Precursor plans for Regional Rail Link

At the moment the biggest rail project in Melbourne is the 47.5 km long Regional Rail Link. Stretching from Southern Cross station to the Geelong line at West Werribee, it consists of additional tracks as far as Sunshine, along with a brand new alignment through Tarneit and Wyndham Vale, and is intended to provide extra track capacity to the western suburbs of Melbourne. Due for completion in early 2016 after five years of construction, how long has the idea for a railway along this route existed?

Station building completed, but with the tracks still to come

My first find was in the 1954 ‘Melbourne Metropolitan Planning Scheme’ compiled by the then Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works, who were working with the assumption that Melbourne’s population would reach 2.5 million in the 1990s (a figure actually reached in the 1970s).

Inside were a number of railway proposals, one of which was a “cross country” line running from the existing lines south of Sunshine station, through the empty paddocks around Brooklyn, then joining the Geelong line near Laverton station. Conceived as part of the relocation of the Newmarket saleyards and abattoir complex to a new site at Derrimut, the intent of the railway line was to enable trains to bring cattle to market from country locations.

Melbourne Metropolitan Planning Scheme 1954, Derrimut cross country railway

Over the next few years the saleyards and abattoir complex proposal for Derrimut stuck around like the smell of the same – this short article from the November 1957 edition of Railway Transportation shows the idea was still on the todo list.

1957 'Railway Transportation' article on the cross country railway via Derrimut

More detail of the proposed railway was given in the 1959 parliamentary paper ‘Report of the Interim Planning Committee on Derrimut Saleyards and Abattoirs‘. The report recommended the relocation of the existing Newmarket saleyards and abattoir complex to an area now adjacent to the Western Ring Road, along with associated railway arrangements.

1959 Report of the Interim Planning Committee on Derrimut Saleyards and Abattoirs

The report also included itemised costings from the Victorian Railways for their portion of the project, which included a direct railway from Tottenham to Laverton, as well as a number of sidings leading into the saleyards and abattoir complex.

Estimated Cost. £
Rail connexions – main line and sidings including earthworks and other ancillary works 1,025,000
Bridges, including grade separations 210,000
Railway discharging platform and receiving yards 170,000
Amenities and services 35,000
Land compensation 60,000
Total 1,500,000

Putting £1,500,000 into the Reserve Bank of Australia’s pre-decimal inflation calculator, said works would have cost around $40 million dollars in 2012.

Whether passenger trains for Geelong would have been routed via the new railway is doubtful – at the time freight trains from Western Victoria were forced to share the main lines all the way into Newport, with the new line resolving this. In addition, closer inspection of the diagram from the 1959 proposal only shows connections to the freight network at the Tottenham end of the new route – and none to the existing passenger network.

Dependant on the relocation of saleyards and abattoir to Derrimut, the plan for the direct line died in 1961, when Victorian Premier Sir Henry Bolte announced that the project would not go ahead, with the decision made to improve the existing facility at Newmarket instead.

As for the Victorian Railways and their need to get freight trains from Western Victoria into Melbourne, between 1964 and 1967 they completed a number of smaller upgrades along the existing Newport to Sunshine railway: including a freight bypass track around the rear of Newport station, double tracking the existing single track to Brooklyn, and a bridge over the suburban tracks to link into the existing freight lines at Tottenham Yard.

Crossing over the suburban lines headed for Brooklyn

In the years since, the Newport to Sunshine railway has become the subject of many flights of passenger train fantasy, dreamt up by those who discover an apparently unused railway line in the Melway and can’t help but want to extend the public transport network along it. The major flaw with these visions are the trains already using it – the railway is already the main route between Melbourne and Adelaide, and used by freight trains heading across the continent towards Perth and Darwin.

'The Ghan' liveried NR109 on the up at Brooklyn

As for more realistic ways to increase the track capacity for passenger trains towards the west of Melbourne, the 1969 Melbourne Transportation Plan proposed a solution – construction of two new tracks between North Melbourne and Footscray, along with a third track between Newport and Footscray. The first part of the plan was completed in 1976.

N464 leads a down Geelong train into Footscray, a spark close behind on the parallel track

But the third track to Newport was never built, apart from an extra set of abutments being included when the Francis Street over bridge in Yarraville was rebuilt.

Francis Street over bridge - only 2 of 3 abutments are used

Although not included in the 1969 plan, the idea for a third track from Footscray to Sunshine was also doing the rounds of railway head office, with the 1981 grade separation of Tottenham station including provisions for another track across the Ashley Street bridge.

Provision for a third track in the bridge abutments at the down end of Tottenham station

Adding third tracks to the existing railways was a reoccurring theme throughout the early-noughties: the 2001 Melbourne Airport Rail Link study proposed the following:

In the Albion Corridor option, an additional track is constructed beyond Footscray Station to allow the express Airport trains to pass suburban trains. Private property adjacent to the existing reservation at Middle Footscray Station would need to be acquired.

Early planning for the Regional Fast Rail project also examined the creation of express tracks for V/Line trains through suburbia, which was detailed in the Fast Rail to Regional Centres feasibility study final report released in September 2000.

For the Ballarat line:

Five metropolitan options (identified as M1 to M5) have been developed for the Ballarat line
as follows:

  • Option M1 – Third track between Sunshine and Footscray, under the Albert St overpass
  • Option M2 – Upgrade the Down Independent Through Goods for Passenger Services
  • Option M3 – A new ramp between Broadmeadows Suburban and Main Suburban
  • Option M4 – Upgrade the Main Goods Lines to Docklands, including a new platform on the Docklands side of Spencer Street Station
  • Option M5 – Upgrade Main Goods, Outside Goods, and the Dynon Flyover

Based on these criteria, Option M1 is preferred to Option M2 as the new track can be also used to deliver improvements to the metropolitan services. Option M3 extends the utilisation of the Essendon Flyover and the Through Suburban lines. This option also retains access to North Melbourne station, and facilitates access to the Docklands. It also meshes well with the mandated crossover project at Franklin Street. This Report concludes that Options M1 and M3 are preferable implemented in the metropolitan area.

For the Bendigo line:

Five options (identified as M1 to M5) have been identified, similar to the Ballarat corridor,
and a further option N1. The details are as follows:

  • Option N1 – A new third track between Sunshine and St Albans. There is likelihood that the Airport Rail Project will affect this option and that, in order to satisfy the requirements of both projects, a four-track option extending to Middle Footscray may be considered.

Based on these criteria, Option M1 (expanded to include Option N1) is preferred to Option M2 as the new track can be also used to deliver improvements to the metropolitan services. This Report concludes that Options M1 (expanded) and M3 are preferable in the metropolitan area.

And finally, the Geelong line:

Options identified as MG4, MG5, MG6 and MG7 have been identified and reviewed as follows:

  • Option MG4 – Upgrade the Main Goods Lines to Docklands
  • Option MG5 – Upgrade Main Goods, Outside Goods, and the Dynon Flyover
  • Option MG6 – Realign Champion Road Junction
  • Option MG7 – Third Track from Laverton Junction to Aircraft
  • Option MG8 – Suburban Operations into Werribee

It is recommended that options MG4, MG6, MG7 and MG8 are implemented.

As for the above plans, they all came to naught, with the Regional Fast Rail project instead focussing on the raising of speed limits in the country areas, with the use of track upgrades and curve easing.

VLocity Melbourne bound crossing the Moorabool River on the Milbrook deviation on the Ballarat line

However the idea of building additional tracks to Sunshine did hang around: the State Government’s unfunded ‘Meeting Our Transport Challenges’ plan released in May 2006 recommended the construction of third and fourth tracks from Footscray to Sunshine.

The final chapter in the story of Regional Rail Link’s evolution came in April 2008, when Sir Rod Eddington presented his ‘East West Link Needs Assessment‘ (EWLNA) report to the State Government. Chapter 9 included two big ticket rail transport recommendations:

Recommendation 1

Planning work should commence for the staged construction of a new 17 kilometre Melbourne Metro rail tunnel linking Melbourne’s booming western and south-eastern suburbs.

Recommendation 2

The Victorian Government should bring forward the construction of a new rail connection from Werribee to Sunshine (the Tarneit link) to significantly improve the frequency and reliability of services from Werribee, Geelong, Ballarat and Bendigo.

The report also had the following to say on the new railway links:

The Government should commit to using the new rail tunnel and Tarneit link as the foundation for extending the metropolitan rail network further to the west within the next 15 years.

It is clear that a generational ‘step-up’ in Melbourne’s rail capacity is needed. This need can be met most effectively through the construction of a new 17 kilometre rail tunnel linking Melbourne’s booming western, north-western and south-eastern suburbs. In order to extract the full capacity benefits from the new tunnel, it will be necessary to bring forward work included within Meeting Our Transport Challenges to enable construction of a new rail link from Werribee to Sunshine (the Tarneit link) and the construction of the third and fourth tracks from Footscray to Sunshine.

The Tarneit link would end conflict between Geelong regional trains and Werribee suburban trains by running V/Line services on a new alignment through the growth areas of Tarneit and Derrimut. This would deliver very substantial benefits across the entire rail network, including providing residents in new growth areas with a high standard rail link and improved reliability for regional commuters from Geelong, Ballarat and Bendigo. It would allow for a significant increase in suburban services on the Werribee line to meet increasing demand in the growth area of Wyndham.

What became the final version of Regional Rail Link was made public in December 2008, when the State Government released yet another document full of transport pipe dreams – the ‘Victorian Transport Plan‘ of 2008, which superseded the three year old ‘Meeting Our Transport Challenges’ plan. It was also where the ‘Regional Rail Link’ name was coined:

Regional Rail Link is a new 40 kilometre twin-track rail link from West Werribee to Southern Cross Station via Tarneit and Sunshine, and new platforms at Southern Cross Station, will separate regional and metropolitan train services.

Rapid access to the city for Geelong, Ballarat and Bendigo trains will be created as well as extra capacity on the Werribee, Watergardens and Craigieburn lines. This complex project will provide capacity for more than 9,000 extra passengers every hour and costs in excess of $4 billion.

In May 2009 the Regional Rail Link project did something none of the plans before had done, and was allocated the required funding to start work: $3.2 billion from the Federal Government, and $1.1 billion from the State Government. The first sod was turned in August 2009, but major works did not commence along the route until 2011.

Turning of the first sod was turned in August 2009 - a few media, and a lot of minders

So what are we actually getting?

Unlike long time pipedreams such as the Doncaster railway line, the idea of provided dedicated tracks to serve country trains is a new one, and the route of Regional Rail Link borrows from relatively recent transport studies:

  • New platforms at Southern Cross: Option M4 from the Fast Rail to Regional Centres feasibility study, 2000
  • Additional tracks from Southern Cross platforms 1 through 8 to South Kensington: Option M5 from the same study
  • Additional tracks between the South Kensington and Footscray: a new idea for the RRL project
  • Additional tracks from Footscray to Sunshine: Option N1 from the Fast Rail to Regional Centres feasibility study
  • New route from Deer Park to Werribee: ‘Tarneit Link’ from the East West Link Needs Assessment, 2008

Less than a decade between railway upgrade options being publicised, and work starting on the project!

Sources

Unfortunately the Victorian Government has a habit of taking down the online versions of superseded transport planning documents. Conspiracy?

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6 Responses to “Precursor plans for Regional Rail Link”

  1. Andrew says:

    You’ve written a good history of the project. I am curious though about the current train times. From what I can see, there seems to be a lot of ‘fat’ in the current VLine services to the west. I assume this is to cope with train congestion in the suburbs.

  2. David Stosser says:

    Interesting to note that the 1959’s plan of linking Tottenham yard and the Brooklyn route was completed sometime between 1962 and 1964:

    http://signaldiagramsandphotos.com/mywebpages/vr/Metropolitan/9%2762.htm
    http://signaldiagramsandphotos.com/mywebpages/vr/Metropolitan/13%2764.htm

    • Marcus Wong says:

      Vicsig has the Tottenham – Brooklyn link opening on 15 February 1965, which doesn’t fit with the first appearance of the link in the signalling diagram from 1964. Inspecting the Weekly Notices around that time would pin down the date more accurately.

      I also mentioned the double tracking of the line from Brooklyn to Newport, and the freight bypass track around the back of Newport: these were all commissioned during the same period. I’m guessing the VR Newsletter would confirm they had an overall plan for upgrading the route for freight.

  3. Matt says:

    You Done a Typo it is Yarraville not Tarraville

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