MELBOURNE’s population is booming. With current rates of growth its estimated population of 4.8 million is projected to exceed that of Sydney in the next few years, thus becoming Australia’s largest city, and by 2050 the population could reach 8 million.

Patronage of Melbourne’s suburban rail services for the 2016 financial year was 235.4 million journeys, an increase of 1.6%; traffic on tram services increased by 12% to 203.8 million; and regional rail services carried 16.3 million, representing growth of 19.4%.

MelbournegrowthThe growth in regional rail travel is notable as people extend the distance of their daily commute as they look to alternatives to escape Melbourne’s escalating property prices.
Over the next 30 years, these patronage figures are likely to double across all modes, and it remains to be seen whether the current project pipeline is sufficient to lay the foundations required to accommodate this growth.

The Victorian government is putting much of its faith in the $A 11bn ($US 8.66bn) Metro Tunnel project which is aimed at increasing capacity across the suburban rail network, especially during peak hours, and relieving congestion at the existing five City Loop stations where traffic is projected to almost double from 580,000 passengers a day to 1.1m by 2031. When the Metro Tunnel opens in 2026, the new CBD North and CBD South stations will provide a more even passenger flow, with crowding across all City Loop stations expected to drop by about 20%.

In July, the Victorian government announced the Cross Yarra Partnership as the successful bidder for the major component of the tunnel project: the $A 6bn Melbourne Metro Tunnel and stations public private partnership (PPP).

The civil engineering consortium led by Lendlease Engineering, with John Holland, Bouygues Construction and Capella Capital has been selected to build and fit-out the twin-bore 9km tunnels and five new underground stations at Arden, Parkville, CBD North, CBD South and Domain.

The twin tunnels from the west of the city to the south-east will create a new cross-city link between Sunbury in the northwest and the Cranbourne/Pakenham line to the southeast.

Passenger safety will be enhanced with the incorporation of platform screen doors at the Metro Tunnel’s five underground stations, enabled by the introduction of new signalling and a dedicated fleet of trains.

Up to six tunnel boring machines (TBMs) are expected to be used during construction, which will be required to excavate around 2 million m3 of soil and rock.

Previously the state government had sought federal financial assistance for the project, but ideological wrangling over whether funding should be allocated to major road or rail projects has resulted in the state government going it alone on funding in partnership with the private sector.

CPB Contractors and Bombardier Transportation will deliver the $A 1bn Rail Systems Alliance (RSA) part of the project, which will include the roll-out of a high-capacity signalling and communications system on 55km of the suburban network.

Early works are well underway, with major construction on the tunnel and stations planned to start in 2018.

Melbourne’s busiest rail corridor will receive a major upgrade as part of the transformation created by the Metro Tunnel project. The $A 1bn plus upgrade of the lines from Melbourne to Cranbourne and Pakenham will dovetail into Metro Tunnel to increase capacity by 45% at peak times with new rolling stock and signalling, and a cross-city connection through to Sunbury.

Works are also underway to remove nine dangerous and congested level crossings and build five new stations between Caulfield and Dandenong.

A consortium including Lend Lease, CPB Contractors, WSP Parsons Brinkerhoff, and Aurecon has been awarded a $A 1.6bn contract for the major works associated with the Cranbourne - Pakenham upgrading.

The project involves parts of the existing line being rebuilt with elevated sections, totalling 8.2km, allowing the removal of the nine major level crossings between Caulfield and Dandenong. Five stations at Carnegie, Murrumbeena, Hughesdale, Clayton and Noble Park will be rebuilt, and signalling and power supply along the corridor will be upgraded.

The level crossing removals are part of a wider government commitment to remove at least 20 of the state’s most dangerous level crossings by 2018, and a total of 50 by 2022.

Commuters in Melbourne’s outer north will be connected to train services for the first time through a $A 587.7m rail extension to Mernda, which will include track doubling of the 8km section between South Morang and Mernda and provision of additional train stabling facilities. The Mernda rail extension is being delivered by the Level Crossing Removal Authority and is due for completion in 2019.

A single-track bottleneck on the Hurstbridge suburban line will be eliminated through track doubling to enable faster, more frequent and more reliable services for Melbourne’s northeast. The $A 140.2m project will see a new tunnel constructed alongside the existing tunnel to assist in doubling the 1.2km section between Heidelberg and Rosanna. Power and signalling will also be upgraded and two level crossings will be removed.

Regional rail

In its 2017-18 state budget, $A 500m has been allocated for improvements to the North-East, Gippsland and the Geelong regional passenger lines.

The ongoing $A 518m project to upgrade the Melbourne - Ballarat line will see track doubling from Deer Park to Melton, and provision of additional passing loops, platforms at key stations, and car parking, to allow more frequent services to and from Ballarat and accommodate population growth around Melton.

$A 435m has been allocated to make services more frequent and reliable on the Gippsland Line with doubling sections of track between Moe and Traralgon, upgrading of 20 level crossings, upgraded signalling and several station improvements.

More than $A 200m will go towards major improvements in the southwest, including $A 100m to upgrade the Warrnambool line to run additional services and $A 110m to fund the first stage of works to prepare the corridor for track doubling between South Geelong and Waurn Ponds.

To cater for the increased services and patronage the government is budgeting for a major upgrade of the suburban rolling stock fleet. The past two state budgets have committed funds to procure 65 high-capacity seven-car EMUs for use on the upgraded Cranbourne/Pakenham line and Melbourne Metro Rail Tunnel services.

The estimated $A 2bn order for the new trains has been awarded to the Evolution Rail consortium comprising Downer Group, CRRC Changchun Railway Vehicles and the Plenary Group under a PPP agreement.

More than 60% local content has been specified for the new fleet, which will be built at Downer’s Newport assembly facility in Melbourne, with the first units to be delivered in 2018. The new trains will be fitted with cab signalling.

Additionally, $A 280.4m has been provided for 27 VLocity diesel rail cars to be built in Dandenong, taking the total order of additional coaches over the past two years to 48.

The new VLocity coaches will be used to augment existing regional services to help V/Line run more trains following the Regional Rail Link opening and the improvements being made on the Ballarat Line.

The government has also set aside $A 10m in development funding for next-generation regional rolling stock which will be required in the coming years to cater for strong patronage growth, introduce new peak services and replace locomotive-hauled stock.

Whether the current investment programme will be sufficient to cope with the demands of Melbourne’s future population predictions remains to be seen. While the programme is impressive it does not appear to be as radical or visionary as the expansion planned for the city of Sydney network via the Sydney Metro expansion.

The Victorian government says Metro Tunnel is the first step towards a metro-style rail network for Melbourne with the turn-up-and-go train services “that are the hallmark of the world’s great cities,” although to date there has been no further announcements regarding further potential phases.

In its 2017-18 budget the Australian federal government allocated $A 10bn through its National Rail Programme to support rail projects in major cities - although no money had been set aside until the 2019-20 financial year.

While the federal and Victorian state governments have been at logger heads for several years over infrastructure funding priorities, it may well be that this programme will inspire further projects in the state. One encouraging sign is that the federal government has agreed to provide $A 30m for the development of a business case for a Melbourne Airport Rail Link. The corridor between Melbourne’s city centre and the airport identified by Infrastructure Australia as one of the most heavily congested in Melbourne.


Freight projects

WORK has commenced on the $A 440m federal-and-state-funded Murray Basin Rail Project to upgrade 1055km of track serving the Murray Basin region in the northwest of Victoria and convert them from 1600mm-gauge to standard gauge.

The works will improve rail access, largely for freight movements, between the Murray Basin and major ports in Portland, Geelong and Melbourne. V/Line appointed the McConnell Dowell Martinus Rail joint venture team in June to deliver stages two, three and four of the project.

Stage two upgrades have started, which will enable the re-opening of the freight line from Maryborough to Ararat with works also underway to upgrade the Dunolly - Yelta and Ouyen - Murrayville lines and convert them to standard gauge.