While the state government has rubbished claims it is considering a "budget" alternative to major regional rail infrastructure, advocates are pushing for a tunnel as an indispensable part of any future airport rail link to serve Ballarat and Geelong.
A state government spokesperson said Saturday's report, which said the government was looking at a proposal to use existing lines between Southern Cross and Sunshine for the airport link, was "incorrect".
"The media reports on the weekend are incorrect," they said.
"The Andrews Labor Government has always backed a Sunshine alignment because of the benefits it delivers for regional Victorians - this decision was later backed by the Commonwealth."
However the statement stopped short of committing to the option preferred by Ballarat transport advocates.
"It is standard practice for all business cases to consider options," it read.
Representatives from communities across western Victoria have been pushing for a tunnel linking Sunshine or western Footscray to Southern Cross to unlock faster trains and direct services between Melbourne and Geelong, Ballarat, and Bendigo.
The airport rail link project could also be part of this, separating the trains from metropolitan services as the population grows.
In May, a group of councils and organisations led by the City of Greater Geelong released the Stronger Together report, calling for electrified fast rail to regional centres.
The report emphasised this could be built in tandem with the airport link, but if done separately, could 'lock out' regional Victoria.
The state government committed $100 million to develop the Western Rail Plan, prioritising electrification to Melton and Wyndham Vale.
On the state government's website, additional tracks between Sunshine and the city are also in the plan,"to cater for faster and more frequent metro and regional trains. This would most likely be a new tunnel that would be part of Melbourne Airport Rail".
Ballarat rail advocate Nick Beale, long known as 59 Minute Nick for his lobbying for a sub-hour service to the city, said the tunnel needed to remain on the table.
"It is a welcome message from the state government to reinforce the fact that the Sunshine option is still firmly in place," he said.
"The only issue at stake is whether there would be a tunnel or not heading into Southern Cross - Ballarat, and regional cities, still believe that it is critical for a tunnel to be built as the current squeeze on space into Southern Cross means it is impossible to see how any other lines could be put in.
"This is an investment for the next century, and it needs to be done right."
The Committee for Ballarat's chief executive, Michael Poulton, is acutely aware of the commute between Ballarat and Melbourne - he did it for 13 years.
He said there are benefits for the entire state if the right planning was done now, but a tunnel was "an absolutely critical piece of infrastructure".
"It's a game-changer in terms of regional rail, it opens up that corridor that is currently closed off to regional rail," he said, adding longer-term vision was needed.
"From our perspective, it's not the silver bullet, and it's one way of being able to relieve congestion in Melbourne and improve train travel, but it goes back to the regional network - we should be also considering inter-city links between Geelong and Ballarat, and Ballarat and Bendigo.
"A truly regional approach is city to city that includes Melbourne, but is not exclusively Ballarat to Melbourne, it shouldn't be seen as an either-or."
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