A business address by the Victorian Treasurer is the latest event to fuel concern the state will not fund the Airport Link tunnel option that will most benefit regional rail lines like Ballarat.
The Age reported Treasurer Tim Pallas has hosed down expectations for a high-speed multibillion-dollar airport rail tunnel, despite repeated pressure from the Morrison government to sign up for one.
At a business event in Sunshine, Mr Pallas raised the possibility of a cheaper, above-ground route that would stop at suburban stations, according to people in the room.
The problem, according to its backers, with the non-tunnel option is it would force regional trains to compete for priority at surface level with metro trains on already congested lines.
'Fast Rail' to regional cities like Ballarat and Bendigo might not be achievable without this central infrastructure investment to free up the system.
The Treasurer is reported to have said this week the government was considering delaying building twin rail tunnels between the CBD and Sunshine, warning that the project's cost could skyrocket and even double if the tunnels were built, the sources said.
The state government was concerned about sluggish patronage on the line in the first few years and was considering having trains stop at suburban stations, Mr Pallas reportedly told the Delphi Bank event on Tuesday.
This is the strongest indication yet that the Andrews government is considering abandoning plans to build direct airport rail tracks through twin tunnels, although they have not ruled it out.
The Andrews government could be on a collision course with the Morrison government, which has campaigned strongly for a rail tunnel and has promised $5 billion for the project.
The federal government has argued that the 7-kilometre tunnels are crucial to delivering fast rail to Geelong, which it has pledged $2 billion to build.
A private consortium, AirRail, which wants to build and run the airport tunnel has offered $5 billion towards the project.
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The state government is prepared to spend $5 billion.
When asked about the Treasurer's comments, a state government spokeswoman would not confirm or deny the reports. She said multiple airport rail options were being explored.
"Rail Projects Victoria and its expert advisers are still undertaking the detailed planning and development works for Melbourne airport rail and faster services to Geelong," she said.
"The government is having productive conversations with the Commonwealth government, but no decisions have been made."
However, rail experts have warned that running airport trains along existing tracks would be a "third rate" service no faster than SkyBus, which takes 30 to 45 minutes to get from the city to the airport.
Airport trains would likely be directed through the new Melbourne Metro Tunnel, which means they could stop at up to eight suburban stations between the city and the airport, Rail Futures Institute's president John Hearsch said.
Train trips would take 32 minutes from the airport to the new State Library station, according to Mr Hearsch's modelling. Trips would take 34 minutes from the airport to Town Hall station.
A suburban airport rail service also flies in the face of comments made by Premier Daniel Andrews in early September, in which he ruled out "stopping-all-stations" airport trains.
"You've got to build something that people use," the Premier said at a press conference with Prime Minister Scott Morrison. "And if it's slow and congested and 'stopping all stations' people won't use it."
"You've got to build something that people use. "And if it's slow and congested and 'stopping all stations' people won't use it."Premier Daniel Andrews
Mr Hearsch warned that the Metro Tunnel would be full by the time it opened in late 2025, with any extra rail capacity quickly absorbed by new services to Melton.
He said an airport rail tunnel was also crucial to delivering fast rail services to Geelong and Ballarat.
"Once linked to Melbourne Metro, this would be permanently a suburban service."
"These trains will be crowded, they will be competing with peak period travellers and there is no provision for luggage; the trains are not designed in the way that an airport train should be."
Federal Minister for Population, Cities and Urban Infrastructure, Alan Tudge, said the federal government wanted a high-speed airport rail service, and was working "constructively" with the state government.
"Our ambition is to have a train journey to the airport from the city that is fast, affordable and meets the needs of travellers," Mr Tudge said.
"We want to see the Melbourne Airport Rail Link built as soon as possible."
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