Geelong fast rail and Waurn Ponds track duplication to improve services after years of crowding and delays

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.

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.

The single track between South Geelong and Waurn Ponds will be duplicated thanks to state and federal funding.(ABC News: Steven Schubert)

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.

A map showing two tracks connecting Geelong to Melbourne, one a 72.6km track via Werribee and the other 80.7km via Sunshine.
The first stage of the Geelong Fast Rail project will deliver a travel time of around 50 minutes between Geelong and Melbourne.(Supplied: Rail Projects Victoria)

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.

A man with a short grey beard stands in a garden holding a face mask and a Myki public transport card.
Dr Stone says there needs to be more services, more often, to encourage people back to public transport in the COVID era.(ABC News: Dylan Anderson)

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.”

One person sits on a train carriage between Geelong and Melbourne. A sign tells people to
Victoria’s public transport system was running at 11 per cent of its usual passenger load in September.(ABC News: Steven Schubert)

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.

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Freight industry pushes for Sturt Highway duplication to start but Government stays quiet

Plans to duplicate a major national highway needs to start now, the South Australian Freight Council says, but the State Government has provided little detail on the major project’s future.

The Sturt Highway is an almost 1,000-kilometre stretch of road linking New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia.

It has long been discussed in South Australia that a duplication of the highway within the state would enhance road safety, but the major project did not receive any funding in last week’s Federal Budget.

The SA Freight Council said it was not surprised the project missed out, as significant and crucial planning and business case work had not yet started.

Executive officer Evan Knapp said the duplication should be undertaken in stages with the estimated cost around $1.2 billion “in the first instance”.

“We’d like to see the section from Greenock to Truro and the section from Barmera to Paringa both duplicated in the sort of four to nine-year period, and that means that planning needs to start now,” he said.

‘Work is being done’

The SA Government announced a $87.5 million upgrade to the Sturt Highway from Gawler to Renmark in its 2019–20 budget, with an 80 per cent funding contribution from the Commonwealth.

The money was to be used for shoulder sealing, road safety improvements, and overtaking lanes.

Minister for Infrastructure and Transport Corey Wingard spruiked this investment but could not comment on any specific planning for further works on the duplication project.

“Work is being done in that [planning] space all the time,” he said.

“The Sturt Highway is part of the roads of strategic importance and we are partnering with the Federal Government to be doing that work.

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Bussell Highway crash victim welcomes lane duplication funding for risky road

A crash survivor has welcomed an $85 million funding announcement that will see significant safety upgrades to one of Western Australia’s riskiest roads.

The Bussell Highway is the major road linking Bunbury to the popular holiday destinations of Busselton and Margaret River in the south-west of WA.

A 17-kilometre stretch of the notorious highway is single lane, which causes congestion and long delays during holidays and long weekends.

Three years ago Helga van Schoor and her three children were driving along the highway during one of the peak traffic periods when she was involved in a crash that almost claimed her life.

“The car hit us directly,” she said.

“She was going at high speed — we would have been going about 100 kph and the other about 110 kph.

Ms van Schoor suffered a fractured pelvis while her son was taken to hospital in a critical condition.

She said the accident left them all traumatised.

“We’re all still quite nervous on the road,” she said.

The Bussell Highway is the gateway to popular tourist destinations like Busselton and Margaret River.(ABC News: Gian De Poloni)

Crash spurred safety campaign

In 2019 a survey compiled by insurer RAC labelled the Bussell Highway the riskiest road in regional WA, due to its lack of overtaking opportunities and traffic separation.

After the crash Ms van Schoor began a public campaign calling for the road to be widened to a dual carriageway.

Over the weekend, the State and Federal Governments announced funding to complete her wish.

“I was just over the moon,” she said.

Local MP Libby Mettam worked with Ms van Schoor on her campaign and said fixing the road was vitally important from a safety perspective.

“There have been a significant number of crashes over the years, which have only increased as a result of the growth in the demand for this popular tourism destination,” she said.

A boost to safety and tourism

Ms Mettam said the upgrades would also greatly improve the experience for visitors who were used to suffering significant delays along the popular route.

Busselton Mayor Grant Henley said, while the upgrade was significant for safety and tourism, it would also help local businesses.

“For all of our primary producers and the growing industries that we have in the hinterland that use that road network it will be positive and it will increase economic activity,” he said.

Construction to widen the road will begin later this year.

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Sheep farmer loses Supreme Court battle over Western Highway duplication planning process

A Supreme Court judge has determined that the Victorian Government’s planning approval of the contentious Western Highway duplication project was valid, after a four-year legal stoush.

Sisters MairiAnne and Iona Mackenzie, whose land has been compulsorily acquired for the highway-widening project near Ararat, first brought the case in October 2016.

A group that advocated for an alternative route for the Western Highway duplication between Buangor and Ararat was also a plaintiff.

They argued that two decisions by planning ministers four years apart to approve the project were invalid and that meant the continuation of work was unlawful.

But this afternoon, Judge Melinda Richards dismissed the case.

“None of the grounds relied upon by the plaintiffs has been made out, and there is no basis for the declarations they seek,” she wrote.

The plaintiffs said in a statement they were disappointed, but would read the full judgment and regroup.

“We believe environment and culture should come before expansion and development,” the statement read.

A Major Road Project Victoria spokesperson said MRPV were still considering the judgment.

Original planning permit relied on ‘flawed’ environmental data

The Supreme Court action has been just one issue among many associated with the project to widen the main road link between Melbourne and Adelaide, which has dragged on for more than a decade and attracted national attention.

A birds eye view of trees near Buangor in western Victoria.
The fate of large old trees that populate the surrounding landscape has been a major point of contention since the Western Highway duplication project was first proposed.(ABC Ballarat: Dominic Cansdale)

The legal action was launched after a report commissioned by VicRoads (now Major Road Projects Victoria) showed its planning approval relied on “flawed” data and “incorrect assumptions”.

A 2015 media release stated around 470 trees would be removed, while on-the-ground counting later revealed the actual number of trees to be removed was more likely 885.

The project was first given planning approval in 2013 by former planning minister and then-opposition leader Matthew Guy, but early in 2017 that permit was found to have expired, preventing work from beginning.

In late 2017, Planning Minister Richard Wynne granted the project a planning permit once again, but other issues including protests by Aboriginal groups over culturally significant trees have stopped most of the work from going ahead.

Federal Government yet to make fresh decision on protection of sacred trees

Meanwhile, an ongoing legal battle over the potential impact of the Western Highway duplication project on sacred Indigenous trees on the same section of road continues.

At the end of last year the Federal Court ordered the Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley to reconsider an application by the Djab Wurrung Heritage Protection Embassy, for the protection of six trees along the route.

Work has been taking place on a 3.85-kilometre part of a 12.5-kilometre section of the road, but the rest is on hold until Ms Ley has made a decision.

One of the protest camps set up along the section of the Western Highway near Ararat.
One of the protest camps set up along the section of the Western Highway near Ararat.(ABC Ballarat: Dominic Cansdale)

Members of the Djab Wurrung Heritage Protection Embassy had appealed against the previous federal environment minister Melissa Price’s rejection of their application for the protection of trees they consider sacred under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act.

In his December 2019 ruling, Judge Alan Robertson included the description of a “legal error” by the minister in concluding that if five trees she agreed were culturally significant were not removed, they would not be considered to have been desecrated.

A Federal Government spokesperson said the Minister was expected to make a decision on the applications in the near future.

Further investigations of the planning process underway

The Victorian Ombudsman is also continuing to investigate how state authorities came to decide on the controversial alignment of the project between Beaufort and Ararat.

However the ombudsman’s report is expected to focus on the planning and delivery of the project with particular regard to the concerns raised about the protection of Aboriginal sites.

A bird's eye view of the existing Western Highway near Ararat.
An overhead view of the existing section of the Western Highway near Ararat.(ABC Ballarat: Dominic Cansdale)

The ombudsman visited the area in December last year, following complaints from “a number of people” since August 2019, and launched the investigation.

The investigation will consider “the extent to which development of the project has made appropriate allowances for the protection of Aboriginal cultural heritage” and “how agencies have responded to concerns raised about the protection of sacred Aboriginal sites”.

It is expected to also examine the negotiation and execution of a Credit Trading Agreement and Conservation Covenant in connection with the project.

Once complete, the ombudsman’s report is expected to be tabled in the Victorian State Parliament.

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