With the Ballarat rail line's $580 million upgrade now finished, advocates say more should be done now before regular commuters begin returning post-pandemic, amid population growth exploding.
It sounds like a big ask - $580 from the state and federal governments isn't a small amount of money, and building a bunch of new stations and track is still a massive improvement - but there's a key metric that hasn't yet been improved.
The new timetable, with a welcome 20-minute frequency at peak, has one flaw, because with more stations on the line, some services take even longer to get from Wendouree to Southern Cross Station than they did before the upgrade.
The state government is planning on looking at this, allocating hundreds of millions to the Western Rail Plan, but it will still be years before the next really big upgrade comes to the Ballarat line.
A key aspect to keep an eye on in the next few years - trust us - is the level crossing removal project, a flagship initiative from the current state government.
On the Ballarat line, that includes a couple of crossings near Deer Park - for residents, it'll mean less delays, and for commuters, more reliability.
READ MORE: What's next for station precinct?
The Western Rail Plan is seeking to investigate how best to improve services to Ballarat and Geelong, and further out, and one of these aspects is quadruplicating and electrifying the line to at least Melton.
This would bring Melton, and all the stations between it and Sunshine - Deer Park, Ardeer, Cobblebank, Rockbank, Caroline Springs, and potentially more in the next few years - into the metropolitan system, which will help ease overcrowding as more people move to Melbourne's west.
"Ah, but what does this have to do with level crossing removals?", you may ask - basically, if you don't plan for that potential quadruplication now, when building over- or under-passes, it's going to be much, much more difficult to put them in later.
WHAT DO YOU THINK? HAVE YOUR SAY BELOW
Let's look at the Gippsland line, on the other side of the state - the "skyrail" through the eastern suburbs from Pakenham means V/Line trains from Bairnsdale and Traralgon will still get stuck behind metro services stopping at all stations.
Residents in the area probably aren't keen on the idea of Japanese-style multi-level skyrails, and the land acquisition costs would be aneurysm-inducing.
So instead, Gippsland commuters are hoping there's no plan to make them jump off at Pakenham - where the state government's putting in a fancy new station - and change trains to get to Melbourne.
State government ministers have repeatedly said Gippsland commuters will have more options when the new Melbourne Metro Tunnel opens, which conveniently is on the Pakenham line, but is it worth having to jump out?
This is why there needs to be a future focus on the Ballarat line for any projects, but especially past Melton - if the goal of getting a 59 minute service, or even faster, is to be met, that won't include swapping to a metro service at Melton or Sunshine.
That means upgrades like level crossing removals, or even new stations, need to be designed as if there were another two tracks going through, so eventually Ballarat trains can overtake metro trains.
Officially, according to a Major Transport Infrastructure Authority spokesperson, "(t)he level crossing removal have been designed to future proof all future upgrades to the rail corridor" - the road-based designs have been future-proofed to accommodate any subsequent upgrades to the Geelong and Ballarat lines.
The span of the Fitzgerald Road bridge, for example, will be wide enough if extra tracks need to ever be added underneath.
The Committee for Ballarat, an non-government advocacy group representing industry and the community, has connectivity as one of its primary priorities, and chief executive Michael Poulton said the best time to take action to future-proof the Ballarat line is now.
In November 2020, the state government decided against a proposal to build a new tunnel from Southern Cross Station to Sunshine for the airport rail link - instead, it'll use existing infrastructure.
A campaign led by the City of Greater Geelong, of which the Committee for Ballarat was a vocal part, called for the tunnel proposal to be built, which would "untangle" the rail network closer to the city.
Burned by this decision, Mr Poulton said the time is right to begin refocusing on what else can be done.
"What we can't do is accept our rail services going backwards, and that's what we've seen in the last 10 years, despite $580 million invested," he said.
"We've improved the amenity, we've improved safety, we've improved reliability, but we can't have a system that goes slower."
He said there are three things, in the medium to long term, that must be addressed and completed so Ballarat, and other communities along the line, don't fall behind.
First up, quadruplication and electrification will clear the way for faster trains; next, modern, cleaner, faster rolling stock to replace the VLocity fleet must be on the drawing board; finally - and this is certainly in the long-term - the entire Ballarat line should be electrified.
That could result in 40 minute travel times to Melbourne, he said, making sure Ballarat remains closely connected to Melbourne.
"That was the opportunity that was lost with the Melbourne Airport Rail Link tunnel (proposal), because you could have done all three of those things," he said.
"It's disappointing that it could have happened faster than it's going to, but I still think it's going to happen."
The main issue, for Mr Poulton, was a "lack of foresight" from governments on all levels, though admittedly the pandemic was unexpected and must be dealt with fully first.
"How much confidence do we have in government to be looking five, 10 years ahead? Not a lot," he said.
"I don't want to be too simplistic, I understand government's an incredibly complex space with competing demands - you can't do everything, you have to prioritise - there's an element that you have to wait your turn, but we have to put pressure on government to make decisions that are forward thinking, and that's where I haven't had confidence in the two and a half years I've been in this job.
"What I am confident about is that government can be taken to that point because you have strong community advocacy to get you there."
Have you signed up to The Courier's variety of news emails? You can register below and make sure you are up to date with everything that's happening in Ballarat.