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Government efforts to build an airport rail link go back a long way. It was 1965 when the Bolte government introduced a bill into the State Parliament calling for the acquisition of land for a rail link from Glenroy to Tullamarine at a cost of no more than £100,000. The opposition was quick to raise concerns about its ability to attract enough patronage and arguments over possible routes proliferated. History does have a way of repeating itself.
In every decade since that bill was written there has been a repeat of the wrangling over the pros and cons of constructing such a crucial piece of Melbourne's transport infrastructure. Fast forward to today, and the debate rages on. Except now the most contentious issue is whether a tunnel should be built between the CBD and Sunshine station, which would then connect with a new above-ground track to Tullamarine. Without the tunnel, trains along the the CBD to Sunshine section would need to share already congested suburban routes, but the project's cost would be significantly less.
An artist's impression of the airport rail link station. CREDIT:MELBOURNE AIRPORT
While the state government has backed an airport link for some time, it has never shown a lot of enthusiasm for the tunnel, baulking at the extra cost, and is hesitant to allow private funding to be part of the mix. A superannuation consortium, including IFM Investors, Melbourne Airport, Metro Trains Australia and Southern Cross Station, has proposed contributing $7 billion to the project to ensure the tunnel is built. In return, the private consortium would operate the rail link and charge the state government for usage of the lines.
The Andrews government is shying away from handing over another major piece of transport infrastructure to private hands, with Transurban already raking in substantial profits on the back of the CityLink and EastLink tollways. It is also committed to getting the North East Link under way, is facing cost blowouts on some of its big builds already in progress and could face court with Transurban over contaminated soil on the West Gate Tunnel project. It has its hands full.
Backing the tunnel has been the city of Geelong (it would provide new lines for a fast rail service to the regional city) and the Rail Futures Institute, a credible independent group lobbying for sustainable rail solutions. They have a strong argument. The tunnel would deliver a much faster and more reliable service that would attract the patronage to make it worthwhile. While the federal government have in the past supported the tunnel, and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg this week called on superannuation funds to back domestic investment, it appears they are accepting that without support from the Andrews government there is little chance of a tunnel going ahead.
But while trips to the airport may be few and far between at the moment, Infrastructure Australia warned last year that the route between the city and Tullamarine airport was Melbourne's most congested, with cars facing 24-minute delays on trips. That will return once the world reopens. A viable alternative to a taxi, bus or private car is more than past its time.
The Age accepts that these are not normal times, with the expense of dealing with the pandemic blowing a huge hole in the state's budget. But waiting for the state's coffers to recover so it can bankroll a tunnel will just return the state to the decades-long position of kicking the can down the road. While involving private investment to get it built may not be the best-case scenario, it is an option that would ensure that this drawn-out debate is not going on for another decade.
This article first appeared on www.theage.com.au
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