Our Victorian forebears would be proud. They, too, saw the need for rail to serve newly developed suburbs and no doubt few would have preferred commuting by horse and cart to the relative comforts of steam train. Prising people out of their beloved cars has proved more difficult, but it seemed we reached a tipping point around 2000, when train patronage began to increase well beyond government predictions, with usage nearly doubling between 1998-1999 and 2018-2019.
Few today would argue that cross-city routes and more stations – particularly in the outer ring of Melbourne – would not be welcomed to make rail the default option for travel of any distance and to encourage more people to cycle or walk at their destination.
But we must not get carried away on a wave of Victorian-era enthusiasm, particularly when COVID has inured us somewhat to what-the-hell levels of government spending.
The 90-kilometre Suburban Rail Loop, originally costed at $50 billion, is now expected reach $100 billion, with the first 26 kilometres alone now pegged at $34.5 billion. The Metro Tunnel, supposed to cost $11 billion, has already blown out by $2.7 billion. At last count, according to the Victorian Auditor-General, the level crossing project will cost a shade under $15 billion. A further $10 billion has been committed for the airport rail link.
Ongoing close scrutiny of these vast projects is obviously paramount, not just around costs but to ensure they deliver what we need for generations to come. Again, the Victorian era – when Melbourne was anecdotally the wealthiest city in the world – is littered with failed speculative lines that are now growing weeds.
We must look for smaller, smarter wins, too. Infrastructure Victoria suggests, for example, removing the “inequitable” free tram zone and introducing permanent cheaper fares off-peak.
It also says we should prioritise improving our often underused bus services. Unlike trains, it points out, buses “can respond quickly to changes in population, technology, policy and behaviour” and “do not require large, expensive, immovable infrastructure investments”. Now there’s a thought.
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