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The $2.5 billion rebuild of the Dandenong rail line must be expanded to include two extra tracks for express trains, an analysis has found, or rail passengers in Melbourne's south-east will be condemned to ever-slower train trips.
A group of transport experts has warned the Andrews government that Melbourne's busiest railway line will need four tracks in the near future to prevent travel times blowing out to unattractive levels as ballooning patronage creates slower travel times to and from the suburbs.
The Dandenong line is Melbourne's most congested. Its two tracks are shared by Metro's Pakenham and Cranbourne trains, V/Line's Gippsland services and freight trains. Levels of peak-hour overcrowding are consistently worse than on most other lines.
Rail commuters from Pakenham, Cranbourne and Gippsland also endure the slowest train travel times on the Metro network. The commute between Pakenham and the CBD averages 73 minutes, and it averages 61 minutes between Cranbourne and the city. The Gippsland line is V/Line's least reliable service because trains routinely get stuck behind Metro trains, taking about 46 minutes at an average speed of just 39 km/h.
The state government has committed $2.5 billion to upgrade the line, including removing all nine level crossings between Caulfield and Dandenong, new signalling and 37 new high-capacity trains with space for 200 extra passengers each.
But the Victorian Transport Action Group, a group of some of the state's leading transport experts, has warned senior ministers that the project will only go part-way to solving the line's reliability problems.
"The Dandenong rail line will need four tracks in the not too distant future," the group states, in a letter sent to Treasurer Tim Pallas, Public Transport Minister Jacinta Allan and Planning Minister Richard Wynne and seen by The Age.
The extra track pair must be built so express trains can run from the outer growth suburbs, and so V/Line trains from Gippsland have a dedicated path through the suburbs, just as the $3.65 billion Regional Rail Link has done through Melbourne's west.
"Express trains will reduce travel time for outer urban and regional commuters by more than 15 minutes," the letter states.
Bill Russell, a group member and former transport adviser to the Bracks government, said the Andrews government's Dandenong line upgrade would improve travel times for motorists at level crossings, but would add to them for trail passengers. The high-capacity trains are due to enter service from 2018, and will take more time to load and unload increased passengers at stations.
"High-capacity trains will obviously provide capacity to increase patronage but they don't provide faster trip times," Professor Russell said.
The $2.5 billion project is out to tender and is scheduled to be completed in mid-2018, just before the next state election.
Acting Public Transport Minister Luke Donnellan said short-listed bidders would be required to leave space in the corridor for two extra tracks.
"As part of the tender process for the removal of every level crossing between Caulfield and Dandenong, shortlisted bidders will be required to develop a solution that allows for four tracks along that section of the line," he said.
Tender documents released for the project in May make no reference to building an extra track pair, or leaving space for one in future. Public Transport Victoria's 20-year blueprint for Melbourne's rail network, released in 2012, does not include plans for four tracks between Caulfield and Dandenong either.
This article first appeared on www.theage.com.au
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