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The Andrews government has welcomed Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's new interest in building a rail link to Melbourne Airport, but played down the project's urgency, arguing the best advice is it won't be needed for another 15 to 30 years.
Melbourne Airport rail was listed as a mid to long-term project in Infrastructure Victoria's recent 30-year planning blueprint for the state.
The Andrews government has said it is happy to be guided by that independent advice and has made no commitment to build a rail line to the airport.
"The independent Infrastructure Victoria report that was released late last year indicated that an airport rail link is needed within the next 15 to 30 years and we certainly want to work towards achieving that," Victoria's Public Transport Minister Jacinta Allan Ms Allan told ABC Radio on Friday morning.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said he was a "big supporter" of rail and that it was an "omission" that Melbourne did not have an airport rail line.
"It's very important to have more rail, particularly now in our big cities as they become more densely settled but we're talking to colleagues about our infrastructure priorities," Mr Turnbull said.
But he would not be drawn on specific details ahead of the budget when questioned on 3AW morning radio.
Federal Transport Minister Darren Chester, who is also the member for Gippsland, has been in talks with his state counterpart Jacinta Allan.
Fairfax Media understands that planning work is well advanced to upgrade the Gippsland rail corridor, a train line that services the Latrobe Valley, which has been hard hit by the closure of the Hazelwood power station.
The intervention from Canberra to use the asset-recycling cash on the airport rail link has frustrated many in the Andrews government, who want the $1.45 billion Victoria is entitled to spent on infrastructure projects that are shovel-ready.
There is also frustration that the Turnbull government is dictating how the entitlement should be spent when other state governments, particularly NSW, are given much more freedom to spend their allocation from the scheme.
Under Treasurer Joe Hockey the asset-recycling scheme was set up to make a payment to the state of an extra 15 per cent of any privatisation sales made, which could be reinvested into critical infrastructure.
But when Victoria sold the Port of Melbourne for $9.7 billion the Turnbull government said it would only pay an agreed $877 million to the project, of which the vast majority was to be spent on Melbourne Metro rail.
Since then there has been haggling over Victoria seeking its full entitlement of $1.45 billion to spend on projects it sees fit.
In March, Melbourne Airport told The Age: "We need a detailed study into feasible solutions now because construction will take a decade and realistically the solution will need to be operational in the next 10 to 15 years."
Money for an airport rail link is expected to feature in the April federal budget, along with an injection of cash for an upgrade of fault-prone regional rail lines to Warrnambool, Gippsland and Albury, News Corp reported on Friday.
Ms Allan said Melbourne's rail network could not support an airport rail line until the Melbourne Metro tunnel is completed in 2026.
"We welcome the Commonwealth's interest in the Airport Rail Link, and look forward to working with them to advance a business case on this project, which can't be built until the completion of the Metro Tunnel," Ms Allan said.
"We also welcome their interest in regional rail, after months of working to convince the Turnbull government that investing in regional rail and public transport was worthwhile. We now hope to work with them to get even more shovels in the ground in Victoria's regions."
The former Napthine government spent $6.5 million on a feasibility study into an airport rail link, which recommended it should take a dogleg route via Sunshine station and the Albion-Jacana spur line used by trains between Melbourne and Sydney.
It also found the Melbourne Metro tunnel would need to be up and running before an airport link could be supported.
But some experts fear Melbourne Metro will be too crowded out by trains on the fast-growing Sunbury and Melton lines to ever support an airport rail link.
In March, Ms Allan was briefed on a proposal for a separate airport rail tunnel between Southern Cross Station and Sunshine, which would make for a 15-minute trip between the city and the airport.
The Air Train proposal, developed by the Rail Futures Institute, would also need a dedicated fleet of trains designed for airport travellers. The project has an estimated price tag of more than $5 billion.
This article first appeared on www.theage.com.au
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