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Fast rail to Ballarat could be stymied "for a generation" if the Melbourne Airport Rail Link is not built with a tunnel between Sunshine and Southern Cross Station, local advocates say - and speculation over a separate tunnel for Geelong has them terrified.
As reported in The Age on Friday, the state government is allegedly considering a proposal to build a fast rail tunnel to Geelong connecting to the Metro 2 tunnel, which might not be completed until the 2030s.
The link would reportedly run from the end of Metro 2 at Newport to Geelong.
The federal government promised $2 billion for fast rail to Geelong at the last election, and both major parties committed to Ballarat fast rail at the state election.
On Friday morning, a delegation of Ballarat leaders - councillors, businesspeople, and lobbyists, as well as mayors and chief executives from neighbouring councils, met to send a united message to the state and federal governments.
The airport tunnel must be built, they said, to ensure fast rail to Ballarat.
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Committee for Ballarat chief executive Michael Poulton reiterated his call from earlier in the week, and said the Geelong speculation "effectively killed off" the regional alliance formed in June, after the Stronger Together rail plan was released.
Led by the City of Greater Geelong, it featured councils and committees from Ballarat, Bendigo, Shepparton, and the Latrobe Valley.
"If we are to realise the true potential of regional Victoria, if we are to ease some of the population pressures on Melbourne, the Andrews and Morrison governments must commit to building the infrastructure that enables genuine fast, reliable and frequent rail services to and from regional Victoria," he said in a statement.
He labelled the alleged Geelong plan as a "political compromise not in the long-term best interest of the state".
"For people to choose rail over the car, they must have access to excellent public transport options," he said.
"These options include Regional Fast Rail. The only way to deliver fast rail for regional rail, the western suburbs and the airport, is via a tunnel between Sunshine and Southern Cross, not a Melbourne Metro 2 that may or may not be operational by the mid-2030s."
Committee for Ballarat chief executive Michael Poulton. Picture: Adam Trafford
City of Greater Geelong mayor Stephanie Asher said in a statement it was "hard to comment on rumours".
"From what I understand, no one has committed to this proposal," she said.
"Council supports the other regional centres as they advocate to be connected to Melbourne via a fast-rail service. A stronger and connected regional Victoria is vitally important for the state's future.
"The 'Stronger Together' report outlined the importance of the airport rail tunnel. The report states that a regional fast-rail service to Melbourne could be funded and built in conjunction with an airport rail tunnel."
The Rail Futures Institute, an independent lobby group, also criticised the plan.
President John Hearsch said the Metro 2 project could take up to 15 years just for construction, and estimated it could cost double the Metro 1 project.
Next steps: The brand new Wendouree station has just opened, but the next phase of improvements need to be planned out now. Picture: Regional Rail Revival
"The ability to run fast trains to Geelong, and more trains, is going to be constrained until this Metro 2 opens in maybe 2035 - that's simply unsustainable," he said.
"What the regions need is something that's different and separate (to metropolitan trains).
"The main issue is to get the right decision - building it, owning it, how it's funding, they are secondary issues, we need to get it right first."
He said the four-year-old Regional Rail Link was already groaning under the massive population boom in Melton and Wyndham, and electrification needed to be the first priority.
"If Geelong's going to get its faster trains in the future, with Metro 2, that's 15 years away, what do you think you'll do in the meantime?" he said.
The state government's Western Rail Plan proposals.
"More trains are badly needed now."
The Public Transport User Association's Ballarat convenor, Ben Lever, agreed about electrification, but noted the Geelong proposal "had its own pros and cons".
"Anything that diverts trains away from the Regional Rail Link corridor will free up space for Ballarat trains, which is definitely a good thing," he said in a statement.
"By far the most important project for Ballarat passengers right now is to electrify the line to Melton and add new express tracks between Melton and Sunshine.
"This would move Melton and other suburban passengers onto the Sunbury line, and free up a huge amount of capacity for Ballarat trains to get a quick, clean run into the city - regardless of what happens with the airport."
Independent transport advocate Nick Beale was scathing.
This article first appeared on www.thecourier.com.au
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