Fast rail to Ballarat could be stymied "for a generation" if the Melbourne Airport Rail Link is not built with a tunnel between Sunshine and Southern Cross Station, local advocates say - and speculation over a separate tunnel for Geelong has them terrified.
As reported in The Age on Friday, the state government is allegedly considering a proposal to build a fast rail tunnel to Geelong connecting to the Metro 2 tunnel, which might not be completed until the 2030s.
The link would reportedly run from the end of Metro 2 at Newport to Geelong.
EXPLAINER: WHAT'S THE GO WITH THE AIRPORT TRAIN?
- So, right now Ballarat trains get stuck behind some services on the other side of Melton when they get closer to the city. These semi-suburban V/Line trains stop at more stations, including new ones like Cobblebank and Rockbank, and the Ballarat ones can't go past.
- The $518 million upgrades, which finished this month, will help further down the line, but until that congestion is fixed, the trains can't go any faster.
- Rail advocates say if the state government builds a tunnel between Sunshine and Southern Cross Station as part of the Melbourne Airport rail link project, regional trains could also use it - that way, they wouldn't get stuck.
- Only problem is, it's very expensive. The state and federal governments have promised billions, and a private consortium is putting their hand up to build it, but the state government wants to get this right.
- If they decide not to build a tunnel, they could use above-ground infrastructure.
- That would slow down the trains, but it would be a lot cheaper, and probably get finished faster. We're waiting to see what the governments decide, and what the business cases say.
The federal government promised $2 billion for fast rail to Geelong at the last election, and both major parties committed to Ballarat fast rail at the state election.
On Friday morning, a delegation of Ballarat leaders - councillors, businesspeople, and lobbyists, as well as mayors and chief executives from neighbouring councils, met to send a united message to the state and federal governments.
The airport tunnel must be built, they said, to ensure fast rail to Ballarat.
WHAT DO YOU THINK? LET US KNOW BELOW
Committee for Ballarat chief executive Michael Poulton reiterated his call from earlier in the week, and said the Geelong speculation "effectively killed off" the regional alliance formed in June, after the Stronger Together rail plan was released.
Led by the City of Greater Geelong, it featured councils and committees from Ballarat, Bendigo, Shepparton, and the Latrobe Valley.
"If we are to realise the true potential of regional Victoria, if we are to ease some of the population pressures on Melbourne, the Andrews and Morrison governments must commit to building the infrastructure that enables genuine fast, reliable and frequent rail services to and from regional Victoria," he said in a statement.
FROM EARLIER THIS WEEK: Ballarat's hopes for fast rail depend on airport rail tunnel
He labelled the alleged Geelong plan as a "political compromise not in the long-term best interest of the state".
"For people to choose rail over the car, they must have access to excellent public transport options," he said.
"These options include Regional Fast Rail. The only way to deliver fast rail for regional rail, the western suburbs and the airport, is via a tunnel between Sunshine and Southern Cross, not a Melbourne Metro 2 that may or may not be operational by the mid-2030s."
City of Greater Geelong mayor Stephanie Asher said in a statement it was "hard to comment on rumours".
"From what I understand, no one has committed to this proposal," she said.
"Council supports the other regional centres as they advocate to be connected to Melbourne via a fast-rail service. A stronger and connected regional Victoria is vitally important for the state's future.
"The 'Stronger Together' report outlined the importance of the airport rail tunnel. The report states that a regional fast-rail service to Melbourne could be funded and built in conjunction with an airport rail tunnel."
The Rail Futures Institute, an independent lobby group, also criticised the plan.
President John Hearsch said the Metro 2 project could take up to 15 years just for construction, and estimated it could cost double the Metro 1 project.
"The ability to run fast trains to Geelong, and more trains, is going to be constrained until this Metro 2 opens in maybe 2035 - that's simply unsustainable," he said.
"What the regions need is something that's different and separate (to metropolitan trains).
"The main issue is to get the right decision - building it, owning it, how it's funding, they are secondary issues, we need to get it right first."
He said the four-year-old Regional Rail Link was already groaning under the massive population boom in Melton and Wyndham, and electrification needed to be the first priority.
"If Geelong's going to get its faster trains in the future, with Metro 2, that's 15 years away, what do you think you'll do in the meantime?" he said.
"More trains are badly needed now."
The Public Transport User Association's Ballarat convenor, Ben Lever, agreed about electrification, but noted the Geelong proposal "had its own pros and cons".
"Anything that diverts trains away from the Regional Rail Link corridor will free up space for Ballarat trains, which is definitely a good thing," he said in a statement.
"By far the most important project for Ballarat passengers right now is to electrify the line to Melton and add new express tracks between Melton and Sunshine.
"This would move Melton and other suburban passengers onto the Sunbury line, and free up a huge amount of capacity for Ballarat trains to get a quick, clean run into the city - regardless of what happens with the airport."
Independent transport advocate Nick Beale was scathing.
"The regions, as a whole, have been left out, and the regional rail initiative, which brought the five regional cities together, seems to have been ignored at both federal and state level," he said.
"That is a damning indictment where people in the regions are once again ignored."
Leaders from regional councils echoed the call - Pyrenees Shire mayor Tanya Kehoe and Hepburn Shire chief executive Evan King said connections to major cities was just as important for rural towns as well.
"It's vital, it allows us to open up development and essential services, it allows people to live in those regional areas but still maintain their career opportunities and schooling opportunities," Ms Kehoe said.
"We have an enormous amount to offer - from a Daylesford, or Hepburn perspective, we've got some really important tourism attractions, a growing agricultural sector in premium produce, so getting people to the region is really important to us," Mr King added.
City of Ballarat mayor Ben Taylor said it was a "second-rate solution".
"I'm getting tired of everything being focused on the city, we've got to start thinking about regional Victoria," he said.
"Why can't it be part of the Geelong solution or airport solution? Let's maximise the money that's on the table and deliver something that will benefit all the regions."
According to The Age, the federal government reiterated the project was complex and being worked through.
Federal Senator Sarah Henderson, who said the airport rail tunnel was "essential" for Ballarat in October, was contacted for comment.
The Victorian government is "working closely" with the federal government, a spokesperson said.
"All options being assessed for the Airport Rail will stop at Sunshine for connections to Victoria's major regional rail lines - Geelong, Ballarat and Bendigo," they said in a statement.
UPDATE: Clarified the explainer at the top of the story
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