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At one minute past 7am on August 28, 2018, as people were boarding trains for their morning commute, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews’ Facebook page lit up with plans for an ambitious new rail project.
The slick two-minute government advertisement opened with a Lego-like animation showing passengers moving around a brand new underground station. “The biggest public transport project in history is coming to Victoria,” a woman’s voiceover claimed.
As the music (composed by Mark Petrie, a New Zealander who specialises in trailers for Hollywood blockbusters) swelled, the narrator informed Victorians it would carry 400,000 passengers a day, create 20,000 construction jobs and link to more than a dozen suburban stops.
Originally codenamed Operation Halo, this was an infrastructure project so secret that board members of the government agency responsible for its delivery knew nothing about it until it was announced and the senior transport bureaucrat working on its design was legally gagged from telling his boss. All but a handful of government ministers were also kept in the dark.
By the time the Facebook video was posted the project had its final name: the Suburban Rail Loop. A 90-kilometre orbital rail line, this mammoth project was estimated to cost $50 billion but is expected by insiders to finally land at twice that amount. It is the largest and most expensive transport project conceived by a state government.
But as Victoria prepares itself for another election next year, troubling questions hang over this project. Politicians, planning experts and experienced advisers say that by designing and committing to it behind closed doors the government failed to make the transport, planning and financial cases for it.
For a can-do Premier and a government eager to promote its “Big Build” infrastructure program heading into the 2018 election, the promotional video was on-brand. And politically, it worked. The project is considered by analysts to have been the most popular single policy leading into an election that Labor won in a landslide.
But within Development Victoria, the government’s development arm, the Facebook video hit a jarring note. The public agency was charged with overseeing the project, but the board was left out of its planning and only a few trusted insiders were aware it was coming. Among the inner circle were Labor’s go-to board director James MacKenzie, former Labor political adviser Tom Considine and a personal friend of Daniel Andrews, then PricewaterhouseCoopers chief, Luke Sayers.
Transport experts question whether the loop is the best way to spend transport dollars. Its timelines, budgets and ambitions are even now not clearly spelled out. Why did the government prefer to entrust the city’s transport planning to a small coterie of consultants when it has an entire bureaucracy dedicated to that task?
It was, according to RMIT’s centre for urban research director Jago Dodson, “a bald political decision to spend at least $50 billion on the basis of effectively no planning whatsoever”.
Three mates and a bottle in an AirbusThe Age has traced the likely genesis of the Suburban Rail Loop to a conversation between three men held at 30,000 feet in the business-class galley of a Cathay Pacific flight to Hong Kong in 2015. At the bar that day were MacKenzie, businessman Sir Rod Eddington and retired public servant Terry Moran.
Eddington, the chairman of Infrastructure Partnerships Australia and inaugural chairman of Infrastructure Australia, was hand-picked by Victorian premier Steve Bracks a decade earlier to find a way to move people and freight between Melbourne’s eastern suburbs and its fast-growing west. His 2008 report recommended construction of the Metro Tunnel, the Regional Rail Link – an extension of V/Line railway tracks through Melbourne’s outer west – and the East West Link. Eddington’s report set the state’s infrastructure and transport agenda for a generation.
Moran, Bracks’ public service chief and the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary under Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, is one of the nation’s most respected bureaucrats. Like Eddington, he’d known MacKenzie for many years.
What began as three friends sharing a fine bottle of wine at the pointy end of an Airbus A330 became a wide-ranging discussion about the future shape of Melbourne, then nearing a population of 5 million, and how to ease the city’s growing pains. An orbital rail loop was not discussed, but Eddington’s and Moran’s independent recollections suggest that, between them, they planted the seed in MacKenzie’s mind. MacKenzie has since confirmed this to people involved in the project.
Eddington believed then, as he does now, that to remain liveable, Melbourne needed an urban rail network comparable to the London Underground, Paris Metro or Hong Kong’s MTR. In the midair conversation, he reflected that the Metro Tunnel, first proposed in his 2008 report, was intended as the first of multiple lines in an underground rail system to be built over 30 or 40 years.
Moran argued that the flaw in Eddington’s contentious East West Link — a road tunnel supported by the Napthine government but rejected by Labor — was that it directed more traffic in and out of the city centre. The key to Melbourne’s future liveability was developing suburban hubs, reducing pressure at the centre. As their plane travelled north above the Pacific, he explained that the cost of building those hubs could be met partly by capturing the value of developing the land around them.
This was not a new idea. Successive government plans for the city have argued that if Melbourne is to cope with a doubling of its population to a forecast eight million by 2051, jobs and key business centres need to be spread around the city. The city’s latest planning blueprint, Plan Melbourne, identified Werribee, Sunshine, Bundoora, Heidelberg, Clayton, Parkville, Dandenong and Fishermans Bend as precincts to be prioritised for jobs, housing, urban renewal and integrated transport links.
As the coronavirus pandemic prompts a shift away from the once-bustling CBD, planners say these objectives have become even more pressing.
MacKenzie, who declined to be interviewed for this story, disembarked from that Cathay Pacific flight with two clear takeouts: the need for more underground rail and better suburban hub development. Multiple sources involved in Operation Halo say the idea for the Suburban Rail Loop was to solve both those problems.
Then Treasury Secretary Ken Henry, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Prime Minister Cabinet Secretary Terry Moran in 2008.
Its construction would stimulate development of many of the suburban hubs identified by Plan Melbourne, with new stations proposed for Monash, Deakin and La Trobe universities and a single, continuous underground loop running through Sunshine and Werribee.
At least that was how it started off.
This article first appeared on www.theage.com.au
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