opportunity down the track to electrify out to Melton.
“Electrifying to Melton is the only way the state’s going to be able to keep up with the population growth along that corridor … so it’s not a matter of if, but when.”
While the constraints of government and budgets are certain to take their toll on the development of a truly independent line for Ballarat, the key for Mr Tattersall and those working on the roll-out is “future proofing” the system.
This means not only ensuring the Melton to Deer Park corridor is equipped for electrification, but also leaving space for eventual quadruplication of the tracks; allowing for a regional-only V/Line service which bypasses all of the stations between Melton and Sunshine, which will be serviced by Metro.
At best, this is a 10-year prospect. With the Melbourne Metro Rail project not slated for completion until 2026, a Melton service completely independent of Ballarat remains a long-term aspiration.
“As population growth in Ballarat continues and there's more demand along the line, it's pretty important the local business community and council are very much in touch with government, because there could be further passing loops which get developed so we can continue to keep up with the demand so you don't get to a point where someone does decide to electrify out to Melton and you've got further congestion,” Mr Tattersall said.
Making Ballarat a suburb
In an era of soaring metropolitan house prices and booming urban expansion in Melbourne’s north and west, a sub-hour rail service to Melbourne is the missing piece in Ballarat becoming the major player in a decentralised Victoria.
That’s according to Committee for Ballarat’s connectivity team chair Nick Beale, also known as ‘59-minute Nick’.
A vocal supporter of the recent investment in the line, Mr Beale said a regular commuter service to and from Melbourne under an hour was clearly attainable, but required political will.
“As it stands, the best service offered when running on time gets from Ballarat to Melbourne in 64 minutes. But if you're a commuter and you're sitting on the train every day, as I have done, then all of these things make a big difference,” Mr Beale said.
The illusive sub-hour target was achieved for a short period of time following the completion of the Regional Fast Rail project by the Bracks Government in 2006, thanks to the introduction of VLocity trains capable of travelling at up to 160 kilometres an hour.
But since then an influx in new traffic along the corridor into Southern Cross from V/Line services travelling from Bendigo and Geelong, all looking to arrive at similar times, has pushed peak hour services beyond 70 minutes.
Mr Beale said while the 60-minute figure was largely symbolic, the achievement would play a critical factor in encouraging people of all ages to make the choice to move to Ballarat as opposed to Melbourne’s outer suburbs.
“I moved from Sandringham to Ballarat to live, so when people come from Melbourne to here we have to ask what attracts people to come,” Mr Beale said.
“Ballarat has its own infrastructure, its own history, its own culture, its own university, schools and hospitals.
“That connection is so important in a modern day because it makes us able to take the pain of Melbourne’s growth away, but fundamentally (Ballarat is) a great place to live.”
While breaking the one-hour barrier is not currently listed as a goal by either of the major political parties, it’s a task which has gained support from prominent voices including Ballarat-born former premier Steve Bracks.
The ultimate goal of an entirely duplicated line from Southern Cross to Ballarat remains a distant hope for the likes of Committee for Ballarat. However, the city will have to gear up for a funding fight with other high-demand regional services such as Geelong, which has experienced an increase of more than 70 per cent in usage since 2011/12 thanks to the addition of new stops.
“From a Committee point of view, it’s about promoting the city,” Mr Beale said.
Property boom delivers Ballarat’s chance
As it stands the ongoing struggle of generation Y to break into the booming Melbourne property market is not going to lure first home buyers to the great unknown of regional Victoria.
But as a city, it certainly gives Ballarat a selling point.
Much of what prevents the migration from Melbourne is mental, driven by the thought that anything beyond the regularity of a Metro service is akin to being disconnected from civilisation.
This is despite the fact many commuters serviced by the ends of the city train lines already forfeit the best part of an hour getting to and from work.
By having a regular commuter service which can get from Lydiard Street to the heart of the city in less than an hour, the perception of Ballarat as being too far to travel from disappears.
Whether it be for work, heading down to the footy on a Friday night or coming back from a night out with friends, being able to get to and from Melbourne quickly and regularly will be one of the major factors in attracting new Ballarat residents.
It’s clear decentralisation is at the front of the state government’s mind. Thursday’s announcement of a doubled first home buyers grant in regional Victoria from $10,000 to $20,000 as of July 1 demonstrates the political will to strengthen the state’s great regional cities as opposed to encouraging constant urban sprawl.
Certainly, a fast train is not the single answer. Improved road infrastructure to cope with increased traffic can’t be ignored, nor can the pressing need for more public and private sector jobs.
But given the services, infrastructure and established culture which already exists in Ballarat, it's not difficult to mount a case for regional living when compared with new outer suburbs.