If you take a look at the V/Line’s network map, it seems very simple – each railway line radiates directly from Melbourne, with no connections between them. It may also make you think that many journeys across Victoria require a stopover in the big smoke, and any minor disruption along the way results in an entire line being shut down – but that isn’t necessarily the case.
The reality becomes apparent when you look at a map showing the entire Victorian railway network – there are a web of lines covering the entire state, and for cities such as Geelong and Ballarat, there multiple way to reach Melbourne by rail. So why doesn’t V/Line use them?
Let us start with the alternate routes through the suburban area.
Southern Cross to Sunshine via the suburban tracks
Before the first stage of Regional Rail Link opened to passenger trains in 2014, V/Line services to Ballarat and Bendigo used the suburban tracks between Southern Cross to Sunshine. This route is still available today, so if anything happens on the Regional Rail Links between the city and Sunshine, V/Line trains should still be able to operate.
Southern Cross to Werribee via the suburban tracks
V/Line Geelong services moved onto the new RRL tracks in 2015, having used the suburban tracks via Newport and Werribee before this time. Again, this route is still available today, so if the Regional Rail Link tracks develop a fault, Geelong trains could still travel via the ‘old route’.
In suburban Melbourne, there are also a number of nominally freight-only tracks that V/Line trains can travel over.
Southern Cross to Sunshine via the goods lines
If something goes wrong with both the Regional Rail Link and suburban tracks west of the city, there is actually a third route to Sunshine! These freight tracks link South Kensington to Sunshine, passing through the Bunbury Street Tunnel beneath Footscray station and then paralleling to the normal passenger route as far as Sunshine.
Unfortunately using this link is slow going for passenger trains – a 15 km/h speed limit applies for the section of track that passes Tottenham station, and due to the tracks being shared with freight trains, long delays can occur while they pass through flat junctions.
Southern Cross to Newport via the goods lines
In addition to the freight-only tracks from South Kensington to Sunshine, another freight route heads south to Newport, allowing Geelong trains a way to avoid the suburban tracks that pass through Footscray and Yarraville.
As with the previously mentioned freight line, slow speed limits and conflicts with the freight trains that normally use the line limit the usability of this alternate route for V/Line services.
Southern Cross to Broadmeadows via the goods lines
The final freight-only route in suburban Melbourne is the Albion-Jacana line – it links Sunshine to Broadmeadows via Airport West, and allows Seymour-bound services to avoid the suburban tracks via Essendon.
Subject to an incredibly slow 20 km/h speed limit due to the poor track condition, the only upside of this route is that only a handful of freight trains use it each day, so getting a clear run isn’t hard.
Once outside of Melbourne, the number of alternate routes multiplies.
Ballarat via Geelong
The Geelong-Ballarat railway line exists for freight traffic, leaving the main Geelong line before North Geelong station, and joining the main Ballarat line just outside the township of Warrenheip.
Up until the late 1990s V/Line would occasionally divert Ballarat services via Geelong in order to free up space on the single track through Bacchus Marsh. As to why regular services don’t use today, the route is almost twice as long as the normal route, it is subject to a slower 80 km/h speed limit, and the line between Geelong and Gheringhap sees busy interstate freight traffic, which could get in the way of regular passenger services.
Bendigo via Ballarat
Once upon a time there were two alternate routes to reach Bendigo by rail!
The first approached the city from the south and passed through Ballarat, Maryborough and Castlemaine, using the Moolort railway line.
Unfortunately for anyone wanting to run a train this way, the section of line between Moolort and Maldon Junction has been ‘booked out of use’ since 2004, with the section of line between Castlemaine and Maldon Junction being turned over to tourist services operated by the Victorian Goldfields Railway.
And the second entered Bendigo from the other side of town Eaglehawk–Inglewood line: trains would pass through Ballarat, Maryborough, Dunolly and Inglewood; then change direction and head through Bridgewater to Eaglehawk, and arrive into Bendigo from the north.
Like the first diversion route to Bendigo, the line via Bridgewater has also been ‘booked out of use’ and has not been used by any form of train since 2007.
Echuca via Seymour
Trains to and from Echuca also have another route to Melbourne, via Seymour and the Toolamba–Echuca railway line. After a number of years of disused, the line was recently brought back up to a standard to carry freight trains from Deniliquin, allowing them to avoid the busier passenger route via Bendigo.
Finally, here are some really oddball diversions that I doubt V/Line would never consider using.
Ararat via Geelong
Ararat is served by V/Line services that run on the broad gauge tracks via Ballarat. However there is a separate standard gauge route to Ararat, as used by interstate Melbourne-Adelaide freight services and GSR operated The Overland passenger train.
Hence if V/Line had spare standard gauge rolling stock (which they don’t!) then they could run a service to Ararat via Geelong, Cressy and Maroona.
Why doesn’t V/Line use any diversionary routes?
Seeing V/Line trains diverted onto nominally freight-only tracks in suburban Melbourne is a rare sight – my most recent examples are an unplanned diversion of Geelong trains via Brooklyn in 2007, and a planned diversion of Shepparton trains via Albion-Jacana in 2010. As for the rest of the examples I’ve given, I’m struggling to think of any examples in the past decade of V/Line passenger carrying services making such diversions.
Sending passenger trains along routes isn’t easy – for a start, the tracks in suburban Melbourne were specifically built to separate freight trains from passenger services, so introducing any additional trains onto them is a recipe for long delays.
In addition, there is a concept called ‘route knowledge‘ that limits where train can go. Unlike road transport, where anyone can pull a drivers license out of cereal box, train drivers are required to learn each route they will drive trains along, and memorise the location of features such as station platforms, junctions, signals, lineside structures, level crossings, sharp curves and steep grades.
Learning all of that information takes some time, and there is also a gotcha – if a train driver doesn’t drive a train along a given route for a given period of time (normally 2 years) a train driver’s route knowledge will lapse, rendering them unqualified to drive along the route.
The end result is that all rail operators needs to keep their train crews qualified on the routes they drive along, which presents V/Line with difficulties given their crews never have a reason to drive trains along random routes through the Victorian countryside.
While V/Line train crews still have the route knowledge to operate trains along the suburban tracks in Melbourne, with the opening of Regional Rail Link V/Line trains now stick to their own independent set of tracks, separate from those used by Metro Trains services.
This raises the question – will V/Line ensure that their staff retain their qualifications, or in two years time will a fault on the RRL tracks result in V/Line passengers being loaded onto replacement buses, while electric trains cruise past on the perfectly usable suburban tracks alongside?
So far, the signs seem to be positive – a number of passenger carrying V/Line services have been diverted onto the suburban trains via Sunshine due to various issues, V/Line trains head to Newport for maintenance, and a handful of empty trains have been sent over the otherwise redundant tracks between Werribee and Little River to keep the rails clean.
V/Line 1, Marcus 0?
Last week an incident on the tracks at Deer Park disrupted all V/Line services that use Regional Rail Link – Ballarat services were shut down, but Geelong trains were sent via the ‘old’ route via Werrribee, and Bendigo services were sent around stuck V/Line trains via the suburban tracks to Sunshine.
Police operation ongoing, instructing no train running on Ballarat line, coaches being dispatched for customers
— V/Line Ballarat Line (@vline_ballarat) August 21, 2015
Due to a police operation Geelong trains will not be travelling via Wyndham Vale and Tarneit, alternative transport will be provided
— V/Line Geelong Line (@vline_geelong) August 21, 2015
Passengers for Wyndham Vale and Tarneit were directed to Werribee line services and then a connecting suburban bus, while passengers for Ardeer through Melton were directed to suburban buses operating out of Sunshine.
Hopefully V/Line will take the same approach during future disruptions!