Before the coronavirus pandemic, Billy Deikos, 43, had to be flexible to travel from Geelong to his job in Melbourne — physically flexible.
“Back in the day I’d be sitting underneath a luggage rack when the trains were crowded … it was quite funny,” he said.
- The rail line between South Geelong and Waurn Ponds will be duplicated, with second platforms built at South Geelong and Marshall
- $4 billion has been set aside to fund stage one of the Geelong Fast Rail project, but that will only bring travel times down to 50 minutes
- During last year’s election campaign, the Prime Minister suggested fast rail could produce travel times of 32 minutes between Geelong and Melbourne
Not only was over-crowding an issue on Victoria’s busiest regional rail route, but the single line between Geelong and Waurn Ponds, the last suburban station on the southern edge of the city, meant cancellations and delays were inevitable.
“The trains [to Melbourne] leave Waurn Ponds every 40 minutes and in Geelong central it’s every 20 minutes,” Mr Daicos said.
“We currently have a single track which kind of just delays the services slightly … so hopefully when we have the duplication of the track from Waurn Ponds to South Geelong, towards the tunnel, it should increase the services and hopefully it will reduce bottlenecks.”
As Australia looks to revive its economy after the coronavirus-induced shutdowns, state and federal governments are investing billions of dollars in rail infrastructure.
Geelong, whose population is expected to grow by around 50 per cent to 485,000 by 2051, according to State Government projections, is one of the biggest beneficiaries.
Recent funding announcements include:
- Federal and state government funding to fast-track stage two of the South Geelong to Waurn Ponds duplication. This includes upgrading South Geelong and Marshall stations with second platforms and accessible overpasses, the removal of level crossings at Fyans Street and Surf Coast Highway and signalling upgrades between South Geelong and Waurn Ponds stations. The project is due to be completed in 2024.
- $2 billion from the State Government to match an existing $2 billion commitment from the Federal Government to complete stage one of the Geelong Fast Rail project. This includes new tracks through the Werribee rail corridor, although some Geelong services will continue to run via Wyndham Vale and Sunshine. This will cut up to 15 minutes off some journeys, bringing the trip to Melbourne down to 50 minutes.
But that’s still a long way off the 32 minutes promised during last year’s federal election campaign.
Speed takes a hit compared to previous promises
Prime Minister Scott Morrison travelled to Geelong during the 2019 federal election campaign, promising $2 billion for fast rail between Geelong and Melbourne — if the Victorian Government matched the funding commitment.
At the time, the State Government had pledged $50 million to develop a business case for the project.
The Federal Government proposed trains would travel at an average speed of 160 kilometres per hour and take about 32 minutes to get from Geelong to Melbourne, down from the current time of about an hour.
They would continue running through Wyndham Vale and Sunshine on an upgraded track.
But Population, Cities and Urban Infrastructure Minister Alan Tudge this week said the aim was now to get services down to 40 minutes.
“When all stages are completed the time from Geelong to Melbourne will be just 40 minutes,” he said.
The announcement of funding for stage one also outlined a different route to the one set out by the Prime Minister in 2019, with some Geelong trains returning to their historic track via Werribee.
It is the most direct rail line, about eight kilometres shorter than the current route through Sunshine, which Geelong trains were moved to upon completion of the Regional Rail Link in 2015.
Jennifer Cromarty, chief executive of the not-for-profit advocacy group Committee for Geelong, said getting services back on the Werribee line was “well-supported”, but the key issue for commuters was reliability, not speed.
“We have not advocated for a specific time for the journey — just the best overall solution for Geelong,” she said.
“If Geelong commuters have a journey time that is under 50 minutes, that is important, but what is more important is frequency, capacity and reliability.”
Ms Cromarty is now pushing for rail connections to be extended to Avalon Airport, between Melbourne and Geelong.
“What the Committee for Geelong is looking for next is an announcement regarding a train station for Avalon Airport, which is vital for our international airport’s competitiveness and growth,” she said.
The fast rail project, which is expected to start construction in 2023 if it passes approval processes, would include track upgrades between Werribee and Laverton, including a new dedicated express track.
This would get Geelong to Melbourne services down to 50 minutes by the completion of stage one.
Some Geelong services will continue to run on the existing corridor via Wyndham Vale and Sunshine, giving Geelong commuters more choice and a quicker connection to the new Melbourne Airport Rail Link, which is due to be completed in 2029.
‘Ripple effect’ of pandemic to be felt across public transport
But with trains still relatively empty as people continue to work from home, Melbourne University transport planning expert John Stone questioned the validity of big infrastructure projects based solely on pre-COVID projections.
“I think we’re going to need to go back to square one on all the data underpinning all these big projects, whether they be road or rail, because immigration is slowing, the economy is slowing, people’s travel movements are changing,” Dr Stone said.
“We can’t just say, ‘well we thought that North East Link or extensions to various roads were a good idea then, so they’re a good idea now’, and the public transport packages need to be considered in that light.”
He said anxiety about the safety of public transport during a pandemic was pushing more people into their cars.
Before COVID-19, up to two-thirds of workers travelling into Melbourne’s CBD used public transport to get there, he said.
“Even a small shift away from that will put a lot more traffic on the roads going into the CBD and then cause a ripple effect for congestion right across the city,” Dr Stone said.
Passenger numbers across the Victorian public transport network were approximately 11 per cent of normal levels in September, as Melbourne endured its final weeks of the strictest coronavirus restrictions, including the curfew.
That increased to 20 per cent of normal levels during October, and 31 per cent by late November.
But with 25 per cent of Victorian office workers allowed to return to the office from November 30, and further increases expected next year, Dr Stone said a lot of work would need to be done — and quickly — to change the way the state’s public transport system works.
“The problem is it’s going to happen as soon as we start going back to work in large numbers. As soon as there’s greater demand for travel into the centre of the city, and even the centre of Geelong, these problems are going to arise,” he said.
One solution he proposes is significantly reducing the occupancy rates on public transport so people can safely keep their distance.
But with fewer people per carriage, more frequent services would be required.
Another solution is encouraging people to travel outside peak periods, which relies on already challenged employers embracing even more flexible work patterns.
“We’re going to have to spread the peaks and spread the frequency of public transport into the middle of the day which we don’t do at the moment,” he said.
“Those sorts of things are going to be absolutely vital to ease the pressure on our transport system overall so that people are travelling at different times of the day or not travelling so often.
“That’s going to be at the core of what we need to do.”
Public transport timetables will also need to cater for people who continue to work from home and will spend more time moving around their local suburbs, rather than into and out of the city, something the Victorian Government’s suburban rail loop is looking to address.
But with no date set for completion, and early works not scheduled to begin until 2022, Dr Stone said changes would be needed far earlier.
He said while it was “very easy for governments to get excited about capital projects”, the big challenge would be finding the cash to fund service improvements on existing routes.
“The operational costs, how we drive those down, how we get efficiencies into the system so we can actually deliver the more frequent services that we need, that’s where the challenge for the treasuries and public transport agencies is really focused now, it’s getting the most out of our operational spending,” he said.